Grad Students to the Barricades

Stony Brook Graduate Student Union Protest, 2009, Jobs with Justice

Here’s a familiar story from about a decade ago: a pair of political antagonists conduct an increasingly bitter election campaign, ending in frustrating indecision. Disputes pile up over the legitimacy of the balloting process, and government officials are called in to intervene. Finally, a federal panel, boasting a majority of Republican appointees, shuts down the vote-counting outright, yielding a conservative victory.

This is, of course, Bush v. Gore in outline. But the presidential election was not the only disputed vote around the turn of the millennium to get resolved in this way. Parallel events played out on the campuses of several private universities in the early 2000s. Graduate students organized themselves to win union recognition, and Republican appointees and university administrations conspired to quash the effort, ultimately preventing the counting of ballots in union elections on several campuses.

In 2000, the Clinton-appointed majority on the National Labor Relations Board, ruling on a New York University case, extended organizing protections to graduate students at private universities. (At many public institutions, graduate students had long been organized, thanks to the protection of friendly state laws.) The board stated that because “graduate assistants perform services under the control and direction of the Employer” and “are compensated for these services by the Employer,” their relationship with their university is “indistinguishable from a traditional master-servant relationship.”

Soon after the ruling, NYU graduate students petitioned for an NLRB-supervised election, won, and negotiated a contract with their administration. Peers at other institutions, including the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell, Columbia, Tufts, and Brown, picked up the torch, petitioning for elections on their campuses, too. While the issues leading students to organize varied somewhat among campuses, common grievances were poverty wages (at Yale—one of the best-paying universities around—the most a graduate student at the time could hope to make was around $15,000 per year), poor health benefits, a career track unusually hostile to women, a weakening job market, and general lack of say over the increasingly corporate structure of universities. It was around this time that, in an episode of The Simpsons, Bart put on a fake ponytail and said, “Look at me, I’m a grad student—I’m thirty years old and made $600 last year.” Ever decent, Marge reprimanded, “Bart! Don’t make fun of grad students. They just made a terrible life choice.”

After the NLRB elections went forward, hostile administrations at Penn, Brown, Tufts, and Columbia requested the immediate impoundment of the ballots, banking on the support of President George W. Bush and his new appointees. They guessed right. The NLRB complied with their request and seized the ballots, preempting any election results pending the outcome of the universities’ appeal. In 2004, the Republican appointees reversed the initial NYU decision on graduate student bargaining and shredded the still-uncounted votes.

Armed with the new ruling, NYU’s leadership stopped bargaining with graduate students after their contract expired in 2005, leading union members to vote overwhelmingly to strike. The administration whittled down union numbers by threatening to blacklist graduate students from future teaching work on campus—their main source of income—and to interfere with visa approval for international students. The union brought pressure to bear from Democratic politicians close to organized labor, turned to civil disobedience, and finally physically occupied campus buildings. All this failed to convince NYU’s administration, and within a few months, the union—the only one ever won by private university graduate students—had been broken.

The string of campus defeats presaged the wave of austerity and corporatization currently straitening university life and driving the growing “crisis of higher education.” The opening act in the current cycle of austerity conflicts nationwide—the Wisconsin capitol occupation of early 2011—occurred at the intersection of these stories: it was members of the Teaching Assistants’ Association, the graduate student union at Wisconsin, who initiated the occupation. Indeed, the current crisis of higher education has many of the hallmarks of the larger crisis of American economic inequality and stagnation. As with almost every other institution in American life, the university is increasingly characterized by the upward distribution of wealth and power.

There is, however, some good news: the Obama administration’s NLRB appointees are expected to once again grant members of Ph.D. programs the right to organize in the very near future. And if anyone can challenge the frightening trends in U.S. higher education, it is graduate students. If graduate students like myself do not want to come into work one day to find ourselves replaced by video lectures delivered by “information curators,” we will have to learn to take collective action. We need to organize not just because teaching loads are too high or pay is too low but because if we fail to do so, academic work itself—the daily grind of pursuing knowledge and developing arguments—will wither.


Since at least the Second World War, there had been a fairly wide and durable consensus that the United States had the best universities in the world, that this was a good and important thing, and that the better the universities were, the better it would be for everybody. Even the harshest critics of universities found in them a kernel of promise. Student radical Mark Rudd, for example, famous for his 1968 warning to the Columbia administration to get “up against the wall, motherfucker,” argued in 1969 that universities were an important resource, a “place from which to launch radical struggles.” Once his revolution failed to materialize, Rudd became a community college math teacher.

If graduate students like myself do not want to come into work one day to find ourselves replaced by video lectures delivered by “information curators,” we will have to learn to take collective action. We need to organize not just because teaching loads are too high or pay is too low but because if we fail to do so, academic work itself—the daily grind of pursuing knowledge and developing arguments—will wither.

Indeed, the flight of a previous generation of rebels into the university indicates one of their most important attributes: though they appear staid, universities are often a refuge for those with new ideas and an incubator for those ideas—social, technological, and scientific. At their best, universities have been able to combine the practical and the theoretical and achieve extraordinary things for society. They have powered regional booms and waves of innovation in such places as Silicon Valley, Pittsburgh, and the high-tech corridor along Route 128 near Boston. Today, in any given midsized city in the United States, the largest employer is probably the university-and-medical complex (“eds and meds”). A catalog of the inventions, medicines, and ideas that first emerged in a university department would read like a timeline of the last hundred years of history. And though they are far from models of egalitarianism, universities have proven essential to U.S. democracy itself—providing opportunities for social advancement, contributing energy to numerous social movements, and allowing for the development and discussion of uncomfortable subjects.

But today, for the first time in living memory, higher education has an array of antagonists who are not just critics but outright enemies. Last year, Florida governor Rick Scott said of his state’s universities, “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.” The sound bite played into a long tradition of right-wing anti-intellectualism, but there is now an agenda to back it. State governments have abandoned their public universities financially, and their political appointees on university boards push administrators to slash any programs deemed a waste of money. Meanwhile the market share of exploitative for-profit colleges has expanded rapidly to fill the spaces caused by cuts in public education.

These profit-seeking trends are also growing stronger at traditional (nonprofit) private schools. Although most don’t face the same budget problems as public schools, they have made endowment growth and competitive position the arbiters of institutional success. At Yale, where I am in graduate school in history, the administration has scaled back discretionary funds for academic departments and become increasingly stingy toward, and resentful of, its graduate programs in the humanities and social sciences. Recent policy changes keep many Ph.D. candidates from the teaching jobs that are their livelihood and speed them through their programs too fast to do good research. The dean of the graduate school urges students who have not struck research gold in their first two years (a time span in which it is virtually impossible to achieve major research goals in many fields) to drop out with a master’s degree and seek other employment. He fondly refers to a would-be historian who ended up making a fortune on Wall Street. As his office put it in a recent report, “Some of our most successful and generous alumni used their master’s degree to build satisfying careers.” Meanwhile, Yale has built a new campus for its business school at a cost of $230 million—an amount of money that could fund the entire graduate school for nearly seven years.

Almost all universities, public and private, have cut back on support for actual research work, to refocus on more pressing tasks such as graduating more MBAs. From 1970 to 2008, the number of MBA diplomas issued each year rose from 26,490 to 155,637—and rose even more after the financial crisis, reaching 177,684 in 2010. At the same time, schools are hiring growing numbers of MBAs into their administrations. These new hires eagerly apply business-school methods to quantify and evaluate research, teaching, and learning, over the protests of professors. The botched MBA coup against University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan, who didn’t want to shutter humanities departments quickly enough, is probably the best known example, but Texas A&M might be the most absurd: the school issued a “faculty productivity report” that gave profit-and-loss statements for every professor on campus. The same forces have pushed for the rapid launch of online education programs, which threaten to overwhelm traditional classroom teaching. This is in keeping with the major change already wrought by business-minded administrators on the academic workforce: they are in the process of effectively abolishing tenure, in favor of casual academic labor.

The professoriate has stratified into a small, tenured elite that recruits few new members outside top-tier institutions and a swelling academic underclass. A recent National Science Foundation Survey found that in the physical and life sciences and engineering, only about 15 percent of recent Ph.D.s make it onto the tenure track within five years. From 1997 to 2007, the proportion of instructional staff members not on the tenure track grew from two-thirds to 73 percent. The figure is almost certainly higher since the recession, and higher still for younger scholars who weren’t grandfathered into the tenure system. Wayne State University recently proposed to abolish tenure outright.

For contingent and temporary professors (adjuncts), work is temporary. It can be overly burdensome (the dreaded “4/4 load”—eight courses in two semesters), unavailable, or spread among several campuses. This leaves almost no time for research, to say nothing of family. Benefits are often negligible. An hours-to-pay comparison often puts adjuncts below the minimum wage. From 2007 to 2010, the number of people with Ph.D.s relying on some kind of public assistance, such as food stamps, more than tripled, from 9,776 to 33,655. The decline of professorial hiring is not due to overproduction of Ph.D.s. More people are in college than ever before; advanced research is more important, we all seem to agree, than it ever has been. The problem is universities’ refusal to create good academic jobs. As in the rest of the American economy, employers are waiting out would-be employees, seeing how low the cost of labor will fall. Hence the endless spate of articles with titles such as “Graduate School: Just Don’t Go” and “The Disposable Academic.” A much-beloved (among academics) series of animated videos stages conversations between undergraduate naïfs and embittered academics, all on the theme of “So you want to get a Ph.D. in ___.” Conservative pundit David Brooks chose the word “tsunami” to describe what awaits academia.

But this is a political conflict over priorities, not a natural disaster. And in this conflict, academics are losing. These changes in higher education are the result of concerted efforts by a coalition of university administrators, donors, and conservative politicians to seize institutional power and reorient the university system toward private purposes. As Johns Hopkins political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg argues in The Fall of the Faculty, corporate backers have installed an ever-growing army of overpaid administrators to superintend universities. From 1975 to 2008, faculty-to-student ratios stayed level, albeit with the portion of faculty who are tenured or tenure-track crashing. Meanwhile, the number of administrators doubled. This administrative staff is charged with supervising the faculty, making money off them where possible, and otherwise enlarging the endowment by extracting tuition and skimming funds from research grants. In return for the exorbitant tuition, administrators provide undergraduates with an increasingly fun experience, rather than an increasingly serious education.


If this “tsunami” is allowed to wash over our university system, then we will have cause to despair not just for academics, but for a country deprived of expertise about looming, preventable disasters. It is hard not to dread how a public already primed for skepticism would evaluate the opinions of a low-status, deskilled academy on, say, evolution, economic stimulus, antibiotic overuse and superbugs, or climate change.

And yet it seems that the only people who are particularly alarmed by the situation, and thus capable of doing anything about it, are those trapped in the path of the corporate juggernaut.

The beginnings of such efforts have appeared in various branches of Occupy directed at university administrations—most prominently last fall at UC Davis—and in the Québecois student movement. But the same paradox plaguing Occupy Wall Street in general dogs them too: moral force has failed thus far to produce political organization and, therefore, exerts little real power. The emergence of undergraduates and recent graduates speaking with a clear voice about their debt burdens should be welcomed, and will be an important part of any movement to reclaim the universities. But it is not sufficient on its own.

Among faculty, two opposite conditions combine to produce inaction, beyond the normal reasons that professors are more oriented toward their work and families than are students in close social contact with each other. Although many senior and tenured professors recognize the problems at their universities and colleges and attend or organize rallies, sign petitions, and so forth, the professoriate is very far from being organized enough to exert significant control over the direction of institutions. Meanwhile, those without tenure or even a chance at it usually cannot afford the career risks of taking action.

This leaves graduate students, who, I believe, are uniquely positioned to observe and act to reverse the deterioration of conditions for academic work. The collapse of the job market is likely to define the course of much of our lives. In the sciences, many will spend years shuffling from one postdoctoral position to the next, hoping, by maintaining an inhuman pace of work, to score an increasingly unlikely breakthrough to a tenure-track job. In the social sciences and humanities, much the same goes, but with adjunct teaching positions instead of postdocs, even fewer tenure-track jobs, and without the scientists’ escape route via Exxon or Google. What is more, since many of the crises described above have not yet reached their zeniths, graduate students about to enter academia are likely to be hardest hit.

Graduate students are uniquely positioned to observe and act to reserve the deterioration of conditions for academic work.

Graduate students are positioned to see the crisis nearly as clearly as adjuncts and postdocs do, but we are less likely than our slightly older colleagues to face immediate retribution for attempting to organize. We are in frequent and direct touch with each other and share much more of a sense of community than any professors, adjunct or tenured. This allows us to build the bonds of solidarity necessary to effect significant social change and to withstand the hostility that such efforts inevitably provoke.


There is an immediately viable and plausible mechanism for graduate students to organize and gain political leverage: the trade union.

Unions are already present at many public universities, though their strength varies widely. In many cases, they are vulnerable to the budget axes of revenue-starved state legislatures. Yet despite having many thousands of engaged and activist members, virtually none have managed to build social movements around themselves in a way that could gain them some leverage over state legislatures. The opportunity the Teaching Assistants’ Association at Wisconsin had disappeared with the failed recall of Governor Scott Walker. In Michigan, the union movement is aiming to enshrine organizing rights in the state constitution. This effort, partly a response to the Republican governor’s union-busting of research assistants, may offer a model to follow, though it’s unclear how much such efforts will institutionalize bargaining power.

As for graduate students at private institutions, the upcoming favorable NLRB decision, expected sometime this fall, will likely prevail until several years into the next Republican presidential term. This means that a window of opportunity is now open. Because the atmosphere of general crisis is stronger than it was a decade ago, a graduate student movement infused with private university unions could begin to counter-organize against corporate rule over universities.

If graduate student unions are able to achieve one or two initial breakthroughs in the coming years, a cascade of campaigns could follow, as happened after the NYU victory ten years ago. Some goals would be common across campuses: forcing administrators to recommit to full-time and secure academic hiring; acting to improve the dismal standard of racial and gender equality on campus; undoing the unequal effects of the broken academic career path on women and men; warding off the job displacement likely to be caused by online education; and assuring graduate students sufficient support to do bold and original research. There are also issues that are larger in scope than any given campus: composing a political force able to defend public institutions from tax-cutting state legislators; lobbying the federal government directly, in support of research funding and the interests of higher education in general (for example, in favor of student debt forgiveness); and mobilizing the strength of our institutions and their political networks toward the same ends.

To do all this, graduate students will have to exercise leadership not just on our own behalf, but on behalf of our departments, our universities, and the public interest in good research and teaching. This does not sound like the kind of thing such a bookish and introspective slice of the population would normally do. And so far as I can tell, the impending crisis is not yet a common subject of discussion in graduate programs. Those in the first half of a five-to-seven year program can sense the general grimness in the air, but it is hardly the water-cooler conversation that it should be. For those in the second half, despair generally suffocates any sense of agency. To the extent that there is awareness of a problem, it remains largely apolitical. A surprising number of graduate students seem uncertain about whether it would be legitimate to mobilize in their own defense, to say nothing of how. As one graduate student wrote in the Yale Daily News, “I chose to attend Yale as a graduate student knowing full well the economic hardship that my family would endure. I chose to be married and have children here at Yale. No one has forced this upon me. Additionally, I do not believe that I am an employee of Yale. And finally, for me, the diploma that I will receive is worth all of my hard work.” It is a common enough refrain. Liberal grad students who would not abandon any other institution to the ravages of the free market are oddly willing to settle for whatever comes their way. Satisfying and stable work is, apparently, too much to ask.

This is a kind of self-doubt, an outward manifestation of an inward process experienced by essentially all graduate students: impostor syndrome. Academics, particularly early in our careers, are prone to the fear that we are getting away with something. It seems almost illicit. We spend the first fifteen or so years of our careers trying to prove ourselves by mastering a field and developing a new addition to it. It is nearly impossible for Ph.D. students to know whether an idea will pan out during most of their studies. This anxiety repeats for another seven years for the lucky few who land tenure-track jobs, and has only worsened as the job market has contracted. At some point in the process, it becomes hard not to wonder whether you are cut out for this. So we have been quiescent, for the same reason people often are in hard times: we devour gratefully whatever is thrown our way, rather than dwell on the lean times ahead.

Under such stress, some graduate students try to evade the worsening crisis by defining it away. Graduate student union organizers repeatedly encounter certain rhetorical roadblocks: unions are for workers, not scholars; my relationship with the university isn’t an employment relationship—I’m a student; I love what I’m doing and I get paid for it, it would be crass to complain. These responses are relentlessly non-pragmatic. They insist on the importance of semantics, allowing the utterer to avoid responsibility for a university system lurching into crisis. This is what it looks like when academics begin to internalize the attacks of anti-intellectuals. We are mere students and charity cases—dilettantish, indulged, unserious, irresponsible—not producers of any valuable knowledge or learning. (Yale actually accounts graduate student teaching as a cost to the university, uncompensated on the balance sheet by any value created in the classroom. One wonders what undergraduates are paying for.)

Such an attitude follows a long tradition in American social history. In almost every generation for the last two centuries, some group of artisans, farmers, or professionals whom we would today not hesitate to classify as workers insisted, when their craft came under threat, that they were inherently different from lowly hirelings and factory wage-slaves. This brand of defensiveness has long been common among the newly insecure. Unfortunately, it is a strategy that feels much better than it actually performs. Automation and corporatization felled the craftsman, the farmer, and the journalist; they eroded the skilled work of teachers and nurses into something more mechanical. These forces do not care whether we think we are workers or not. They will get us either way.


Many graduate students, moreover, see intensive self-organization as a responsibility that they did not sign up for. This is true enough—few geneticists or classicists came to grad school talking union. But this is another classic mistake of downwardly mobile people: to respond to tough times by refusing to acknowledge that anything has changed. The first thing a social movement has to do is dispel this feeling—and demonstrate that something is at stake, and something can be done.

It is hard to build a movement from scratch, but we are not the only actors on campus defending against hostile university administrators. At Yale, the graduate student organizing campaign would not be possible without the support of the other university workers’ unions. UNITE HERE Local 34, the union representing clerical and technical workers, offers a foundation of support—in organizing resources and hard-won experience—and a model to follow. Local 34 represents people who do not much resemble the union worker stereotype: lab managers, research assistants, department registrars, art handlers, librarians. When it first organized, Yale’s president derided the (mainly female) union’s demands as “charming, but unreasonable.” Through years of difficult organizing, however, 34’s members have repeatedly demonstrated that an academic work environment can be improved when its participants commit to collective action. We may find more empowering advice and examples from our librarians and department registrars than from our assistant vice deans.

Every researcher has to learn to ask herself, “Why does this matter?” The question dogs you over the course of graduate school, and eventually an academic career, in every article, presentation, and book project. Every argument that a scholar makes fits in debates occurring in multiple, nested categories. No matter what the field, academics attempt to convince our peers and readers that we have developed a more correct interpretation of the world, whose truth others will benefit from seeing. But the attack on higher education has framed all of these debates in a larger one: whether it will be possible to do the research at all, and whether anyone will be there to register its implications. In this matter, too, we are now obligated to fight for our view of the world. The “who cares” question, as academics are fond of calling it, cannot just be a pose we strike in the third paragraph of every paper. If something is at stake in the world of ideas, then we can no longer afford treat it like a game.

Discovering and cultivating this kind of confidence and self-respect is not only the stuff of good scholarship. It is also the only way to develop our potential agency, and to exercise it. With our unwitting consent, the shape of an academy with no place for us is now coming into view. The shape of the one we might make ourselves remains open.


 Gabriel Winant is a Ph.D. student in history at Yale University and a member of the steering committee of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization.

data-layout=