Academic responsibility after Covid-19, a response from the US

Academic responsibility after Covid-19, a response from the US

Lester K. Spence

Even before the neoliberal turn, the high-tier US university has served as a hub for labor, as a research and development think tank, as well as a place of higher education. After the neoliberal turn, the university in the US still maintained those functions, but then also became a tax haven (in exchange for named buildings, professorships, legacy admits), and a  real estate developer. Indeed, in many ways teaching students has become what universities do on the side, the thing that enables the most prestigious of them to generate billion-dollar endowments.

Further, internally with the rise of the professional managerial class we see the stark internal increase of administration and services to the point that in many instances (as David Graeber notes) when we think of universities we no longer think of professors we think of administration. But even as teaching students is what universities do “on the side” as it were, that is to say, to the extent that we take everything universities do and then somehow put it on a scale, we’d find teaching students to have a far smaller effect on that scale than we would other things.

Prestigious universities, even public ones like the University of Michigan, rely more and more upon the largesse of corporate and individual donors, and increasingly reflect and reproduce (in fact produce) the class and racial inequalities society writ large faces. These universities (re)produce these inequalities with admissions policies that privilege (mostly white) students with (mostly white) wealthy parents (all too willing to donate), and resources those parents spent on private tutors, summer camps, and exclusive private (or through their exclusive white neighborhoods, public) schools. Students outside of this population are also tiered, with some receiving merit-based financial aid packets (which themselves tend to go to students who are already well off), and other students receiving high interest loans.

Within these universities, academic units with the ability to perform their own fundraising see their resources increase, while units without that ability see their resources decrease. Even a wealthy school like Hopkins can barely find $50K for its Center for Africana Studies. And my focus on high-tiered universities suggests there is a stark difference between schools like Harvard with large endowments and those without them (Tougaloo College, a historically black liberal arts college in Mississippi has an endowment 1/120th the size of the interest Harvard receives), a gap that has only become higher as income inequality increases and states reduce spending on higher education.

Racialised inequalities and access to higher education have re-emerged as civil rights issues, reflecting politics both inside and outside the universities. Schools like Michigan have over the past several years seen more protest over questions of inclusion and exclusion than they have in decades, while social movements like Occupy Wall Street, the Movement for Black Lives, and #MeToo have often relied on college students and a broad suite of academic ideas for their leadership and political critique. But we’ve seen a subtle pushback against this trend.

The University of Michigan recently committed both to a needs-blind admission policy (which will not use financial aid need as an admissions factor) and to providing 100% financial aid in the form of grants to students coming from family incomes less than $100K. Michael Bloomberg, former presidential candidate has given Johns Hopkins (his alma mater and my employer) money to do everything from pave the walkways to hire superstar interdisciplinary professors to build a new public health school (which was already the top school in the nation). He most recently donated $1.8 billion to ensure that first generation college students have the ability to experience the type of class mobility that purportedly used to characterize the United States.

In the wake of the coronavirus however it is not quite clear where US universities go. For the last month or so some of us have been acting as if things will continue as usual, only virtually. That is to say, we’re expecting to have class, but perhaps they’ll be virtual. We’re expecting to have new colleagues, except perhaps they’ll be teaching virtually. We’ll have faculty meetings but perhaps they’ll virtual.

But we’re beginning to ask broader questions.

One big question is employment. Faculty like myself (tenured at high-tier universities) have seen no substantive change in our employment status. However, faculty with lab based research has had to postpone or halt their research totally while tenure track faculty in many instances have had their clocks extended.

Where does that leave contingent faculty? Graduate students? The work staff? The service workers? The cafeteria workers?

Contingent faculty are not given the essential worker status many tenured (and tenure-track) faculty possess, so their status is even more precarious. Early year graduate students in resource flush units/schools may be ok now, but this assumes resource-abundance and US citizenship. Later year graduate students are now forced to try to complete dissertations that require they be in the field (impossible during a quarantine), and then forced to compete in a job market that may literally not exist for years.

In the US, Covid-19 deaths are disproportionately black, brown, and poor (as I type this I’ve already lost several to the disease), for reasons related to the racial politics of the neoliberal turn. It’s this population that tends to constitute the service staff of US universities in general. In this current moment we see these workers at best provided one month’s paid leave. At worst we see them along with temporary workers unceremoniously let go (or forced to work under unsafe conditions). When news suggested that Harvard fired all of its cafeteria workers some asked whether Harvard should take some of its endowment in order to provide for those workers.

I have a different question.

I want to go back a bit. The reason Harvard’s endowment is so large is because of private donors. But these donations are not solely or even primarily about perks. They are primarily about tax write-offs. Money given to Harvard is not only money that isn’t collected by the state, it is money that can actually be written off which further reduces the amount the wealthy have to pay in taxes.

Even under normal conditions this isn’t right. The money for example that Bloomberg gives Hopkins in order to make it easier for first generation students to attend Hopkins could have been better used by the state. If the State of New York had those resources for example, they could have more money to not only make their K-12 better statewide, but also provide the type of wrap around social services that first generation kids need. And then with more of this money not just in K-12 but in post-secondary schools, the first generation kids would have a range of powerful public options to choose from. It is worth recalling at this point that at one point in time CUNY was not only one of the best public colleges in the United States, it was nearly free.

How does that apply to this scenario? It is Harvard’s responsibility to pay their workers in this moment, more to the point it is the responsibility of the state. We shouldn’t have a dynamic where a private employer like Harvard is sitting on 40.5 billion instead of having those billions be used for the public good. Particularly not now.

This brings up a larger question about budgets in general.

But the state is not picking up the slack as Harvard and other institutions abrogate theirs. The state hasn’t provided a safety net to cushion cuts in labor alongside freezes in hiring  pay increases, and most discretionary spending. The federal government has completely abrogated its responsibility to provide the robust testing needed to re-open society, and many individual states have also abrogated theirs. Similarly, neither the federal government nor the individual states have provided universities guidelines on re-opening, forcing university administrators to develop their own.

What happens to lower-tiered universities without large endowments? For these schools, tuition is their lifeblood, and without tuition they will perish. A number of smaller schools in the Baltimore area have begun discussions of what to do and have begun planning as if they will be open in the Fall, with the logic here being that they have neither the cultural capital nor the endowment to segue to online teaching in the fall. Working on the assumption that we’re facing at least an 18 month period of intermittent quarantining, even the plan of opening in the fall does not seem feasible. Schools like Harvard or Hopkins can arguably survive (under diminished capacity) with online teaching because the credential these schools provide become even more valuable during this crisis.

In a neoliberal moment when universities are expected to compete against each other for students, for research dollars, and for donations, the only way that universities without the wherewithal to shut down can continue is by attempting to open their doors. Indeed, their move is much in line with the broader conservative attempt to “re-open the economy.” Just as the failure of the state in part engendered by institutions like Harvard ends up creating conditions where the workers most in need of state benefits cannot get them, the failure of the state creates the conditions that on the one hand make it hard to imagine the schools opening up in the Fall without putting their faculty, staff, and students at risk. The state creates the conditions where less well-off universities have to think about this as an option in the first place.

Given this, what is the responsibility of academics in this moment?

In Fall 2001, the beginning of my second year at Washington University in Saint Louis, I taught Public Opinion and American Democracy. The original syllabus contained readings by Alexis De Tocqueville and a few others and then segued into an examination of public opinion formation, concluding with works on differences in attitudes. My first class of the semester was on Tuesday, Sept. 11.

That class was canceled.

As I walked through the campus that day with a colleague, as I looked into the sky and saw no airplanes for the first time I could remember, I realized that the class I’d originally designed didn’t fit the world that was about to come into being. And I had two choices. I could ignore that feeling and teach the class as I’d designed it…and in hindsight I can see an argument for this. In as much as students were going to be spending the rest of their lives wrestling with the consequences of that act, they needed a sense of normality that would just get them through the semester. Or I could toss the syllabus out, with their permission, and create a syllabus better attuned to the world that would be constructed.

We chose the latter. I don’t have a copy of that syllabus we designed—I wish I did—but I remember us focusing far more on racialization, media effects, and propaganda. The only people I asked for permission were the students themselves. It was one of the best decisions I made as a young faculty member. In fact, I’d suggest that decision shaped the rest of my career.

My two oldest sons are both transitioning to online learning. In as much as a large swathe of us aren’t used to teaching virtual courses with students who may be in vastly different time zones, we are asking questions about synchronicity. In as much as students themselves have varying access to technology and may be in home environments that aren’t good for learning (even before we take the possibility of them becoming infected into consideration) some ask questions about grading protocols. Should we really be giving out “grades” when those grades may be determined even more than usual by dynamics that have nothing to do with learning capacity?

These questions are important ones and should be asked and answered.

But I’d suggest that in this moment we have another set of responsibilities—and when I write “we” I’m really talking about tenured faculty and then to a lesser extent tenure track and adjunct faculty. Those of us teaching courses that are somewhat relevant to the moment have a responsibility to use this moment to teach to the virus, to help students understand the world that exists now and the world that will exist ten weeks from now and the world that will exist ten years from now. We need new institutions. We need new conceptions of citizenship. Teachers are the ones best situated to help the people who will live in this world understand and develop it.

Finally, we also have a responsibility in this moment to work within the university on two different projects. The first project is a project designed to protect workers. University janitorial staff—who are the lowest paid and most contingent—have in many instances been deemed essential. This (again, predominantly black and brown) population is the most likely to be affected by mass transit shutdowns, the most likely to be on the bottom rung of any hierarchy of care, and in this specific instance most likely the ones to have the least access to the type of resources needed to stay safe while they do their job. Harvard workers are unionized. But in other instances they are not. Faculty should speak with and in instances (although this is fraught) for them.

(One of the things this crisis brings to light is the essential nature of a range of laborers previously viewed as expendable. Where would we be without the workers still at the supermarket, without the laborers working to keep various supply chains stable?)

The second project is one a bit broader in scope. If this does last as long as the science says it should, then the university is going to have to change radically. That change can take any number of forms, but faculty should play an essential role in devising and implementing those forms. What should teaching look like if people can no longer safely be in the same physical space? What is our obligation to the extended community?

Faculty have been in the midst of a long-term struggle for the nature of the university—fighting against its corporatization. This crisis amps up the struggle and its consequences. We abrogate our own responsibility if we do not rise to its level.


Lester K. Spence is Professor of Political Science and Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

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