Recap: Mini-Conference on “Public Higher Ed and Neoliberalism Today” (10-25-18)

Mini-Conference on “Public Higher Ed and Neoliberalism Today”


“Austerity Blues: Fighting for the Soul of Public Higher Education Today”

Professor Michael Fabricant, Hunter College

Professor Stephen Brier, CUNY Graduate Center

Michael Fabricant is a faculty member at Hunter College. He has served in many roles as a Professional Staff Congress (PSC, the CUNY union for faculty and staff) leader including First Vice President, Treasurer, member of the bargaining team and liaison to CUNY Rising an alliance of 35 student, community and labor organizations. He has also served as the Treasurer of the National Coalition of the Homeless and President of the Elizabeth Coalition for the Homeless. Finally, he was the Executive Officer of the Ph.D. Program in Social Welfare for 13 years at CUNY’s Graduate Center. With Steve Brier he has recently completed the book, “Austerity Blues: Fighting for the Soul of Higher Education”.  He is the author of nine other books and numerous articles.

Stephen Brier is a professor in the Urban Education PhD program and the founding coordinator of the Interactive Technology and Pedagogy certificate program at the CUNY Graduate Center, where he has worked since 1981. He also serves as a consortial faculty member at CUNY’s new School of Labor and Urban Studies where he teaches classes on labor history. A social and labor historian, Brier was the co-founder of CUNY’s American Social History Project and the co-author and co-producer of the ASHP’s multimedia curriculum Who Built America? Brier served for more than a decade as a senior academic administrator at the CUNY Graduate Center and currently is the college’s Senior Academic Technology Officer. He has published widely in a number of academic and popular journals on issues of race, class, and ethnicity in U.S. labor and education history. His most recent book (co-authored with Michael Fabricant) is Austerity Blues: Fighting for the Soul of Public Higher Education (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2016).


Session 1 Slideshow

Click HERE for Plenary Session slideshow


Session 2 Summary by Sarah Davis:

“Work, Unions, and Public Universities in the Northeast: Today’s Struggles and Ways Forward”

Moderator: Michelle Corbin (Worcester State University)


Anne Mcleer, New Faculty Majority

Tony Menelik Van Der Meer, SAVE UMB (Africana Studies; University of Massachusetts Boston)

Anne Roschelle, Radical University Professionals (SUNY-New Paltz),

Jarrod Stranahan, CUNY Struggle (CUNY)



Anne Roschelle: SUNY New Paltz, Radical University Professionals (RUP), former Vice-President for UUP

  • Started Radical University Professionals because frustrated with timeline for change + lack of inclusion of adjuncts, other provisional/part-time faculty members, which other panelists also mentioned in own introductions
  • Working-class instructors overly represented in adjunct, part-time positions – need to address labor, not just in research but in personal/professional lives


Michelle Corbin:

  • Power of organizing comes from members
  • K-12 educators organizing into radical caucuses and need same in higher education
  • Must get out of silos, grow national connections/alliances to understand broader issues (micro to macro), including racialized and gendered austerity measures against/within higher education


Anne McLeer: New Models of Organizing, Activism and Resistance in the Higher Education Faculty Movement

  • SEIU (Service Employees International Union) Local 500 represents adjuncts, graduate students and has improved work conditions, salaries, benefits; still seeking full job equity; negotiates with administration, not through union; two paths = labor management and collective bargaining
  • Metro-strategy in D.C.: can we link faculty members in different institutions (same city) together? Hybrid contracts? Database for jobs, resources? Coalitions with students, other unions to address issues; build vertically on campus then move horizontally across city
  • SEIU has organized 24,000 employees and staff across 60 campuses since 2013
  • Organizing has been happening despite being under attack; looking for new models
  • In Maryland, no collective bargaining for public university faculty; been trying to pass legislation for five years so need new strategy to address broader issues for broader political base
  • At Duke University (private) no collective bargaining rights; entirely different method = voluntary membership, broad range of demands to connect different groups; cannot leave people behind! Otherwise not successful
  • Mobilizing in Florida, as well – broad but intersectional
  • Also mentions New Faculty Majority, Coalition for the Academic Workforce, Bargaining for the Common Good, Just Employment Policy campaigns (only one campus – Georgetown University), UnKoch My Campus combine collective bargaining + community partners, not always directly related to working conditions


Tony Van Der Meer: Save UMB

  • Save UMB developed as reaction to budget cuts, layoffs, raising fees
  • Coalition of unions across campus; staff, not faculty, at forefront of organizing
  • University trying to rebuild itself physically (buildings, grounds, etc.) so money being spent without “results”
  • Talk about working class = missing in a lot in academic circles, conversations
  • Corporate/top-down unionism vs. grassroots organizations (Black Workers for Justice in North Carolina & Virginia); many organizations formed based on segregation, working conditions
  • Even with black national and university leadership, UMB still not able to save budget crisis so black chancellor served as scapegoat, fired; two black female professors not approved for tenure in Africana Studies – led to questions about diversity, gender, class but not supported by union SO organized!
  • Took different approach than union, challenged through CDU (Caucus Democratic Union)
  • Impact of privatization in Boston? UMB only receives 30% from state, so what is role of public institution?
  • Don’t go to Board, go straight to legislature to ask for specific budget lines, bills, etc.


Jarrod Stranahan: CUNY Struggle

  • Graduate student perspective
  • CUNY similar to UMB, decades of austerity measures
  • Organized both within union structure and outside of – emerged out of 1900s as response to bureaucratization of unions, leadership strata emphasized political power as cutting deals with politicians but NOT effective
  • CUNY union gives contractual raises on flat percentage basis (10.5%), does not keep up with inflation; pre-figured strategies, classic “political machine”
  • Union run by and for affluent, full-time faculty
  • “7k or Strike” = initiative for per-course salary; #1 source of union political leverage = going on strike!



  • Have to fight for adjuncts, lecturers
  • Tired of waiting for contract, so started RUP and organizing protests on-campus; tenure-track faculty have to be face, take lead because “protected”; coalition formed with many different groups on-campus, including student organizations
  • What do we do now? How do we keep momentum going?
  • People working on political campaigns because power in NY State is in legislature
  • Historically white women dominate feminist circles, men dominate leftist organizations so need to speak up for diversity, women of color; building coalitions is difficult but necessary



  • How do we grapple with intersectional issues within organizing? How do we navigate, focus our work explicitly on race, class, gender, etc. when creating coalitions, movements, etc.?
  • Women overrepresented among adjuncts, white men dominate unions; creates fractions and affects ability to organize


Van Der Meer:

  • Have to challenge people without polarizing, have to collaborate
  • Diversity is catchphrase for full professors, might spout feminist and anti-racist intentions but have to be “called out” often times
  • Need broad, intersectional conversations – can’t separate
  • How do we achieve equity? What does that look like? What does that mean?



  • People with privilege rise to top because have time, unlike adjunct faculty
  • Need to “slow down” and make sure organizing reflects population; more work to create structure that is representative



  • Biggest evil/tragedy of neoliberal period is parceling out/silo-ing of interests, differences!
  • One of manifestations = chasm between underrepresented faculty, microaggressions & broader economic factors facing adjuncts and students; students & faculty of color “behind” whites so need to explore possibilities of affinities across struggles!
  • Plight of faculty/students of color and adjuncts are inextricably linked because of austerity, attacks on academic market



  • At New Paltz in 1990s, 10 hires in 7 years then crashed
  • Need to hire young people, faculty of color, queer, faculty with disabilities – move away from white hires
  • No evidence at New Paltz that activism is linked to lack of tenure, so RUP is active! New hires are organized, involved
  • Need a bottom-up approach, bring concerns to leadership, “How can we help your community?” not “Here’s what you should do…”
  • Trick to keep pushing issues on president, administration
  • Need to constantly reflect on own practices, not enough to just teach concepts/terms


Audience Questions & Comments

  • Michael Zweig, Retired Economics Professor at Stony Brook:
    1. At Stony Brook trying to get academics involved in UUP but difficult because not valued as legitimate “service” by administration. Trying to work between union and Senate to get recognition
    2. How can we organize without unions? Fair Labor Standards Code of Conduct needs to be presented to administration for signatures, not formal contract but cultural standards of practice. Can different unions work together toward common goals?

Just Employment Project @ Georgetown is only campus that has code of conduct for just labor practices. What others need to succeed is massive mobilization! Institutions don’t care about standards, doing “the right thing” – have to organize students and others in visible way

“Service” is significant! Have to create conditions wherein administration can portray selves as “progressive” – have to manipulate those you work for, what do they want to promote and what is their Achilles’ Heel? Calling work “service” means more people will get involved!

There are good people on the “inside,” but have to push them. Have to be consistent and vigilant

CUNY union is massive (27,000) but run by four people, amount of participation is very low. What does it take to get people interested? National movement of strikes by public school teachers who don’t consider themselves “activists.” People don’t abstain from unions because they don’t care; they stay out of union politics because they don’t see the point. If ordinary people have any hope to make changes in own standards of living, they will mobilize! Striking is illegal, so many are unwilling. Have to fight to get resolutions on the floor but then wildly popular! Linking up with student activists who know adjunct struggle is their struggle

Need to get rid of the word “apathy” because not true! Use “disempowered” or “disenfranchised” instead to be accurate about union members, students

How do we create transformation? Need leadership!


(2) Chris Sellers: What are some practical, concrete steps for action? How do we actually democratize unions?

Created CDU (separate entity) to organize, bring resolutions to union because being censored by leadership

Who is ready to be engaged? Membership doesn’t mean activity/effectiveness, Montgomery Bus Boycott led by citizens who couldn’t even vote! Janus decision, rise of authorianism globally affecting change – how do we consolidate? Network?

Is it better to keep breakaway groups separate? Will new leadership make a difference in UUP? Or is UUP too ineffective? In New York, 64 campuses represented but not getting anything accomplished! Only 29 are in UUP, rest are community colleges with own unions/contracts

Have to bring in younger generations, asking questions about needs, guiding through process by being transparent – students must be onboard! Administration will listen to students more than faculty. The union should be theirs to shape, not older faculty’s to hold on to

Include social media, press to cover organizing, present information, educate community about real issues – communicate with local officials, hold them accountable for campaign promises


(3) Juli Richards, student at Stony Brook: If you tell students about what is really going on, they will show up. I think you may underestimate how much students care about their campus. How can we get more involved?

Students need to see how vulnerable faculty/administration are, be open with one another about struggles; students have parents, too, who can get involved politically, financially, etc.

List of student organizations on campus – look and see which are progressive (e.g. NYPIRG) and get in touch with their leadership! Support their events

Discuss politics, dynamics of university openly with students in classes; build solidarity/mutual understanding that struggles are connected while being careful to acknowledge power differential

3,434 total views, 1 views today