In the third extract from The Capitalist University, Henry Heller writes about growing resistance to the corporate university


Henry Heller The Capitalist University: the Transformations of Higher Education in the United States, 1945-2016 (Pluto Press 2016)

Unionization of faculty has recently made progress at primarily teaching rather than research institutions. But it has progressed even at top schools which are part of the SUNY system and at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The evidence suggests that unionization helps to bolster the flagging salaries of academics.[1] On the other hand, tenured faculty at research-orientated institutions continue to resist unionization. Traditional resistance to unionization based on petty bourgeois illusions about professionalism inhibits such a movement on a large scale. This resistance is reinforced further by the overall decline in rates of unionization in American society. But it is also a reflection of the conservatism of tenured faculty, who are desperately clinging to their privileged positions in an increasingly insecure profession.[2] Nonetheless it is significant that the newly formed union at the University of Illinois includes both tenured and non-tenured faculty, and that the unions at Temple University and Pitt University are moving in the same direction.

Unionization of tenured faculty is difficult, despite the fact that what remains of their autonomy is being undermined by administrators in a long-term process of proletarianization. Indeed, this process is likely to force unionization. More immediately promising is the possibility of unionization of non-tenured or contingent faculty including graduate students, who together make up the bulk of teaching personnel. A report by the American Association of University Professors published in April 2014 showed that adjuncts now constitute 76.4 percent of U.S. faculty across all institutional types, from liberal arts colleges to research universities to community colleges. A study released by the U.S. House of Representatives in January of the same year revealed that the majority of these adjuncts live below the poverty line.

But organizing part-timers is even more difficult than organizing tenured faculty, as they are a transient element on their way elsewhere or having other employment off campus. On the other hand, the execrable situation of contractual employees with few or no benefits and low pay may impel unionization. The situation of graduate students is particularly deplorable. With limited funding enabling them to finish their degrees, accumulated debt, and dim prospects for employment, unionization would seem to be an important option. Drives to unionize non-tenured university teachers are growing. The rise of new social movements seems to be connected to the growing interest in unionization. Self-identification as an activist is tied to an interest in joining a union, as well to the decline of a sense of community within the university.[3]

Students on the whole have been passive in the neoliberal years. They have been inhibited from protesting as a result of the difficulties of finding work and paying off debts. Furthermore, surveys indicate that most students throughout the neoliberal era have been apolitical, self-absorbed, and individualistic. Insofar as they have protested in recent decades they have mobilized over specific concerns like gender inequality, environmental issues, or minority rights. But in 2011 the Occupy Movement that swept the United States, and which was largely consisted of university students, demonstrated widespread concern over economic crisis and social inequality. Indeed, many who participated questioned the viability of capitalism. While these movements petered out or were actively put down by the state, they dramatically increased class consciousness and awareness of social inequality throughout society and are likely portentous of the future. Brief as it was, with its incipient recognition of the issue of class Occupy set the ideological context within which other emerging issues began to be seen. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement on campus, which has struggled to maintain itself in the face of opposition from wealthy Zionists in complicity with university administrators, took on new life in the wake of the massive Israeli assault on Gaza in the summer of 2014. In November 2015 at the University of Missouri—the state in which the notorious Ferguson riots occurred in reaction to the police shooting of Michael Brown—student and faculty strikes erupted. The race issue was to the fore but the ensuing controversy helped to reveal the intersection— partial to be sure—of the class and racial questions in American life. The president of the university was forced from office and sympathy demonstrations and sit-ins broke out in other universities across the United States. In a key development, on 15 November students walked out of classrooms across the United States to protest ballooning student loan debt and to rally for tuition-free public colleges and a minimum wage hike for campus workers. At this point there appeared to be a growing convergence of the movement against racism with those demanding economic justice in the universities as well as in society at large. The Bernie Sanders presidential campaign finally served to politicize the social and economic issues of racism, inequality, and sexism under the mantle of class, and in so doing reawakened student interest in politics across the United States. Sanders’ democratic socialist message resonated both within the ranks of students but also with the working population at large. Rising class consciousness is changing the overall political context in favor of democratic change both within and without the universities.

In which direction can resistance to the corporate university lead? In our treatment of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement of the 1960s we pictured university researchers, teachers, and students as initially being in the thrall of capitalism. They either trained or were being trained as managerial cadres. On the other hand, however temporarily, that control was threatened by the student-led movement. Capitalism’s control of these managerial cadres is today once again powerful. Under neoliberalism society is dominated by financial capitalists who implement their rule by employing and rewarding the educated managerial class who are more vital than ever to the system. Academics and researchers in universities, as well as the highly skilled and educated who work in government or high-tech industries, are constituents of this elite group, as are students who hope to find employment as part of it. On the other hand, the alliance between this managerial academic group and financial capitalists is by no means a solid one. At many levels— ecological, political, economic—capitalism seems beleaguered. There is the possibility that in an ongoing and deepening capitalist crisis this stratum could cut its ties to financial capital and form an alliance with a populist majority whose aim would be the socialist reorganization of society. That would be particularly the case if this stratum felt its status imperilled or felt that the system itself was foundering. There is now the potential for growth in political and class consciousness and organization, including increasing links between university campuses and popular struggles in society at large. In response to this rising discontent among students, researchers, and teachers across America there has also been a build-up of security and police presence on campus. The CIA and the Pentagon are once more actively engaged in funding and recruiting students and faculty on campus. What with simmering racial and economic angst and the further extension of direct U.S. imperialist intervention in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, the likelihood of campus unrest is growing.[4]

The abrupt firing of pro-Palestinian Professor Stephen Salaita at the Champaign campus of the University of Illinois has become a focal point of the struggle against the stifling of dissent on university campuses. Of Palestinian descent, Salaita was a professor of English at Virginia Tech when he was offered a contract at the University of Illinois at Champaign to teach indigenous studies. He accepted the offer, but then in response to the massive attacks on Gaza in 2014 he vehemently criticized Israel in successive Twitter messages. The University of Illinois chancellor, Phyllis Wise, along with the board of governors, abruptly cancelled the job offer, complaining of Salaita’s incivility and claiming that no actual contract had been concluded. Salaita sued, charging breach of contract, suppression of free speech and academic freedom, and political collusion. In August 2015 a federal judge ruled that Salaita’s case had standing, except on the question of collusion. In the immediate aftermath Chancellor Wise offered her resignation amid the surfacing of evidence proving that messages pertinent to the case had been destroyed by Wise and others, and that political collusion with wealthy Zionist donors and senior politicians had indeed been involved. The judge then reinstated the charge of political collusion. The case as it stands had already given the University of Illinois an enormous black eye and had focused national attention on the suppression of free speech and academic freedom by administrators, politicians, and wealthy donors, not only at Illinois but throughout the system of higher education. The attempt to stifle debate on the Palestinian question on university campuses by Zionist individuals and organizations was a focal point of the scandal. In November 2015 Salaita dropped his claims against the university in return for a damages payment of $875,000. Overall the Salaita case has given an enormous boost to the fight for free speech both on and off university campuses.


[1] Gary Rhoades, Managed Professionals: Unionized Faculty and Restructuring Academic Labor, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998, p. 74.

[2] Colleen Flaherty, “Time for a Union?,” Inside Higher Education, February 21, 2014.

[3] Robert A. Rhoads and Gary Rhoades, “Graduate Student Unionization as a Postindustrial SocialMovement: Identity, Ideology, and the Contested U.S. Academy,” in The University, State and Market, p. 278,281, 289.

[4] Tamar Lewin, “More College Adjuncts See Strength in Union Numbers,” New York Times, December 3,2013.

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