How to Stop the Cuts
Faculty are used to fighting administrators with theorizing and think pieces. That doesn’t work. Here’s what does.
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We have heard far less about how to do it. While there is of course no single blueprint for building faculty power, I suspect the reason we have so much analysis and so few models is because academics tend to overestimate the power of their own craft: marshaling evidence to make a claim about how things were or are or will be. Both analysis and action are necessary — but they are not the same thing.
At the start of my “Introduction to Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies”
course at George Washington University, I explain that while it will teach students how to name problems and even imagine new ways of living, to make practical use of these skills they must become experts on power. Who has it? How do they maintain it? What forms does power take? How do those with less power successfully build more? Why have certain organizing strategies brought losses while others delivered gains? I do not allow my students the false assurance that knowledge alone will make them powerful.
Faculty members shouldn’t either. Even before three months of pandemic analysis, we knew a lot about the costs of turning higher education into a profit-making venture. We are now fully aware that decades of running universities like corporations has left our institutions unable to weather what should be a short-term crisis. This is valuable knowledge, but it alone will not deliver meaningful faculty governance, more tenure-track positions, free public college, or a more equitable educational experience.
To achieve those aims, we need to get clear about how power operates within our respective universities, as well as where our leverage as workers of varying ranks lies. This is how the faculty at Oregon State University, who agreed to terms on their first union contract in May, successfully protected 2,200 workers’ salaries from university deficit reductions during an economic crisis.
Winning is determined by how much pressure those participating are able to create.
This is also how graduate students at Brown University won a historic union contract in the Ivy League this month, granting more than 1,200 workers Covid-19-relief funds and a raise (among other benefits) in the midst of Brown’s salary and hiring freeze.
These winning campaigns begin with what organizers call power mapping. A power map helps organizers identify different stakeholders invested in a particular issue, in order to determine who has the most influence over the thing you want to change. It shows how their various relationships could be leveraged. Before even thinking about a campaign, organizers use this tool to map their target’s contacts and assess which pressure points to lean on in order to force change.
GWUFA’s map illustrates that over his short tenure as president, LeBlanc has systematically placed his former colleagues from the University of Miami in top administrative positions at GW. In some cases, he created brand new positions specifically for them, and one of these posts was filled after the university had placed a freeze on hiring and merit increases. The map also illustrated how LeBlanc has used our university to continue expensive contracts with the Disney Institute — a holdover from his time at the University of Miami. The map combined with other research into the university’s financial situation has enabled GWUFA to resoundingly reject the administration’s story about the necessity of sacrifice in times of crisis.
This rejection is not only a matter of setting the record straight. After all, our faculty association can present reasoned arguments to the Board of Trustees all it wants, but if the faculty has no real power, the board, largely composed of people unfamiliar with the core tenets of higher education, will have the final say. Far more important is how the association’s counternarrative — that GW can weather any short-term losses without layoffs, that the administration’s past decision-making should strip it of any authority over the current financial situation — has the potential to move fellow faculty members to action. Many of the faculty at GW, buoyed by a power analysis of the university, are pledging to use their influence to oppose any layoffs that may still be in the pipeline. Building an active coalition is the only chance you have of making certain those running your university redistribute power downward.
Campaigns are about demands, and winning is determined by how much pressure those participating are able to create. Given the breathtaking mass uprisings against police brutality and white supremacy we are witnessing, I probably do not need to explain that collective action is how the faculty achieves, however momentarily, as much power as the millionaires in charge of our institutions. It may take some getting used to for some, but at the end of the day, becoming an active participant in an organized effort is the only way even leading experts can maximize their campus power. Such organizing means convincing your colleagues that they stand to benefit (even if indirectly) from the demands being issued, and that the only way to win is to act. Power mapping is crucial, and faculty members need to educate themselves about the wider activist arsenal, but all such tactics are merely supplemental to the most powerful tool at our disposal: solidarity with one another.
As the labor negotiator, strategist, and scholar Jane McAlevey has explained, the ability to create a crisis for their employer is what gives workers the power to improve their conditions. While the strike is McAlevey’s preferred example, we have seen from our own administration that there are a variety of ways one can induce crisis. If professors are going to keep administrators from capitalizing on this crisis, we need to turn the tables and become skilled, savvy, relentless organizers hell-bent on making crises work for us, in service of and in solidarity with the most vulnerable in our ranks. We have the evidence. Now we need the courage to act.