Higher Ed and Labor – 3 Ongoing Stories

Three stories.

1. #SupportTheStrike – Rosa Ines Rivera, a cook at Harvard School of Public Health, writes for the NYTimes that Harvard doesn’t pay her enough to afford healthcare.

On my way to work each morning, I pass a building with the inscription: “The highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being.” If Harvard believes this, why is the administration asking dining hall workers to pay even more for our health care even though some of us pay as much as $4,000 a year in premiums alone?
I serve the people who created Obamacare, people who treat epidemics and devise ways to make the world healthier and more humane. But I can’t afford the health care plan Harvard wants us to accept.
That’s why I have been on strike with 750 co-workers for more than two weeks. That’s why the other day, co-workers and I were arrested after we sat down in Harvard Square, blocking traffic, in an act of civil disobedience. And that’s why the medical school students, in their white coats, have been walking the picket line with us in solidarity.

2. Harvard did reach an agreement with a new graduate student union organizers to allow a vote to go forward. Of course, votes don’t always pass (I voted for a union at UMN twice, never won, thanks largely to a divide between the scientists and the humanities folks. The former wanted to keep getting paid a living wage, while the latter got paid stipends of around $12000 a year).

3. #ContingentAcademicLabor – When OSU moved to semesters from quarters, the university promised the English department 18 additional FT lecturers to handle writing instruction. Then a few years ago, the university stopped funding them, even though the contracts kept being signed. The plan was to cut those workers mid-contract, as Travis Neal detailed.

The short version of the problem goes like this: When the university converted from quarters to semesters a few years ago, the department needed to find a way to cover first year writing courses that had been spread out over three terms and were now compressed into two. Under the quarter system, graduate students teaching one class per term were teaching three courses every year, but under semesters teaching one class per term meant that graduate students were teaching only two classes each year. So what to do for the 1/3 of classes that now had no instructors? As it has recently been explained to the department, “The Provost (three provosts ago) said he would pay the cost–about half a million dollars–for the Lecturers needed to cover those courses. That Provost did cover the cost at first, but over the past three years the funding has ceased to come from OAA. We do not know why. Each year the English Chair would make a “cash request” of the Dean for the half million during the budget process in the Spring, and each year s/he would wait with baited breath to find out shortly before Fall semester started whether the money would come through. This year, we put off hiring the cohort of Associated Faculty whose salaries depend on that money until about 10 days before the first day of classes, and then three days later we learned that we had been given only a fraction of the money requested.”No one has given an explanation for the shortfall, and no one at the College or the Division level appears ready to come up with the money to pay instructors (who let’s not forget already HAVE CONTRACTS FOR THE YEAR).

Thanks to some good organizing, those layoffs have now been postponed. But what happens next? Writing is one of the things colleges are actually pretty good at teaching, but we keep underfunding it, and good writing instruction requires careful 1:1 work between professor and student. Writing instruction should be the center of a collegiate budget focused on bettering students; instead, it’s a place to cut costs.

The American University was never just. Moreover, Harvard is not “the American University.” But the pressures to turn universities into profit centers that intensify rather than reduce class divides are many and are cropping up nearly daily in higher education narratives around the country.

I’m not especially optimistic, except for those moments when I’m in a classroom and my students are blowing me away with their brilliance and drive. In those moments, I think, we have to build better systems.

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