Universities in Crisis


Nearly all commentators and administrators in higher education have declared the COVID-19 crisis a catastrophic threat to the university system as it is currently constituted. They predicted massive, quarantine related revenue losses from withdrawn tuition dollars and increased expenses. University administrations promptly laid off contingent faculty, and even cut departments without faculty oversight, which entailed firing tenured faculty. Whole U.S. states declared a hiring freeze. While the fallout has been milder than what administrators predicted, the transformation of higher education is under way.  

At the same time, universities are also responding to political pressure to address racism on campuses, and they are doing so by doubling down on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). This two-pronged administrative strategy is increasingly contradictory, and it makes clear that higher education needs a more ambitious reform agenda. Debates on the Left about the outsized influence of the university system on its thinking and strategy notwithstanding, it is rather time that the arrow of influence goes the other way around.       

The scene of higher education currently looks like snapshot taken out of Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. In his book, Braverman explains that heavy industry’s decline in the use of skilled labor is the result of managerial strategies of workplace control. Braverman argues that capitalists need to control the labor process so that it can squeeze as much labor as possible out of the working day. Capitalist firms invest in capital-intensive machinery that edge out worker prerogative and make labor more productive. Thus, it is a part of class conflict and the reason why workers’ organizations, like unions, use their contracts to specify the acceptable parameters of as many aspects of the working day as possible. From the outside, this finagling seems like minutiae, but on the inside, it is the struggle. In the process, employers try to justify the intensification of work resulting from a quickening rate of production. Twentieth-century management called it science and progress. Today it is called prioritizing health (and equity, but more on that later).      

To these ends, university crisis management teams declare that what is needed is “community responsibility” and “flexibility,” while remarking upon how unfortunate it is that so many faculty members have or will continue to lose their jobs. What is really going on here is a massive increase of productivity. For instance, non-elite schools are reducing the number of course sections that they offer by 35% to maximize economies of scale. Administrations want to tighten up accounting around academic programs, which helps them know how much they can flex the price of tuition relative to their competition. While one might think that this all comes at a cost to the quality of education, university administrators disagree. They insist that this transformation is consistent with the strategic, market adaptability planning that they were already doing because it creates an opportunity to be more efficient, especially by creating the political space within universities to justify cutting costs to partner with corporations. For instance, college recruitment can bypass high schools and do virtual recruitment through donors for specially designed programs.    

Turning now to the second prong, universities are doubling down on DEI. They are acutely aware that the grassroots militancy of the Black Lives Matter movement is coming to their campuses, and they are trying to mitigate dissent without interrupting this transition process. Many administrations are providing anti-racist reading lists and initiating anti-racist pedagogy seminars. The transition from “inclusive pedagogy” to “anti-racist pedagogy” is a shift in emphasis, but not in kind, from earlier and now common forms of diversity-oriented pedagogy training. Also in demand are more diversity committees within departments, externally evaluated climate studies of departments and programs, and more recruitment of Black faculty, post-docs, graduate students, and deans. Newer to the mix are moves by members of congress to help activists push to diversify endowment managers and governing boards.

When I say that this response to the crisis is contradictory, what I mean is that for those who are acting in good faith to promote racial justice, DEI is self-defeating. This framework continues to assume that discrimination is the main obstacle to racial inclusion in higher education. I have seen university events with titles like, “Diversity isn’t enough, what about inclusion?” as if the problem has been misplaced emphasis on either diversity or inclusion. Events like these assume that the people who need to be included are already in the classrooms, but that not enough has been done to make them feel at home so that they can network, go to graduate school, or get professional degrees. Yet exactly the opposite is true. Just 33% of Americans ages 25 and above hold 4-year degrees. The breakdown along the racial binary is 36% white and 28% Black. In this context, one must ask: Diversity of whom? Inclusion within what?

By failing to subject the role that universities play in the wider economy to scrutiny, DEI naturalizes the role that universities do in fact play. In the U.S., higher education is intensely market dependent, so universities react to, rather than shape, labor market demand. They compete to retain relevance within key sectors by providing access to the credentials one needs for the higher tiers of a labor market that is nonetheless oversaturated by overqualification. Public and private universities respond differently to the demands for their services, and within each group there are differences in prestige. Elite universities, including public ones, constitute a seller’s market, as people are willing to pay exorbitant tuition fees for these degrees and they are clamoring to get in. Not-so elite universities attract students by advertising specific credentials that appeal to equally specific labor markets. The lowest levels, i.e., “state schools,” rely on their missions as agricultural and scientific research centers to attract federal, state, and corporate funding, and athletics programs to attract private donors. The reason that the public-school system does not have altogether different incentives from the private one is that decades-long disinvestment by state governments have forced them to enter a competitive donor market.

In today’s labor market, the income gap between those with and without a four-year degree is on average more than 50% greater with such a degree. The top five best paying jobs in the fastest growing occupations require such a degree, and there is an enormous drop in income for the next jobs on the list. Jobs that pay well without the requirement of a degree have evaporated since the 1970s, which coincides with increases in labor productivity in the industrial sector and its attendant deindustrialization, and the shrinking of the labor movement. In this context, non-participation in higher education, and thus in the elite sections of the labor market, has at least two causes: the first is being prevented from participating in the labor market, and the second is a lack of motivation or capability. The former amounts to discrimination, whereas the latter is a matter of employability. Both add up to the pathology of economic and social exclusion. A working definition of inclusion must consider the relative causal weight of each.  

The prevailing narrative that exclusion in higher ed is mostly due to discrimination is counterintuitive given the evidence that labor markets cannot absorb all graduates and have otherwise bottomed out. To what end is one seeking the credentials provided by higher education? Why are there no alternatives to the debts they incur? This dilemma presents a no-win situation, and it illuminates the subtle, nefarious irony of making discrimination ipso facto what inclusion means: class does not fit into the DEI framework at all. The anti-discrimination idea is that if universities integrate some marginal people, then they can begin an internal process of angling for deeper, more radical changes. However, working-class and poor people are not marginal—they constitute the majority of American society. Failing to acknowledge this fact by tending to the margins of existing, class-preserving institutions undermines efforts to recruit and retain students of any minority group.  

My point is that diversity and inclusiveness in a university setting is not always and everywhere wrong, so much as it downplays the scope of the crisis, erases the class character, and lowers expectations when one should be much more ambitious in demanding progressive reforms. In reflecting on my experiences in doing diversity work, I have become increasingly aware of its limits and its role as an ideological shoehorn in between students, faculty, and our collective recognition that what is needed is a universalist, social democratic reform agenda. I now implore students and faculty to gain a sense of social position and scale regarding what needs to change.

I acknowledge that many diversity initiatives at universities are voluntary. It’s not yet the same as mandatory, management-lead diversity training at corporations. I earned my PhD in philosophy, and I experienced an incredible amount of misogyny as well as red baiting, from all genders, during that seven-year process. Philosophy is not friendly to women, and despite right wing fantasies about the dominance of “cultural Marxism,” it is hostile to Marxism. In response, I participated in and helped to institutionalize reading groups, recruitment programs, and inclusive pedagogy training. I believe that many faculty and students turn to diversity and inclusion to try to improve their working and learning conditions. It is understandable that this is the case, as it is the most readily available avenue for making the changes that they seek. It also offers people a support network and a feeling of having a shared social justice goal.  

The situation alters radically when one tries to organize labor on campus, as I found when I tried to organize a union for graduate students. Whereas I received financial and institutional support as well as professional acknowledgement for my DEI work, I received no such support for the union. Instead, I was exposed to the fear that graduate students have of university administrations and their future employers, which contrasts starkly with their bolder and more public insistence on greater diversity and inclusion. Indeed, one can compare deep paranoia about being blacklisted as a union organizer with career incentives to have credentials as a DEI expert on the job market. This process illuminated for me the political reality that diversity and inclusion does not lead to greater equality in a university setting any more than it does in a corporate one.  

In my view, it is “equity” that makes the DEI formula problematic in principle. The concept of equity undermines, rather than supplements, the idea of equal access to higher education. University managers claim that equality is overly basic due its blindness to such differences as who needs more and who needs less. It is unfortunate to see many faculty and students accept their employers’ premise, as contrasting equity with equality implicitly gives universities the authority to arbitrate on who is the neediest, which makes standards of need contestable by boards of trustees, provosts, and legislators. Indeed, equity is simply the ideological hand-me-down of the means-tested “merit-based financial aid” that is patently insufficient, except that it captures the newly invigorated moral buy-in of DEI. Equity is a pre-emptive ideological attack on the kind of large-scale reforms required to relieve the financial burden of higher education on working families, reforms like free tuition, student debt relief, and more job security for everyone—it’s the shoehorn.

That DEI presuppose equity is what allows it to assimilate with ease into administrative austerity and the degradation of work. DEI initiatives give universities ideological cover for laying off faculty to provide technology to students in need or for claiming that teachers must adapt to larger class sizes in the name of accessibility for poor and disabled students. It also justifies intensifying competition at the top when universities promise student activists that they will hire more Black faculty while simultaneously promoting the idea of  "diversity without dollars" to promote implicit bias training among hiring committees and external (corporate/foundation) funding for recruitment.

It is tempting to look at such proposals as though they are progress within strong financial constraints. In other words, one does what one can. But one should first remind oneself that the game is not, in fact, zero sum. Employers intensify competition at the top in order to justify exclusion at the bottom. One strategy is to support a narrow type of liberal anti-racism that promotes diversity under conditions of extreme scarcity because they see it as good for themselves to pre-emptively delegitimize the obvious need for structural overhaul. Their efforts resonate in the collective conscious of liberal academics: “Well, at least it’s better than nothing…” Of course, no one should be begrudged a job under the circumstances, but let us be clear: equity together with labor market scarcity is simply deepening inequality, it is not an improvement on equality. Students and faculty should unequivocally reject this strategy.

The big picture is that what is needed are unions and universalist reforms. Academic workers need better working conditions, higher pay, and more job security. This means organizing their workplaces so that the degradation of work comes at a cost to their employers in the future. Unionizing is critical for contingent faculty—adjuncts, post-docs, lecturers, graduate students—but the more comfortably situated of university faculty would do well to get on board. No one is coming to save them now, not even tenure. Further, free tuition and debt relief must be married with investment in the public sector. Massive public investment would reorient the incentive structure of public universities to favor student needs, make public schools more competitive, and thereby force the price of private school tuition down. It would also create more jobs.

We must raise our expectations about what needs to change about higher education. Universities have had an outsized influence on left-wing thinking in the U.S. for a long time, but it is imperative that some old, common sense left-wing ideals find their way back into the university: universalism is good because it promotes equality, not inequality. In other words, not less, but more, for everyone. 

Lillian Cicerchia is a post-doctoral researcher in the Institute of Philosophy at the Free University of Berlin. You can find more of her academic and non-academic writing on labor, feminism, and higher education in the European Journal of Political Theory, Radical Philosophy Review, Jacobin, Dissent, and New Politics.