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Thoughts on the Making and on the Prospects of Unmaking Market-Driven Higher Education


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Source: The New American Baccalaureate Project

On a recent episode of the NAB Podcast, I mentioned a critique of markets leveled by Michael Albert, a market abolitionist and proponent of Participatory Economics. In an interview with Vincent Emanuele, Albert explained how market competition creates pressures within a business that work to undermine egalitarianism in the workplace by engendering class divisions. After summarizing Albert’s critique of those market pressures, I will draw an analogy to higher education and argue that colleges and universities in the US reflect similar outcomes because of increased competition for tuition dollars on the market. I end the essay by drawing on insights offered by the David Graeber, the social theorist and anthropologist who died in early September 2020, in hopes of inspiring widespread rejection of the current state of affairs.

On the Pernicious Influence of Markets, per Michael Albert’s Critique

Now, as Albert explained in the aforementioned interview, markets can exert the same or similar effects whether a workplace is a capitalist firm owned by an employer or by shareholders or a cooperative enterprise owned and controlled by those who work there. We can examine what workplaces, be they companies with capitalist arrangements or cooperatively owned and operated enterprises, must do to survive within a market economy.

Hierarchically organized corporate firms and worker self-directed businesses all currently exist within a capitalist economy characterized by private ownership of productive property, wage labor and the subordination to others it entails, privatization of profits others help produce, and competitive markets for buying and selling. In this context, a business typically has to compete for a surplus. A company will usually go out of business when it comes out on the losing end of competition for the surplus. Granted, large conglomerates and wealthy owners can be less dependent upon profits for survival, and so they can often avoid that fate. Nevertheless, markets still exert undue influence on the rest of the economy – and especially on those firms without oligopolistic control of industries.

While worker-owned cooperatives transcend conventional capitalist arrangements in the workplace, they too are subject within this economy to market competition that can pressure cooperative businesses into adopting some of the same antagonisms and alienating social relations common under capitalism. These outcomes are not inevitable, but they are encouraged by market-oriented production and allocation.

For an example drawn loosely from Albert’s critique, employees at a worker-owned co-op might want to make things better for themselves by raising wages, by offering free childcare for employees with kids, by installing air conditioning or by implementing some other change. Yet, the threat of market competition tends to militate against those efforts insofar as the efforts pose a threat to the profit margin. Likewise, if worker-owners wish to reduce their firm’s carbon footprint, they are similarly discouraged from doing so, lest they spend on renewable energy and carbon-neutral technology and in so doing lose out on a greater share of the surplus necessary for the firm’s survival within the competitive system.

In addition, as economists have long pointed out, market transactions do not necessarily account for “externalities” like air pollution and other forms of ecological degradation. Those “externalities” remain external to the marketplace decisions of buyers who might not be aware of and do not (when they engage in the market transaction) have to think about environmental destruction resulting from the production of the commodity for sale or from its transport to a place consumers can buy it.

Of course, market-based commodity exchange also relieves buyers from having to think about the exploited labor and abusive labor conditions involved in the production of appealing goods and services. To the point, while iPhones are pervasive, media scholar Christian Fuchs has pointed to the oft-neglected underbelly of the technology by highlighting the existence of the “iSlave” and by invoking the term “blood phones” to describe our devices. The former is a painful play on the name for the Apple smartphone, a device assembled by workers in factories abroad where constant surveillance, exposure to toxic chemicals, low wages, forced unpaid overtime and humiliation as well as intimidation by management are the norm. Eighteen employees attempted suicide and 14 employees succeeded in killing themselves in 2014 at Foxconn, a factory chain in China where Apple products have been assembled, Fuchs noted. The term “blood phones” echoes the more common “blood diamonds” descriptor. The newer phrase captures the fact popular smartphones today are – as Fuchs also noted – made out of minerals (e.g. cassiterite, wolframite, coltan, gold, tungsten, tantalum, tin) that literally enslaved and other coercively employed human beings extract from mines often controlled by armed groups in countries in Africa and Asia. When purchasing an iPhone 12, for example, a person is unlikely to consider those atrocities or the suffering that defines the labor process responsible for producing the smartphone commodity and bringing it to market. Conversion of goods and services into commodities exchanged on the market erases those realities and removes them from the necessary consideration of the person making the purchase. A parallel exists in higher education, as I explain in the next section.

In conjunction with the above, a market economy also incentivizes businesses to ignore “externalities” when making decisions about what to produce and how (and where) to produce it. The coercive function of competition and the related rewards for realizing profits within such a system – not to mention the fiscal punishment meted out if your firm fails to realize profits needed for reinvestment to stay in business –  can also encourage a company to overlook the environmental impacts of the increasingly global supply chains that enterprises often rely on.

Even beyond “externalities,” markets place demands on those working in companies, be they in co-ops or privately owned firms, to make many nasty choices they might not want to make, as Albert detailed in his interview with Emanuele.

In the cooperative example from above, it’s worth noting, as Albert did in the interview segment, that working people aren’t all that great at oppressing themselves; I’d argue people are even less adept at dominating their co-workers, especially when the workplace is organized cooperatively. Capitalism requires working class sacrifices all the time, to be sure, but I think it fair to generalize and suggest people remain reluctant to diminish and harm themselves and their fellow workers, even when they sense the operation of the business within a market-dominant capitalist economy demands that they do so.

What tends to happen then, following Albert’s analysis, is the workers will agree to hire experts. They do so knowing they have little choice if they wish to maintain their business and retain their jobs. As Albert pointed out, the managerial experts that companies enlist frequently graduated from places like the Harvard Business School where many learned not to care much about the well-being of those impacted by their decisions and policies. On the job, the market pressures that help give rise to this managerial class also encourage a firm to protect the experts from the results of regular decision-making procedures – otherwise they would not be well-positioned to make the nasty decisions workers would (for good reason) rather not make. Those pressures help ensure an enterprise provides the high-level managers with enviable salaries and special benefits denied subordinates; the influences of markets prompt a business to elevate experts to a relatively privileged status over others in the firm, and they provoke a firm to shield the professional-managerial class from the vicissitudes of the business to the extent possible.

Those changes in the workplace appear necessary, as they make it easier for the so-called experts to make tough decisions about layoffs, wage reductions, and cost-cutting measures that negatively affect working conditions. Without having to face the consequences of their actions the same way other workers would, managers can become emboldened to discount the impact of their decisions on working people’s lives. The framework and either-or paradigm indirectly imposed by market competition offers additional ideological support for expert managers who can and seemingly must make those difficult decisions that will inexorably harm other human beings. If there appears no other choice within those structural constraints, we can hardly fault experts for deciding to do what is necessary to keep a business competitive, or so the logic goes if one stops short of questioning the legitimacy of the institutions and of the institutional arrangements currently governing socioeconomic life.

Once entrenched within managerial positions, experts often proceed to pay themselves more and to give themselves other occupational advantages because, well, they can, and because doing so suggests they must be deserving of the salaries and advantages. Surely, someone with workplace prestige who feels and acts empowered on the job must be justified in treating others poorly or in disregarding the well-being of subordinate workers when it looks like the fate of the company rests upon it. The reasoning moves in circles, or perhaps it spirals downward as the insidious aspects of systemic arrangements set the parameters for institutional action in ways that continue to render the underlying system ideologically legitimate (while working to reproduce it).

In short, markets institutionalize significant stratification on the job and can engender class divisions within a workplace. Market mechanisms can coerce even cooperatively run work environments to introduce a professional-managerial class – a “coordinator class,” as Albert would have it – into their economic lives. Markets play a role in inducing workers to bring in the experts and, as Albert put it in that interview, telling the newly empowered managerial coordinators, “OK. Fuck us.”

A Case for Considering Higher Education Analogues

We can draw an analogy to similar trends and trajectories within higher education. In the mid-1960s, a student could spend as little as a few hundred dollars on a college education at a premiere public university like Berkeley. Fast forward to the present. According to Berkeley’s Undergraduate Office of Admissions, a resident of California enrolled at the school would spend an estimated $39,550 during the 2019-2020 academic year alone. If the student came from out of state, that cost would exceed $69,000. In highlighting this contrast, I in no way want to downplay the racism, sexism, classism and elitism that pervaded institutions of higher learning back in the day, even as tuition was almost non-existent. Nor do I wish to suggest those modes of domination and exploitation simply evaporated as students started forking over greater and greater sums of money on tuition and fees. Rather, I think highlighting the shift to a greater reliance on students as consumers helps explain the analogy regarding pernicious market influences and related workplace consequences.

With the decrease in public funding for higher education in the US starting around 1970 and the coeval increase in tuition and fees at schools across the country, colleges began competing on the market against each other in efforts to attract students-cum-consumers. The increase in administrative staff and consultants, along with greater displacement of tenure-line and tenured professors in favor of contingent faculty at US colleges and universities, emerged roughly contemporaneous with those trends. This seems more than a mere coincidence.

It is beyond the scope of this piece to verify empirically the exact sequence of events that has played out on campuses across the country over the years; however, it still seems reasonable to extend our analogical reasoning, drawing on Albert’s critique of market influence.

To the point, the increased subjection to a market economy and the competition for students and their tuition dollars has no doubt generated a perceived need for additional administrators and consultants who can come in and make the difficult and time-consuming decisions faculty would rather not deal with. Administrators and consultants cost money. That being the case, colleges and universities thus have prima facie evidence justifying greater non-instructional administrative expenditures.

Not surprisingly, colleges and universities have reported increased administrative expenses over the years. Writing for Forbes and drawing on data from the National Center for Educational Statistics, Caroline Simon reported that various forms of non-instructional administrative spending at US colleges increased from $13 billion during the 1980-81 academic year to $122.3 billion during the 2014-15 academic year. Perhaps surprisingly, a 2015 Demos report acknowledged that the numbers of executives and administrators relative to the student population at both public research universities and at schools granting bachelor’s and master’s degrees actually decreased from 1990 through 2012. Yet, the report also suggests increased administrative spending accounts for five percent of tuition hikes at those research universities and six percent of tuition hikes at the other post-secondary schools – small but not insignificant contributions to costs that, in my view, should not exist. The report found the decrease in state (i.e. public) funding to be most culpable for the rising tuition, and it’s the dwindling public investment in higher education that I think it is fair to suggest compelled colleges and universities to rely on – and to compete on the market for – tuition and fees.

To return to the parallel foreshadowed before, prospective students seldom receive any information about the poor working conditions or paltry remuneration common among the ranks of contingent faculty at the colleges and universities to which they apply and ultimately attend. The commodification of higher education erases the injustices and socially deleterious consequences of the two-tier system erected and reproduced in large part thanks to decisions made by upper-level authorities at colleges and universities for some time now. Purchasing a two-year or four-year education on the market rarely involves making a decision based on how well a school treats instructors, not to mention staff and other campus workers. Markets do not furnish such information intrinsically, and schools certainly have little interest in indicting themselves by educating students and parents about the abysmal labor conditions on their campuses. Administrative decisions to devote millions of dollars to blemish-concealing public relations have probably contributed a lot to the lack of understanding about the labor conditions and classism involved in the production of post-secondary pedagogy as well.

As suggested, intensified market competition alongside greater investment in administrative spending emerged alongside and continues in lockstep with increased reliance on contingent faculty labor at colleges and universities in the US. As noted in the AAUP’s “Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, 2019-20,” the pay part-time faculty might receive at present for teaching a course at a doctorate-granting institution could be as low as $568. “The proportion of part- and full-time faculty members on contingent appointments,” according to the same report, “increased from 43 percent in 1975 to 68 percent in 2008,” when the “Great Recession” started. During and following the recession, colleges and universities hired greater numbers of contingent faculty, per the decisions of administrators no doubt keen on keeping the cost of labor low and on maintaining greater control over academic labor by introducing short-term contracts and eliminating meaningful job security. The majority of educators in schools granting doctorates are in contingent positions, and the majority of those are part-time; more than 70 percent of instructors at institutions granting master’s degrees are also in contingent positions, according to the report.

I teach in the University of California system – sometimes, when I get classes. As regards administrative costs in the UC system, a 2017 state audit noted “it appears that the Office of the President’s administrative spending increased by 28 percent, or $80 million, from fiscal years 2012-13 through 2015-16,” and the audit added that UCOP “continues to lack consistent definitions of and methods for tracking the university’s administrative expenses.” Authors of the audit “found it particularly troublesome that the Office of the President intentionally interfered” with their “efforts to assess the types of and quality of services it provides to campuses.” Anointed experts of the upper-echelon of the professional-managerial class within academia – and likely outside the academy – clearly do not appreciate it when other experts question their institutional authority.

High-ranking administrators have also amassed impressive individual wealth over the years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for a post-secondary education administrator in 2019 amounted to $95,410 per year (which is about $61,162 more than the 2019 median wage), and data suggests employment in such relatively well-paid administrative positions will grow about four percent – in line with the average for all occupations – by 2029.

Meanwhile, the median annual salary for a UC lecturer remains just $19,067, and UC campuses do not keep most lecturers on long enough for them to become eligible for any semblance of meaningful job stability, as UC-AFT, the union representing lecturers and librarians in the UC system, has repeatedly mentioned in collective bargaining with UCOP. While UCOP continues to balk at UC-AFT proposals during negotiations, the UC Board of Regents has already taken care of upper-level administration. The Regents approved a salary of $890,000 per year for the new UC president, Michael Drake, who assumed the presidency in August 2020. Soon after stepping down, the outgoing UC president and former Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, walked right through the revolving door to sit on the board of directors of Zoom, the video conferencing platform the University of California has relied upon since instruction went entirely online during the spring 2020 quarter in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We should recall that the aforementioned audit and reprimand of the UC system occurred during Napolitano’s time as president.

At UC Riverside, where I (sometimes) teach, Chancellor Kim Wilcox receives an annual salary of $420,000. While Wilcox is not pulling in Drake figures, his salary puts him squarely in the top two percent of income earners in the nation. Few who cobble together enough classes to squeak by as contingent faculty enjoy anywhere near that level of affluence.

Drawing on the Late David Graeber to Critique and Transcend Bureaucracy, Structural Violence, and Market Hegemony in Relation to Higher Education

The late anthropologist and social theorist David Graeber argued in his essay, “The Iron Law of Liberalism and the Era of Total Bureaucratization,” that, contra hegemonic commonsense, pro-market measures almost inevitably have the effect of increasing regulations, paperwork and bureaucracy. “By the middle of the century,” Graeber wrote in that essay, “even right-wing critics like von Mises were willing to admit—at least in their academic writing—that markets don’t really regulate themselves, and that an army of administrators was indeed required to keep any market system going.” The same appears true for keeping a system of higher education dependent upon market transactions intact. If increased marketization of social life entails increased administration and all the bureaucracy it brings, we would expect educational institutions to reflect those logics. Indeed, as Graeber argued in “Dead Zones of the Imagination,” featured in the same book as the other essay, academic “are bureaucrats—increasingly so. ‘Administrative responsibilities,’ going to committee meetings, filling out forms, reading and writing letters of support, placating the whims of minor deans—this takes up an ever-expanding portion of the average academic’s time.” Paradoxically, an increase in administrative positions (and an increase in pay for those occupying said positions) over time actually emerged alongside a situation in which tenure-track and tenured faculty, arguably far too complicit with the rise of the two-tier system, assumed ever-greater administrative duties. The time commitments associated with those duties provide additional justification for hiring adjunct professors to do the bulk of the teaching. Plenty of contingent faculty must contend with bureaucratic administrative work too, though, and rarely do they receive full compensation for it.

Despite the advent of administrative bureaucracy on college and university campuses, few critical academics bother to study the phenomenon, as Graeber stressed.

Graeber gives his own partial explanation for this, but drawing from the rest of his argument in the “Dead Zones of the Imagination” essay, I will argue those academic inquiries might be deliberately avoided insofar as they would force a reckoning – or at least an acknowledgement –of “structural violence” in the university. By “structural violence,” I mean the hierarchical relations within society antithetical to human freedom and flourishing that the threat or real deployment of physical force always undergirds; I draw that definition from Graeber’s work as well.

Allocating education based on market principles and inducing would-be undergraduate students into a kind of debt peonage in order to pay to learn amounts to a form of structural violence. The loans that turn into mounds of debt upon graduation help keep young adults with silly ideas about changing the world for the better in check by requiring them to focus on accepting whatever wage labor will enable them to make ends meet while paying back the thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of dollars they owe. The high cost of tuition and fees at colleges and universities across the US leads to lots of student loans, which produce mass indebtedness to the tune of $1.56 trillion in student loan debt owed, which demands labor discipline from the penurious rabble and obviates collective action against market-driven higher education.

Furthermore, the rising cost of graduate education, often in the form of exorbitant fees – like the fees charged at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale that negated two months’ worth of a graduate assistant’s income each academic year when I worked on my PhD there – reflects and exacerbates structural violence. Combine the costs of graduate study with the university bureaucracy fledgling scholars must navigate, and the outlook appears even bleaker. “As anyone who has been to graduate school knows,” Graeber wrote in that essay about our epoch of total bureaucratization, “it’s precisely the children of the professional-managerial classes, those whose family resources make them the least in need of financial support, who best know how to navigate the world of paperwork that enables them to get said support.” For the rest of us, “the main result of one’s years of professional training is to ensure that one is saddled with such an enormous burden of student debt that a substantial chunk of any subsequent income one will get from pursuing that profession will henceforth be siphoned off, each month, by the financial sector.” In effect, class society and the class divisions that bureaucratic college administrations introduce, manage and help to reproduce in higher education worsen and entrench conditions of structural violence.

In an apropos commentary authored for the Guardian in 2014 – titled, “Students are right to march against the markets. Why can’t education be free?” – Graeber closed out his piece by intimating “that education doesn’t just exist for the sake of the economy,” but rather “the economy exists to give us the means to pursue education.” To state explicitly what is implicit in his piece, I would add that the market economy does an awful job of enabling us to pursue meaningful education. The conversion of education into a commodity and of students into consumers alters the purpose – or at least the perceived purpose – of higher education, as it pressures curious minds into training for existing jobs on the market and can compel students (and professors) to care primarily about grades en route to obtaining degrees at the expense of transformative pedagogical experiences. Omnipresent commodification further erodes people’s sense of agency, reducing it to individual choices on the market, as Henry Giroux, the Paulo Freire Distinguished Scholar in Critical Pedagogy at McMaster University, has argued.

To recover agency in this context is to refuse market governance, and refusing rule by markets equates to the exercise of authentic agency – the kind needed to address the trends and trajectories described throughout this essay. Those most disadvantaged by existing class society and by the market-driven system of higher education responsible for reproducing both bureaucracy and the structural violence associated with class antagonisms at the institutional level probably possess the most astute comprehension of the situation. Their positionality entreats experiential understanding of the unnecessary suffering that ensues. Were a radical reconfiguration of higher education to come about, they (and I think it fair enough to substitute “we” in for the other nominative pronoun here) would need to exercise substantive say over the decisions affecting colleges and universities. That, however, is precisely what the unwarranted influence of markets, the agglomeration of administrative and consultant power, and the concurrent reliance on a two-tier system separating faculty into haves and have-nots actively thwart. To overcome the status quo, we can begin by refraining from the, “OK. Fuck us,” resignation owing to circumstances that Albert described, and shift toward an “OK. Fuck this!” posture, while acting accordingly.

 

James Anderson is an adjunct professor working in Southern California. He is from Illinois  but now tries each term to cobble together classes to teach at various SoCal colleges and universities. He has recently taught classes in the Communication Studies Department and in the Journalism program at Riverside City College and in the Media and Cultural Studies Department at the University of California, Riverside. He also taught a class at the California Rehabilitation Center during the fall 2019 semester as part of the Norco College prison education program. He has worked as a freelance writer for several outlets.

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