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Taking Back Our Universities From Corporate Apparatchiks

Above Photo: No Respect. Mr. Fish.

New Brunswick, N.J. — Here are some of the senior administrators I did not see joining us on the picket lines set up by striking teachers and staff at Rutgers University. Brian Strom, the chancellor of Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences, whose salary is $925,932 a year. Steven Libutti, the vice chancellor for Cancer Programs for Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences, who makes $929,411 a year. Patrick Hobbs, the director of athletics, who receives $999,688 a year. The president of the university, Jonathan Holloway, who is paid $1.2 million a year. Stephen Pikiell, the university’s head basketball coach, who has received a 445 percent pay raise since 2020 and currently gets $3 million a year. Gregory Schiano, the university’s head football coach, who pulls in $4 million a year.

Here is who I did see. Leslieann Hobayan, a poet and single mother with three teenage daughters who makes $28,000 a year teaching creative writing as an adjunct professor and could not afford health insurance last year. Hank Kalet, who, by teaching seven courses a semester at Rutgers, Brookdale Community College and Middlesex College as an adjunct professor (a full course load for a semester is normally four courses) as well as teaching summer courses, can sometimes make $50,000 a year. But even he only has health insurance through his wife’s employer. Josh Anthony and Yazmin Gomez, graduate workers in the history department who serve as teaching assistants, and who each struggle to survive on $25,000 a year, $1,300 of which is deducted by the university for library, gym and computer fees.

Rutgers, like most American universities, operates as a corporation. Senior administrators, who often have a Master of Business Administration degree (MBA) with little or no experience in higher education, along with sports coaches who have the potential to earn the university money, are highly compensated while thousands of poorly paid educators and staff are denied job security and benefits. Adjunct faculty and graduate workers are often forced to apply for Medicaid. They frequently take second jobs teaching at other colleges, driving for Uber or Lyft, working as cashiers, delivering food for Grubhub or DoorDash, walking dogs, house sitting, waiting on tables, bartending and living four or six to an apartment or camping out on a friend’s sofa. This inversion of values is destroying the nation’s educational system.

Rutgers, in a questionable campaign to become a national powerhouse in sports, has an athletic department debt of more than $250 million with half of that being loans to cover operating deficits, according to an investigation by NorthJersey.com.

“Even as Rutgers athletics continued to rack up annual operating deficits of $73 million — covered in part by taxpayers and student tuition revenue — athletics showed little restraint as it dropped millions on credit cards to pay for Broadway shows, trips to Disney, meals at destination Manhattan restaurants and other perks for its coaches, athletes and recruits, including a luau and beach yoga at sunset in Hawaii, a guided snorkeling tour in Puerto Rico, ax throwing in Texas, luxury hotels in Paris and London, and chilled lobster, seafood towers and Delmonico steaks back home in New Brunswick,” the NorthJersey.com report reads. “For more than a year, Rutgers University football players enjoyed a pricey perk that few other students had access to — free DoorDash food deliveries from restaurants, convenience stores and pharmacies, paid for by the university, and ultimately by taxpayers and students. And the costs piled up. Football players ordered more than $450,000 [paid by the university] through DoorDash from May 2021 through June of this year, according to a review of invoices and other documents obtained by NorthJersey.com.”

Rutgers football team, with a terrible win-loss record for the last decade, rarely fills its 52,454 seat stadium.

The members of Rutgers American Association of University Professors–American Federation of Teachers (AAUP-AFT)Rutgers Adjunct Faculty Union  (PTLFC-AAUP-AFT) and Rutgers American Association of University Professors–Biomedical and Health Sciences of New Jersey (AAUP-BHSNJ) represent more than 9,000 faculty, part-time lecturers, graduate workers, postdoctoral associates and physicians. Union leaders, who shut down 70 percent of the university’s classes, are demanding increased pay, better job security, and health benefits for part-time lecturers and graduate assistants. They’re also asking the university to freeze rents on housing for students and staff and extend graduate research funding for one year for students who were affected by the pandemic. Tenured professors, in an important show of solidarity, agreed not to accept a deal unless the lowest paid academic workers’ demands were addressed. On Saturday the unions called for a pause to the strike pending a possible agreement.

I have been teaching as a part-time lecturer, or adjunct, in the Rutgers college degree program in New Jersey prisons for a decade, am a member of the union and joined the strike. We have been without a contract for eight months. The 2,700 adjunct professors, who are usually informed only a few weeks in advance if they will be teaching a course, are responsible for 30 percent of the university’s classes. Adjuncts are paid about $6,000 a course.

A little more than 10 percent of faculty positions in the U.S. were tenure-track in 2019 and 26.5 percent were tenured, according to a study last year by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). Nearly 45 percent were contingent part-time employees or adjuncts. One in five were full-time, non-tenure-track positions. Universities, by radically reducing tenure-track and adequately paid positions, are becoming extensions of the gig economy.

Rutgers laid off five percent of its workforce during the pandemic, throwing many into extreme distress, even as the university’s net financial position — total assets minus total liabilities — “increased by over half a billion dollars to $2.5 billion, a 26.7 percent rise in a single year,” according to Rutgers AAUP-AFT’s review of the university’s financial records. Rutgers savings, which can be used for financial emergencies, grew by 61.9 percent to $818.6 million.

Strikes are taking place at other universities, including at Governor’s State University in Illinois, the University of Michigan, and Chicago State University, and poised to take place at Northeastern Illinois University. The University of CaliforniaNew York University and Temple University have also seen strikes. The strikes are part of the fight to take back universities from corporate apparatchiks.

These institutions, including Rutgers, often have the funds to pay a living wage and provide benefits. By keeping faculty underpaid and refusing to provide job security, those who raise issues that challenge the dominant narrative, whether about social inequality, corporate abuse, the plight of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation and apartheid, or our regime of permanent war, can be instantly dismissed. Senior university administrators, awarded bonuses for “reducing expenses” by raising tuition and fees, cutting staff and suppressing wages, pay themselves obscene salaries. Wealthy donors are assured that the neoliberal ideology that is ravaging the country will not be questioned by academics fearful of losing their positions. The rich are lauded. The working poor, including those employed by the university, are forgotten.

“Rutgers sports programs lose more money than any of the other Big Ten schools,” Kalet, who teaches writing and journalism, said. “This says a lot about the priorities of this administration and previous administrations. It is a large part of the argument we’ve been making, ‘We know you guys have the money, you’re running a big surplus, you have a huge $868 million dollar reserve account which has been growing.’ They’re taking in more money than they’re spending. They have a growing endowment. They’re giving money to the coaches, but refusing to pony up for adjuncts and grad workers who are paid poverty wages.”

And then there is the rank hypocrisy, with universities such as Rutgers purporting to defend values of equality, diversity and justice, while grinding its teaching and service staff into the dirt. Holloway, the university’s first African-American president and a labor historian, called the strike “unlawful” in a university-wide email sent out before the strike began. He has threatened to use the power of injunction to punish, impose fines and arrest those participating in the strike. The lead negotiator for the university is David Cohen, who was the head of labor relations when then-New Jersey governor Chris Christie was engaged in open warfare with the state’s teachers’ unions. Christie referred to the teachers’ unions as “New Jersey’s version of the Corleones,” the Mafia family from “The Godfather,” and suggested that the leaders of the American Federation of Teachers “deserved a punch in the face.”

The nation’s universities have been deformed into playgrounds for billionaire hedge fund managers and corporate donors. Harvard University will rename its Graduate School of Arts and Sciences after the billionaire hedge fund executive and right-wing Republican donor Kenneth Griffin in honor of his $300 million donation. A decade ago, Harvard renamed the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research after Glenn Hutchins, a private equity oligarch who donated $15 million to the institute. Harvard, to save face, said the famed Du Bois Institute was subsumed into the new entity, but the fact that Du Bois, one of America’s greatest scholars and intellectuals, would have his name replaced by a white equity mogul, lays bare the priorities of Harvard and most colleges and universities.

The public defunding of universities, along with their seizure by corporations and the uber rich, is part of the slow-motion corporate coup d’état. The goal is to enforce conformity and obedience, to train young people to fill their slots in the corporate machine and leave unquestioned the status quo. The accumulation of vast wealth, no matter how nefarious, is prized as the highest good. Those who mold, shape, inspire and educate the young are neglected. Rutgers, like most large universities, pours resources into Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) programs that “Corporate America” values. The fundamental aim of an education, to teach people how to think critically, to grasp and understand the systems of power that dominate our lives, to foster the common good, to construct a life of meaning and purpose, are sidelined, especially with the withering away of the humanities. 

“When I was applying to grad school and talking to my professors about getting a PhD, most of them told me not to do it,” said Anthony, bearded and wearing a black T-shirt with the word Solidarity and a logo with a raised fist clutching a pencil. “Almost all of them said, ‘This profession is dying’, that ‘You’ll never get a job, you’re going to be paid so poorly while you’re in grad school’ and ‘Make sure you have your funding, what matters most is what your funding package is.’ I thought very, very seriously about not doing this, but I was in love with history. I’m good at it. It’s the thing I’m meant to do.”

“It’s really tough,” he added. “There are a lot of times when you’re looking at your bank account and trying to figure out what you can give up to pay the rent.”

Most adjunct professors and graduate workers hang on because of their students, enduring economic instability and job insecurity for those sacred moments in the classroom.

“I feel like I need to be checked into a mental hospital because I keep teaching despite these poverty-level wages,” Hobayan said as she surveyed the picket lines where strikers were chanting “We’re not a corporation! We’re here for education!”

“I love sharing the knowledge that I have gained with other people,” she went on. “I love seeing what happens when the lightbulb goes off in their head. You see it on their faces. They’re like, ‘Oh this is possible! This is what can exist outside of my bubble of knowledge!’ I talk to them a lot about their bubble of knowledge because everyone is in their silos, right? And I say, ‘Have you considered this perspective or have you considered trying this out?’”

She spoke about a student who was a talented writer but who studied engineering because he wanted a job where he could make money. Hobayan steered him towards his passion. He became an English major, got a masters degree and is now an ESL teacher in northern New Jersey.

“He’s happy,” she said. “It sucks that we don’t get compensated for the things we love, the things that change people’s lives, that change the world.”

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