This article was written on 24 Aug 2014, and is filled under Education.

Reworking the University

When Starbucks announced in June that the company would offer many of its employees a discounted online college education through Arizona State University, social theorists, business analysts, and education commentators quickly weighed in, often with compelling analyses of the relative (de)merits of digital and distance learning,the commodification of knowledge, and the future of higher ed. Such responses are right to point out the self-serving nature of the initiative and the ways that it furthers a two-tiered educational system.

Yet Starbucks’ actions collect a set of issues that have long dogged debates about the future of the university into a single body—that of the low-income-worker-as-student. As Svati Kirsten Narula points out, a student without financial aid or family resources would have to work 48 hours a week at minimum wage in order to cover the costs of tuition—a feat that, as she puts it, “would require superhuman strength, or maybe a time machine.” Low-income students thus often face a “choice” between accruing crippling financial debt or, as the Starbucks example illustrates, pursuing a second-tier education at a for-profit institution.* Meanwhile, the university contains a large number of low-income food and service workers whose labor ensures the smooth functioning of the educational system but who are themselves denied access to educational opportunities.

Though such reflections often provoke nostalgia for the halycon university of the Cold War, many have critiqued the desired return to a prior educational model by deconstructing the basis of its purported egalitarianism. These critiques acknowledge that college tuition was dramatically less costly forty years ago but also recall that the university of yesteryear maintained stratification through other means—gender and racial segregation, quotas for Jews and other minorities, rampant gentrification, and so on. While the G.I. Bill rendered college newly affordable for many middle-class Americans, it provided that education at peril of one’s life, literally turning mortality into currency. Even then, it continued to marginalize women and racial minorities, albeit through subtler means (Mettler and Katznelson). These critiques recognize that the university has always functioned as a stratifying mechanism, providing educational opportunities for some while denying them to others, and that these divides most frequently fall along familiar class, racial, and gender lines.

The historical intersection of inequality within higher education and in the economy more broadly has carried over into debates about the academy’s more recent victims. As we have argued elsewhere, much of the contemporary discourse around “precarity” revolves around largely white, formerly middle and upper-middle class Americans discovering the job conditions that characterized life under capitalism for the majority of the world’s working population all along—conditions characterized by low wages, long but unstable hours, and a perverse combination of hyper-mobility (in terms of ever-shifting schedules, multiple jobs, and worker “flexibility”) and stagnant or declining mobility in a socio-economic sense. There is certainly an irony in the fact that, while Starbucks offers its workers second-rate educational opportunities, many “first-rate” college graduates now find themselves working at Starbucks (Slaughter and Rhoades; the Student Union of Michigan).

With these tensions in mind, we find the image of the worker-student a fruitful one for re-thinking the composition of the university and re-imagining the possibilities for its transformation. For us, the image of the worker-student has at least three valences:

1) low-income “work-study” students whose cheap labor is often a condition of their admission and college and university food and service workers whose similarly cheap labor underwrites the university but who are not typically thought of as part of the academic “community,”

2) conversely, graduate students and adjuncts who provide the university with heavily-discounted labor but who are not typically thought of (and perhaps do not think of themselves as) workers, and

3) undergraduate students whose education functions, implicitly or explicitly, to train and discipline them for the job market.

Despite the very real differences between those described by the different categories of relatively low-wage labor at universities that we outline—access to higher education, familial resources, race and class privilege, to start—when it comes to dealing with those on the lower end of the pay scale, institutions tend not to see these privileges: they will just as quickly cut health benefits for the non-unionized graduate student as they will for the food service worker even as they scale back on financial aid for low-income students. Given that universities often classify all untenured and non-upper administrative labor into the same category, it behooves us to consider ourselves as a negotiating bloc. We must ask, in other words, what it will take to organize across racial, class, and professional lines, without ignoring the material distinctions between these positions. If we take it as a given that the university is a site of exploitation as well as a privileged object to which we attach certain ideals and desires, then we need to think within that contradiction to construct a different object that can better realize those desires. Doing so would mean embracing the academy’s vision of all low-wage labor as a structurally common entity as a political strength, even if it is also a tactic of exploitation and oppression.

Though this kind of solidarity organizing sometimes seems like an impossible feat, a number of recent actions and events provide an object lesson in ways to create mutually supportive organizing units. Within the past few years, the radical wing of UAW local 2865 —best known today as the reform caucus—has served as a model in this regard. This past fall, the student-union struck in solidarity with UC service-workers protesting against intimidating and retaliatory actions on the part of UC administrators and contractors. In doing so, student strikers demanded that the core principles of academic freedom—protections for politicized speech, for instance—apply to university food and service workers as well. The purpose of the strike was thus the extension of academic privileges to a group that, despite occupying the same space as the faculty members and students who traditionally enjoy these privileges, are frequently denied them.

The UC strike was more than a one-way exchange. This spring, when 2865 went on strike to obtain contracts for graduate students that would furnish them with a more manageable workload, UC service-workers supported the students as well. In addition to joining students on the picket line, a broad coalition of unions honored the strike and agreed to join UAW 2865 in their protests. This assistance proved an essential element in the students’ successful contract negotiations, negotiations that boiled down to protections long demanded by labor groups: the right to a humane working day and compensation for all of one’s work, rather than being forced to work for free in order to complete an endless series of necessary but unremunerated tasks. For their part, service-workers sought to extend to students the hard-won privileges that they have been fighting for for generations. These gains included important and non-traditional victories towards student self-determination such asgraduate student involvement in class sizes limitations and access to services previously restricted to undocumented students. Such victories demonstrate the efficacy of organizing outside of traditional boundaries.

Building such a coalition necessitates involving ourselves in an active struggle against the university’s treatment of labor as an abstract and homogenous process, but also against our own tendencies to obscure the differences between forms of labor in order to highlight the plight of academics. Together, the students and service-workers, as well as their allies outside the academy, participated in a version of the university that departs both from the de jure segregation of the past and the de facto segregation of the present. They did so in part by refusing certain privileges (the opportunity to retreat into one’s office, for instance) in order to agitate for the extension of others (such as the right to politicized speech without fear of reprisal). While the importance of refusing one’s privileges has recently received even mainstream media attention, the latter, and its political import, often goes unnoticed. And yet the dialectical interaction of the two (a rejection of opportunities that immiserate one group to benefit another alongside the insistence that opportunities seen as characteristic of the university in its most ideal form should belong to the many, not the few) is an essential part of what makes the UC protests and strikes so inspiring and successful. In this case, standing up and fighting back against a repressive administrative complex meant standing for those core values that have defined the ideal academic workplace as a place of work.

Reconceiving the university from the starting point of the student-worker will also require that we develop new, or perhaps retrieve older, on-the-ground research practices. Such practices could highlight the knowledge that workers have of their own worksites, which can be crucial during strikes and other disruptions, as well as the specific role of the university within the larger context of capitalism. One model that to our minds is worth considering is that of “co-research,” which was pioneered in Italy in the 1970s and also has some historical precedence in the United States, particularly in Detroit with the publication The American Worker by Paul Romano and Ria Stone in 1947 and the journal Zerowork beginning in 1975. Throughout its development as a method of inquiry, co-research projects have been undertaken as an attempt to go beyond analyzing the objective conditions of labor, as traditionally done by academics and theorists, in order to attend to the organic growth of class consciousness and worker subjectivity within those conditions. Mixing reportage, analysis, narrative, and historical perspective, co-research projects not only sought to demonstrate that worker power is developed from within the conditions of exploitation and oppression by workers themselves, but also that the knowledge workers gained in their particular locations could contribute greatly to analysing transformations in and struggles against capitalist valorization and circulation. Such research projects should be considered anew today as tools for cross-sectional organizing and the creation of new kinds of col­lec­tive action that are most adequate to building solidarity between student, worker, and student-worker populations at the university.

Re-centering the university around the figure of the student-worker also dramatically transforms our vision—taking note of different subjects, we come to see our object differently. For example, while it is often pointed out that the vast majority of college courses are now taught by adjuncts, graduate students and part-time faculty, less frequently noted is that so-called “non-professional support staff” (janitors, food and service workers, secretaries and administrative assistants, etc.) remain the largest body of workers on the majority of college campuses. And while many rightly lament the lack of diversity on college campuses, such spaces are rendered considerably more heterogenous when we include university food and service workers in our theoretical lens—workers who remain outside of the liberal, homogenizing version of diversity.

Yet such workers are frequently glossed over in analyses of higher education or, at best, subordinated in the distinction between “knowledge-producing” and “non-knowledge-producing” workers. Such a framework suggests that service workers neither possess nor produce knowledge, and conversely that “knowledge workers” perform only mental, not manual, labor. Yet service work requires forms of knowledge, while typing is as “manual” as cleaning toilets; meanwhile workers in both sectors understand and theorize their positions on the basis of knowledge, historical memory and lived experience. In other words, the division between “mental” and “manual” labor is one imposed by our employers, only to be internalized through a variety of (physical and psychical) disciplining mechanisms; the point here, of course, is that all work is a combination of mental and manual labor.

Moving beyond the division between mental and manual labor is not merely a question of recognition, or of theorizing differently. While it is true that the distinction between different forms of labor has much to do with a false hierarchy of social prestige (and, relatedly, remuneration) our goal cannot be simply to insist that food and service work is “important,” nor even to insist that service workers receive the same privileges and protections as their colleagues across campus. Our goal must be to liberate ourselves from the classifications imposed by the very category of “student-worker,” and to overcome the space of the hyphen that divides it. Ultimately, the creation of a truly equitable university requires abolishing the class system that relegates some to the classroom and others to the kitchen—so that, to paraphrase a dead white guy, we can all cook in the evenings, read in the mornings, and write dissertation chapters in the afternoon.


* While Arizona State is a public research university, its online arm is a joint venture with Pearson, a for-profit “learning company,” which provided a majority of the initial capital in exchange for a share of long-term revenue. Currently netting $94 million per annum, the program aims to more than double that figure by 2020, ultimately hoping for online enrollment of over 100,000—an aim for which ventures like the Starbucks partnership will no doubt prove crucial. Such public-private partnerships are far from unusual, while the ongoing financialization of higher education increasingly renders untenable such distinctions as “public” and “private,” “for-profit” and “non-profit”. See for example Christopher Newfield, The Unmaking of the Public University and Marc Bousquet, How the University Works.

Katznelson, Ira. When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality In Twentieth-Century America. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005.

Mettler, Suzanne. Soldiers to Citizens: The G.I. Bill and the Making of the Greatest Generation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Slaughter, Sheila, and Gary Rhoades. Academic Capitalism and the New Economy: Markets, State, and Higher Education. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.

Student Union of Michigan. August 23, 2014.

One Comment

  1. David Stein
    August 29, 2014

    What a wonderful piece! Thank you for your work on it.
    I was particularly taken with this line: “Given that universities often classify all untenured and non-upper administrative labor into the same category, it behooves us to consider ourselves as a negotiating bloc.”

    For a consideration of the worker-student from a perspective akin to Zerowork, this pamphlet might be of interest (though you’ve probably seen it).