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The University in the Age of the Learning Factory: Dueling narratives in the culture war around higher education”

Academe (Nov./Dec. 2017)

By Larry Catá Backer

The culture war over how people understand the American university is entering a decisive stage. Contrasting narratives about the character of the university are used as weapons in conflicts over the university’s purpose, its societal role, and the roles of students, faculty, staff, and administrators.

On one side stands the narrative, painstakingly fashioned over the course of the last century, of the traditional ideal of the university. According to this narrative, the university is a place where knowledge is produced and disseminated by an autonomous professional faculty in accordance with the inherent logic of the academic disciplines within which knowledge production is organized. In the ideal university, students acquire experience through supervised teaching and research under the direction of faculty. On the other side stands the narrative of the university as its emerging operational reality—a corporatized institution designed to prepare workers for global or local labor markets at the least possible expense. In this narrative, the university’s stakeholders are increasingly understood as factors in the production of future workers and as sources of funding (through tuition payments, grants, and alumni contributions). And graduate students, especially, are seen as service workers, contributing to a reduction in the cost of producing and disseminating knowledge for the market.

Battles Over Unionization

The conflicts between universities and their graduate students are shaped by these two distinct narratives. The rhetoric surrounding recent efforts to unionize graduate student employees at private institutions like Columbia University exposes both the divide and the way master “stories” about the university are used to advance the interests of battling stakeholders. Caroline A. Adelman, a spokesperson for Columbia, told the New York Times, “We believe the academic relationship students have with faculty members and departments as part of their studies is not the same as between employer and employee.” Brown University, along with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Pennsylvania, and Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale Universities, filed a friend of the court brief with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in support of Columbia’s position that graduate assistants must be viewed primarily as students. Unionization, the brief argues, would disrupt a relationship between students and faculty that is only incidentally touched by matters of money and working conditions. Even in defeat, universities have been aggressive in seeking to quash the unionization efforts of graduate students, using the tactics of industrial employers in their fight to convince the public and governmental bodies that those seeking to unionize are merely (or mostly) students.

Graduate students advance a different and equally plausible narrative. “What we’re fundamentally concerned about isn’t really money,” said Paul R. Katz, one of the Columbia graduate students involved in organizing efforts there. “It’s a question of power and democracy in a space in the academy that’s increasingly corporatized, hierarchical. That’s what we’re most concerned about.” As University of Pittsburgh graduate student Beth Shaaban told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “It’s our workplace and our future careers. . . . We would like a say in how it works.” The extent to which graduate assistants have been granted the right to unionize at private institutions has been dependent on the narrative accepted by the NLRB. In 2004, the NLRB chose to privilege the idealized traditional narrative that posits graduate assistants as principally students; in 2016, the board embraced the narrative of the university as a factory in which graduate student assistants are workers who provide educational services. Now, under President Donald Trump, it is possible that the choice of narrative will change again.

At public and publicly assisted universities, the state has a central role in extending rights to unionize. Pennsylvania, for example, has long recognized the right of student workers to form unions, with unionization overseen by the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board. Graduate students at the University of Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania State University are now seeking to assert that right. Penn State graduate assistants moved the process of unionization forward in early 2017, even as the university continued to embrace the traditional ideal of the university. Penn State, on a website that provides information about the university’s views on unionization, maintains that graduate assistants, like all graduate students, are “students first and foremost, who come to Penn State as an educational institution to seek advanced degrees based upon the quality of Penn State’s graduate programs and its Graduate Faculty, who are nationally and internationally recognized for their research and scholarship.” In contrast, the student-led Coalition of Graduate Employees at Penn State advances the narrative of a learning factory in which graduate student assistants are exploited workers. At Penn State, graduate assistant demands center on teaching loads, pay, and benefits. At the University of Pittsburgh, graduate students and faculty have moved forward in parallel efforts. Jeff Cech, an organizer at Pitt, noted, “There is a strong desire to have a mechanism in place where the people who hear your complaints and grievances are not the same people who created them.”

Similar disjunctions in narratives have characterized efforts to unionize student athletes. While universities cling to the ideal of the athlete-scholar, student athletes increasingly see themselves as factors in the production of university wealth. Here the conflict is between the narrative of the student amateur, in athletics purely for the sake of sport, and the counternarrative of the exploited student worker who produces substantial income for the university. In every case, the central issue is crystallized as one of labor exploitation.

To some extent, these contests of narratives reflect a fundamental transformation within the university and its role in society and economic life. New realities are increasingly creating a contradiction between the old idealized narrative of the university and its operation in a society that increasingly expects universities to provide students not just an education but insertion into wage labor markets. The pattern that began with graduate students and athletes is symptomatic of a larger change in the structures and logic of the academic enterprise.

Transformation of the University

The characteristics of the transformation of the university and its consequences are now emerging. The transformation is a global phenomenon. The traditional ideal produced substantial overcapacity: where training is focused on ensuring that the greatest number are educated, not everyone will successfully find employment after graduation. The problem, of course, is that society doesn’t know who will succeed or what to do about the “excess.” For example, the educational system in Cuba, my country of origin, produced a highly educated population but has been incapable of producing an economically viable order. That is changing now, in ways similar to the United States, as Cuba has embraced the new narrative that better ties educational production to labor market needs. But in the process, the societal role of the university is diminished.

The problem is exacerbated where status is attached to occupations. The university is designed to produce overcapacity for the highest-status work. When the fluctuations in labor demand cannot be smoothed out over the long term, or when overcapacity does not decline in the face of market incentives, the result is instability—a situation that most societies cannot tolerate for long. In the United States, the result has been a functional retrenchment: the old idealized narrative is used to obscure changes that increase the labor productivity of students and faculty and that seek to satisfy labor markets and market-driven demand.

The university thrives where it is seen to be of use. For students who are not independently wealthy, that utility is based on the economic advancement offered by higher education. After the middle of the last century, facilitating such advancement increasingly meant connecting employability to education. Education thus did not so much acquire a new purpose—to get students jobs—as it shifted the emphasis from general education (the consequence of which was assumed to be employability) to education as a narrow instrument of employment (the conscious object of which was employment). The attachment to the old narrative well after conditions have changed suggests an attempt to avoid acknowledging the problem and to divert effective response by stakeholders. Regardless of whether this retrenchment is good or necessary (or both), the consequences of veiling it in the old narrative produces important consequences for governance and relationships between stakeholders. That this retrenchment has been shaped in the shadows and has occurred without debate is particularly lamentable in a society that prides itself on its willingness to engage in democratic discussion.

The transformation has been shaped by the hierarchy within the university sector itself. The traditional ideal of education better survives at the elite institutions that serve as the incubators of leaders in industry, education, and government. Less elite institutions focus on narrowly and efficiently schooling middle managers for appropriate positions in national labor markets, and those in the bottom tier train their students to serve perceived needs in wage labor markets more directly.

However we may feel about such change, there is no going back. The success of the university after World War II made inevitable both the transformation and its equally transformative consequences. But it is important to remember that this inevitability is grounded in hierarchical economic organization. Where job status is ordered vertically, the highest-status jobs will be in the highest demand by the most talented and ambitious. Before 1945, demand could be managed by imposing a parallel system of social class on the availability of avenues to these highest-status jobs and by keeping the size of the aggregate student body small. But when societal barriers fell and the number of students swelled, the contradiction within this system became unavoidable. A return to the old barriers was impossible, and the university itself began to enjoy the income from classes flush with students. By the 1960s, it was apparent that the old political and social structures would be threatened by newcomers eager to seek their places at the highest levels of society.

If retreat was impossible, then transformation had to be embraced by universities intent on surviving. First, the focus of most universities had to shift from education to training. It was also necessary to harden hierarchies among institutions in order to differentiate the form of knowledge dissemination appropriate for the students. These changes would have to be accomplished without threatening the size of entering classes (and thus university income) and without appearing to abandon the old ideals that provided hope for upward mobility.

New Realities

There was no conspiracy behind the transformation of the university; groups of people responded in economically rational ways to the risks and incentives they faced, striving to protect their own interests within whatever narrative offered the greatest advantage. Their decisions were guided by the ideology within which they were trained to reason and to respond to challenges. That ideology looked to the market, to efficiency, to direct and rational connection between inputs and outputs, and to the preservation of social order and hierarchy (the status of jobs and the reward structures based on that status). Education—like licensing for the professions—became both a marker of training and a barrier to entry.

The new reality required fundamental changes within the university:

1. Reducing reliance on full-time tenured and tenure-track research faculty. Adjunct and contract faculty have reduced expectations for knowledge production and no expectation of a long-term relation to the institution.

2. Decentering the faculty from education. Studentcentered teaching emphasizes the connection between education and labor markets.

3. Retreating to the graduate schools. As undergraduate education changes, the “ideal form” of the university—the traditional teaching and research functions—has retreated to the graduate schools; graduate schools are increasingly seeking to draw lines between undergraduate and graduate faculty, reserving the privileges once accorded to all faculty to a smaller group of research faculty.

4. Shifting power over curriculum and programs from faculty to administrators, and eventually from administrators to risk managers. Authority over the curriculum is not necessarily a function only of substantive expertise; it is also a question of student demand and responsiveness to the needs of stakeholders. The call for greater flexibility, for real-time changes to courses and programs to meet market needs, and the discouragement of risk taking in knowledge production (research must produce immediate results and education must meet student expectations) has become the norm.

5. Shifting training and the more routinized aspects of research to graduate teaching and research assistants. Where once such teaching and research formed part of the training for high-level academic work, today it sometimes better serves the economic needs of the university.

The consequences of these shifts are already in evidence. At many universities, graduate education has been pulling away from undergraduate education and culture. In some instances, standards for admission to the ranks of graduate faculty have tightened—perhaps as a means to preserve the old narrative and its standards of a research-based tenure system within a smaller section of the university. But that change produces two universities: an institution focused on undergraduates that is designed to prepare lower-wage and deprofessionalized line workers for the labor market and a graduate academy adhering more closely to the traditional model. Even here there is stress—graduate education is also producing too many PhDs for the jobs for which they are trained. If graduate education is not transformed and additional markets are not developed for PhDs, graduate education, too, will succumb to the inevitability of market-based transformation and shrink.

The new graduate-undergraduate divide masks another and more important development: the disjunction between knowledge production and knowledge dissemination. While knowledge production retains its professional aura, knowledge dissemination has been reduced from a trade to a job for which no particular mastery of the field is necessary. The ideal narrative is based on the notion that those who produce knowledge disseminate it to their students—that is the inherent value of higher education, the connection between the production and the distribution of the most advanced knowledge. In the ideal narrative, students could be assured of the quality of the knowledge to which they were exposed. But where the focus is on training, this connection shrinks to insignificance. And it is then an easy matter to substitute lower-cost contract labor for tenured and tenure-track faculty.

Changing Labor Relations

For graduate students, the consequences are deeply felt. The ideal master narrative centers on their status as students undergoing rigorous training in their respective disciplines at the hands of teachers whose mastery is evidenced by their important role in the production of the knowledge they disseminate. The emerging narrative situates graduate student employees as workers who, in return for their labor, are also permitted to acquire an education leading to an advanced degree. In both cases, they are student-workers. The difference is one of emphasis. In many universities, graduate instructors offer a short-term solution to teaching needs that vary over time and require a workforce that can be quickly increased or decreased without impairing institutional reputations.

Student athletes, similarly, are essential in the production of entertainment, publicity, and fund-raising for the university. Individually, each athlete can be treated as a student and as a worker in the sports entertainment industry. But it is altogether too easy to conflate the two roles in ways that marginalize the student portion— everything from scholarships to athletic schedules tends to temper student obligation. Yet, for student athletes, the concern is more directly exploitative—the university captures all of the “value added” of students’ athletic contributions without sharing any of it, even as students place their future earnings at risk (as a result of injury or educational choices) by performing as athletes.

In these contexts, unionization seems inevitable: for the graduate student seeking to protect the integrity of her study objectives against exploitation; for the adjunct and contract faculty member seeking to compensate for precarious working conditions in markets where instructors are fungible commodities; and for the student athlete seeking to reduce exploitation and capture some of the value added to the university through sports. Graduate student unionization might well be only a harbinger of the changes in labor relations that senior administrators have effectively brought on themselves. Indeed, the new narrative was built, brick by brick, by a generation or more of administrators whose choices were justified at virtually every step on the basis of the “market,” the “regulator,” the “alumni,” and so on. That the reaction among graduate students and faculty have neither come sooner nor been more aggressively pursued speaks to the extraordinary staying power of the idealized master narrative of the university even in the face of changing realities.

Larry Catá Backer is W. Richard and Mary Eshelman Faculty Scholar and Professor of Law and International Affairs at Pennsylvania State University in University Park. Backer teaches and writes in the areas of globalization, institutional governance, and transnational law and finance, and he previously served as chair of Penn State’s faculty senate. His email address is lcb911@ gmail.com.