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Another Day, Another Hatchet Job on Anarchism

Is it just me, or has the quality of critiques of anarchism been getting worse lately?

Barnard Professor Sheri Berman’s contribution to Dissent’s Fall 2015 issue (“No Cheers for Anarchism”) makes it clear she holds anarchism — and anarchists — in contempt. I looked for, but sadly could not find, a well-argued reason why. Her essay is plagued by the kind of scattershot superficial analysis, innuendo, and guilt-by-association better suited to a publication like the Weekly Standard than such a storied journal of the left.

Berman's trouble begins when she asserts a fundamental similarity between anarchists and libertarians:

Anarchists dream of a world without states, traditional political organizations, or any other structures that restrict individual freedom. Because they share such beliefs and goals with libertarians, anarchists are easily confused with them. In the American context, at least, the main distinction between the two concerns capitalism: anarchists view it as inherently coercive, while libertarians venerate it as the embodiment and guardian of individual rights. This has led the former to be viewed as left wing and the latter as right wing, but in reality, anarchists differ dramatically from other sectors of the modern left (just as libertarians differ dramatically from traditional conservatives and other factions of the modern right).

While it's true that American libertarians essentially stole their appellation from us ("libertarian" at least in Europe still largely means anarchist), they sadly did not deign to import any of our ideas. Anarchist analysis is fundamentally social and structural, and is the common thread that links our opposition to capitalism and the state, our resistance to all forms of oppression and domination, and our proposal of common ownership of wealth and production through direct democracy. Libertarians, on the other hand, construct their world starting with the atomized individual, resting on a foundation of modern property rights: it is a thoroughly reactionary ideology.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century anarchism’s rejection of traditional political organizations and activity led to its involvement in various uprisings and rebellions, the most important of which was the Paris Commune.

It is strange to see Berman assert that anarchists during that time rejected “traditional political organizations and activity.” I can only assume she means electoral and party politics, which given the time period were anything but traditional. Indeed, Europe has a much longer history of strikes, revolts, and revolutions than of parliaments. Modern European political parties only kicked off in earnest post-1848 while universal suffrage took even longer. And while she claims anarchism is a very different animal from its brethren on the left, anarchists made up a significant portion of the First International, and have joined arms with their fellow socialists in barricades, picket lines, and revolutions ever since.

Odder still, considering how few actual anarchists were there, is Berman’s implication that the Paris Commune was an “anarchist activity”:

Despite their often spectacular nature, anarchist activities were almost uniformly unsuccessful. For example, the Paris Commune’s lack of internal organization, leadership, or agreed-upon goals left it prone to infighting and vulnerable to counter-attack; it was brutally crushed by the forces of counter-revolution.

Given that both Marxists and anarchists spoke highly of the Commune, one suspects there is more to it than Berman lets on. While she pins the blame on a “lack of internal organization, leadership, or agreed-upon goals,” one of the anarchist critiques of the Commune is that while there was plenty of internal organization, it was hobbled by its centralized and bureaucratic nature. As Kropotkin put it:

But in 1871 the people of Paris, which had overthrown so many governments, was only involved in its first attempt at revolt against the governmental system itself: it submitted to governmental fetichism and gave itself a government. We know the consequence. It sent its devoted sons to the Hotel-de-Ville. Indeed, immobilised there by fetters of red tape, forced to discuss when action was needed, and losing the sensitivity that comes from continued contact with the masses, they saw themselves reduced to impotence. Paralysed by their distancing from the revolutionary centre — the people — they themselves paralysed the popular initiative.

Berman then claims that the fin-de-siecle left abandoned anarchism for political parties and trade unions, neglecting to mention that a large majority of anarchists at that time were already moving into the labor movement. While many socialist parties at the time saw trade unions as little more than party recruiting grounds and vehicles for turf wars with other socialists, anarchists placed labor struggles at the heart of revolutionary strategy (exemplified by the prominent rise of anarcho-syndicalism across Europe and Latin America).

Berman correctly notes that after World War I “socialists played a significant role” in governments across Europe:

During the interwar period socialist parties became the bulwarks of democracy in many parts of Europe. Defending democracy meant that socialists needed to win elections and attract the support of the majority, which would in turn require compromises, trade-offs and patience—none of which appealed to anarchists.

While socialists in power were quite successful at breaking strikes and attacking popular movements on their left, they failed at what was possibly their most important task: heading off the rise of nationalism and fascism. The world paid dearly for that failure. In Spain it was the election of a social democrat-led coalition, not anarchist agitation (as Berman alleges), that spurred Franco’s coup. Were it not for the immediate actions taken by the UGT and anarchist-led CNT trade unions to arm and mobilize the population, against a backdrop of paralysis on the part of the government, Franco’s victory likely would have been nearly instantaneous.

Similarly, Berman’s analysis of the 1960s is painfully incomplete. Claiming the post-1945 social democratic order “undergirded an unprecedented period of consolidated democracy, economic growth, and social stability in Europe and the West,” she neglects to mention the mountains of stolen resources and millions of bodies across Asia and Africa on which that order depended. Nor does she mention that the anti-colonial, anti-imperialist project was central to the radical left of the 1960s, simply stating that “many anarchist-influenced ‘New Left’ and counter-culture movements (including punk and the Yippies in the United States, and squatters movements in many European cities) attack[ed] the reigning ‘bourgeois, capitalist’ order.” The only time Berman bothers to reach outside the comforts of the West is for a few bogeymen:

Some praised the likes of Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong, and Fidel Castro—hardly icons of freedom—and showed scorn for public opinion and for the “masses” who didn’t share their vision of the world.

Trying to hang those three around anarchism’s neck — none of whom were remotely anarchist, and in the case of Castro, actively jailed and murdered Cuban anarchists? The mind boggles.

In the post-Cold War era, anarchism has emerged as arguably the most energetic current on the left in the U.S. Berman dismisses Occupy Wall Street as a flash in the pan, little more than “theatrics” with “ephemeral impact.” While neither OWS nor the many successful campaigns and movements it birthed were majority anarchist, their tools, sensibilities and outlook drew heavily from that tradition. And too many progressives forget that over the course of a few months, OWS dramatically changed the bounds of mainstream economic and political debate (remember the summer preceding it, when matters of wealth inequality and Wall Street were permanently sidelined to debt ceilings and austerity packages?). That’s something for which the Elizabeth Warrens and Bernie Sanderses of the world should thank their friendly neighborhood anarchist.

Berman reaches peak superficiality as she concludes her essay by way of former congressman Barney Frank, a man whose blinkered conception of social change can only be measured in angry letters and phone calls to the Capitol switchboard:

In his recent book, Barney Frank, for example, contrasted the National Rifle Association’s persistent grassroots organizing and resultant ability to mobilize supporters to flood lawmakers’ offices with letters and calls and to vote as a bloc, with the inclination of many on the left to “hold public demonstrations, in which like-minded people gather to reassure each other of their beliefs.” Frank goes on to argue that “if you care deeply about an issue and are engaged in group activity on its behalf that is fun and inspiring and heightens your sense of solidarity with others . . . you are most certainly not doing your cause any good.”

There’s quite a bit of confusion here, not least of which is the implication that social movements (let alone anarchist-inspired ones) desire the same scope and scale of change that the NRA does. I for one am glad that so many movements reject the Berman-Frank model of social change. From immigrant rights (in both the Americas and Europe) to service sector unionization, from campaigns against fossil fuel projects to the 2012 Québec student strike, anarchists are at the forefront and in the trenches, helping shape analysis and strategy. Instead of petitioning their elected officials, they are doing what every successful movement has done: changing the reality on the ground so starkly and fundamentally that political and economic elites are forced to accommodate.

Ultimately, the shadow that hangs over Berman’s entire essay is cast not by anarchism, but by the colossal wreckage of social democracy.

Berman approvingly quotes François Mitterand’s denunciation of Paris protesters in May 1968: “what a mish-mash of quasi-Marxism, what hotch-potch, what confusion.” While she contents to caricature one of the most important events of the twentieth century, the quote much more accurately describes Mitterand’s own panicked and confused descent into austerity when faced with all the terrible demands of capital but none of the workers and youth on the streets to force him to live up to his socialist promises.

For decades now, social democratic parties across the West have taken up the mantle of hatchet men for the interests of capital. It is austerity imposed by the “left” that cuts deepest and is hardest to oppose. This slow self-immolation by socialist parties, stretching from London to Athens and Paris to Berlin, reminds us that we can’t administer our way out of the horrors of capitalism. While those on the electoral left — the true starry-eyed utopians — propose yet another round of minor fixes to capitalism’s foundational deformities, anarchists and our allies will keep fighting for and building a liberated world, one that needs neither capitalists nor their reluctant stewards.

What we can learn from Missouri students' epic win

One could argue that Tim Wolfe's brief presidency at the University of Missouri lived — and died — by the football team.

Wolfe's selection as President in December 2011 came just days after UM-Columbia announced that it was changing its NCAA conference, leaving the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference (SEC). Years of stagnant state funding was a big factor in the move, which cost quite a bit up-front but held the potential for significant revenues and increased broadcast royalties down the road. So far, the gamble has paid off: UM has garnered almost $10 million in profits from athletics programs in the first two years of SEC membership, the largest portion coming from football ticket sales.

Wolfe knew the power and importance of athletics to a large public university, and did everything he could to aggrandize it — including pushing a $72 million expansion of of the Tigers' football stadium. It turns out that UM football players knew their power too. On November 8, this iconic image was Tweeted out: 

 The very next day, Football Coach Gary Pinkel upped the stakes:

It's at this point that the mainstream media picked up on the story — as usual in the case of social movements and protests, media coverage started near the end, not the beginning. Very few cameras were around at the start of grad student Jonathan Butler's hunger strike. There were no reporters around to cover the months of painstaking face-to-face organizing work done by MU students, including the new group Concerned Student 1950. And UM's long history of being an institution fundamentally hostile to black students and workers was little more than background noise.

In the midst of a fall semester punctuated by racial slurs and intimidation against Black students, Concerned Student 1950 members disrupted UM's homecoming parade directly in front of President Wolfe's red convertible and reminded him of that history:

Jonathan Butler began his hunger strike on Monday, November 2, vowing to continue until Wolfe resigned or was forced out by the Board of Curators. All week he was joined at Traditions Plaza by a growing group of students and tents. By the weekend, momentum was clearly on the students' side. Undergrad student government president Payton Head (himself a victim of racial abuse on campus earlier this fall) was publicly in support, along with many college activist organizations, and UM's English department voted no confidence in Wolfe on Tuesday over a number of issues.

The details aren't clear over how the football team got involved, but as far as we can tell late last week a player met with Concerned Student 1950 members to see what the team could to to support Butler. Over the course of the weekend the rest of the dominoes fell: an awkward response from Wolfe to protesters at UM-Kansas City Friday night went viral; the football team and coaches came out against Wolfe, as did an official resolution by the SGA; late Sunday faculty members announced a walk-out of classes all Monday and Tuesday and promised a teach-in; two graduate student organizations, the Forum on Graduate Rights and the Coalition of Graduate Workers, called for a strike Monday and Tuesday; the Kansas City Star published a pointed editorial calling for Wolfe to step down.

Sunday evening, while 150 protesters in coats and tents vowed to occupy Traditions Plaza until Wolfe was removed, the University of Missouri's Board of Curators announced an emergency closed-door session for 10am the next morning. Wolfe announced his resignation late Monday morning. UM Chancellor Loftin will be gone from his post as of January 1. The Board also announced several new initiatives which, while seemingly drawn from Concerned Student 1950's list of demands, were for the most part vague and noncommittal.

For a detailed and much more comprehensive timeline of events, check out this Slate article.

While students didn't get everything they wanted and the struggle continues, the relative swiftness of victory here is worth examining. Some things that organizers got right:

1. They escalated their tactics. As support grew, students engaged in increasingly confrontational and risky actions.

2. They mobilized all sectors of the university. Student, athlete, faculty and staff organizations were contacted and included in their efforts and encouraged to take action.

3. They knew the political landscape they were working in. UM-Columbia is a two hour drive from Ferguson. Hunger striker Jonathan Butler visited Ferguson after Mike Brown's murder and was radicalized by the events he saw there and around the country. Black Lives Matter protesters over the past year have shown how to put members of the ruling class — even liberals — on the defensive. Reminiscent of the massive growth in Occupy Wall Street occupations across the country, BLM's strategies and tactics, even down to their chants, have spread organically from coast to coast. UM SGA Vice President Brenda Smith-Lezama has noted that the post-Ferguson era has seen a huge increase in the quantity and quality of campus organizing.

3. They knew the administration's pressure points, and pushed on them. The addition of the UM football team and coaches by all reports seems to be the straw that broke the camel's back. Football is without a doubt key to UM's financial future, from ticket sales to royalties to high-dollar alumni donations. The coaches turned out to be the layer of university administration easiest to pry away, and pry they did. This was a direct, serious threat to the the university's purse strings.

It's easy to imagine that in the absence of the football team's strike we would still see the struggle continuing with no clear end in sight. We'd likely see more no confidence votes, larger protests, additional hunger strikers, and perhaps a building occupation. While collegiate athletics has recently been in the news as student athletes fight for improved conditions, compensation, and even union recognition, the active injection of a team into a non-sports political issue is incredibly rare. Because this development was so unheard of and unexpected, the tone of campaign shifted immediately. Even the most cynical heads turned.

Sunday afternoon's striking visual of their coaches locking arms in solidarity meant that the administration's public unity was broken. The financial threat of a striking football team was something the administration and Board decided it simply could not bear. Saul Alinsky exhorted organizers to act outside their target's experience. The football strike is a textbook example of just that. With this in mind it's worth considering why so many student activists and groups are vehemently anti-sports, and whether their disinterest in campus athletics is actually a huge tactical mistake (spoiler alert: it is!).

In the coming days and weeks we'll hear more from students and faculty about this past week and the work that led up to it. It's incumbent upon us all to learn from their hard-fought victory as we continue our own struggles, and to support UM students as they continue to fight against white supremacy on and off campus.

UPDATE: Dave Zirin over at The Nation has pointed out that UM would have forteited $1 million if the football team had missed this weekend's game at BYU. Ouch.

 

Tuition-backing Cooper Union trustees resign, act like sore losers [HUGE UPDATE]

UPDATE AT THE BOTTOM OF THE POST.

Last night, we learned that five trustees of the Cooper Union suddenly resigned from the board, including the board's recent chairman Mark Epstein. While all five supported Cooper Union's disastrous decision to start charging tuition, Epstein was its head architect and cheerleader. This is an unambiguous victory for anti-tuition organizers and activists, and a victory for the future of Cooper Union.

In addition to these facts, we also learned that Epstein is bitter, bitter man — and a sore loser. Here is his resignation letter:

All,

I am writing to you from under two hats. One as trustee, and one as donor.

As a Trustee, I am hereby resigning from the Board, effective immediately. During my term as Chairman we were able to put the school on a path to sustainability. It was going to be a difficult path with some hurdles to get over. We were on our way, but have now gotten so far off of that path due to the actions (or inactions) of the Board that I no longer want to participate. I know that there are some in the Cooper Community that will take my resignation as a false victory of some sort. I am not resigning due to any pressure from that group, rather that I no longer want to associate with them.

As a donor, I am withdrawing my financial support for the college. Although I respect the rights of those of the faculty, alumni, and students, to act as they see fit, I no longer want to support them.

If the schools fail in the future, it will not be due to the change in the scholarship policy (a major part of the sustainability plan) as some will claim. It will be due to the organized opposition to it.

I’ve spent a good part of the last 30 years being pretty active for the benefit of The Cooper Union. These were not easy decisions to make.

Thank you,

Mark Epstein

Chairman Emeritus

As Epstein's parting shot is written with two hats, let's examine each.

As a trustee, he starts with patting himself on the back for putting Cooper Union "on a path to sustainability," which is highly dubious, given his extensive efforts at alienating and infuriating every single constituency at the school, along with his presence on the board since 2004, which meant he "was intimately involved in most of Cooper Union’s worst decisions." The only path Epstein could reliably claim to have put Cooper Union on is one that leads straight to the NY Attorney General's office.

By going out of his way to state that "some" people "will take my resignation as a false victory of some sort," he's simply verifying that yes, this is an actual victory — of the best sort. And then he tries to cover for any negative effects of this public tantrum by declaring that if Cooper Union fails in the future, it won't be the fault of him, the wealthy trustee running away as fast as he can with all his money, but in fact those who most want CU to remain true to the vision of Peter Cooper.

As a donor, Cooper Union's coffers would be full were it that banks took irony as currency — Epstein is doing the exact thing he chastised other CU alumni for doing. I'll let Angus Johnston explain:

Mark Epstein, who today said that he is “withdrawing [his] financial support from Cooper Union” because he doesn’t support the policies of the majority of the CU trustees, said this in 2011:

“If [alumni] are that pissed off about Cooper Union and don’t want to give back, then I suggest they give back their degrees. You I mean, how do you answer a question like this: why don’t people give back to a school that gave them a free education worth now a hundred-some-odd thousand dollars? To me it’s baffling, it truly is.”

And yes, Epstein is a Cooper Union grad.

It’s baffling. It truly is.

Epstein's entire letter reads with the same kind of pouty harumphing that a child exhibits when he announces that he's going to bed not because his mother told him to, but because he wants to.

But what's particularly interesting is that this turn of events is the exact opposite of what usually happens with activist campaigns in higher ed. Traditionally, administrators can simply outwait their student opponents: most of the dedicated organizers are juniors or seniors so regardless of the ruckus they raise, within several months it'll be summer and many will be graduated, too busy scrambling to pay back their loans to stick around the campus and keep up the fight. At Cooper Union, the student movement (and its allies) essentially outlasted the administration. I'd peg that on two reasons: they 1) were able to keep up enthusiasm and participation over the long haul, maintaining momentum over summer breaks and pulling first-years into the fold; and 2) were able to bring significant outside institutional pressure to bear, in the form of their lawsuit against the trustees, a serious investigation by NY Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, and of course the ongoing negative media coverage as a result.

The departure of five pro-tuition trustees has instantly and significantly altered the balance of power within Cooper's board. Apparently the board is meeting today, so hopefully we'll get a public statement soon. If I were a member of Free Cooper Union, I'd be dusting off the Working Group Proposal and prepping for another board vote. Though first I'd be throwing a massive party. This is a huge victory that organizers and activists have 100% earned, and it's hopefully a beacon that can light a path to a free, open, and democratic Cooper Union.


UPDATE: via email, it has been announced that Cooper Union President Jamshed Bharucha is stepping down!

He'll be gone effective July 1, 2015. Perhaps AG Schneiderman gave the trustees a quiet nod that this would make life easier for them? I've pasted the email here below:

Subject: Presidential Transition

From: The Cooper Union <alumni@cooper.edu>

To: All community and alumni

Date: Wednesday, June 10, 2015 7:09 PM

Dear Members of the Cooper Union Community:

I am writing to let you know that I will be leaving my post as President of The Cooper Union at the end of June, 2015. Starting in the fall, I will serve as Visiting Scholar at Harvard University in the Graduate School of Education.

It has been an honor to serve as the 12th President of Cooper Union these past four years. The focus of my presidency has been to secure Cooper’s finances for generations of deserving students in the future, while preserving excellence and increasing socio-economic access.

The class completing its freshman year was the first to be admitted under the 2013 Financial Sustainability Plan, and the class just admitted will be the second. These two classes uphold Cooper’s unparalleled standard of excellence. With need-based financial aid, we have also been able to increase access to those who can least afford it, as shown by an increase in the proportion of students eligible for Federal Pell Grants.

Jessie and I want to thank all the students, faculty, alumni, donors, friends, and neighbors whom we have been privileged to meet during our stay at Cooper, and we wish you all the very best.

Jamshed Bharucha

President

On June 10, 2015, the Cooper Union Board of Trustees released the following statement:

The Board of Trustees is grateful to Jamshed Bharucha for his service as the 12th President of Cooper Union.

The financial exigencies with which he was confronted upon his arrival were not of his making and he deserves credit for sounding the alarm about the need to take urgent action to ensure Cooper Union’s long-term financial sustainability.

We wish President Bharucha all the best in his future endeavors, and have agreed to name him President Emeritus effective July 1, 2015.

The board has asked Cooper’s vice president for finance and administration, William Mea, to assume interim leadership responsibilities on July 1. In the fall, the board will form a presidential search committee that will include representation from the faculty, students and alumni.

Mea, who is currently responsible for financial planning and budgeting, the controller’s office, human resources, information technology, public safety, facilities and legal affairs, joined Cooper in September 2014.

State of the Union 2015: Higher Ed (Updated)

State of the Union 2015

The annual State of the Union Address is a key aspect of the political spectacle of the modern Presidency. While the SOTU is actually a codified mandate in the U.S. Constitution, only in the 20th Century has it become a regular (and now annual) speech delivered to Congress — previously it had generally been a written document sent and read by a clerk. While the first broadcast SOTU was Calvin Coolidge's in 1923, via radio, the Address' central position in American political life was cemented with the first TV broadcast of Harry Truman's speech in 1947.

It's in these addresses that Presidents announce new policy goals, attempt to shore up public support, try out new narrative and rhetorical frames to shape the political landscape for the coming year, and in most cases, assiduously avoid going into detail.

When it comes to Higher Education, the U.S. Federal government plays a much more hands-off role than most other nations. Because Federal support of public higher education has always assumed state establishment, regulation, and control (starting with the Morrill Land-Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890), much of what can be done at the Federal level has to do with funding. What little rule-making is done is usually in the context of eligibility tests for funds (like the atrocious Solomon Amendment).

The usual suspects in Federal higher ed policy debates are loan and grant programs — Pell, Stafford, Perkins, PLUS, etc. Proposals often deal with them at one or both ends: how much the students get, and how much they have to pay back. While there is usually tweaking of the size of Pell grants or Stafford Loans, nobody expects them to approach the percentage of tuition cost that they once did. One modest improvement enacted in 2010 is that Pell grant increases are now automatic, and pegged to the rate of inflation + 1%. That being said, Pell grants are now limited to 12 full-time semesters (down from 18), and the maximum award of $5,730 will now only be automatically granted is your family income is below $23,000 (down from $30k). In addition, for graduate students, Stafford Loans will no longer be subsidized (i.e. accrued interest is no longer waived during your time in school or during deferment). Bad news for the students who need financial support the most.

However, the biggest policy shift over the past six years has been the expansion and refinement of the Income-Based Repayment Plan (IBR). For those who can enroll, IBR caps loan payments at a percentage of your income and forgives whatever's left on the loan after a certain number of years (notably this does not apply to private loans, which can be the harshest burdens of all). As of right now, for most with student loans, IBR is capped at 15% of your income over 25 years. Congress changed that, so starting in 2014 the cap is now 10% of your income over 20 years.

Since this site is called "For Student Power" after all, I feel obligated to point out that issues of power and governance never, ever come up in higher ed policy, and certainly never in a rhetorical event like the SOTU — except in the shallowest of forms, consumer power.

2015

Given recent proposals, we can make a reasonable guess as to what will be said tonight.

As he announced it earlier this month, President Obama's signature higher education proposal will likely be his push to make two years of community college tuition-free. Under this plan, the Federal government would pay for 75% of tuition provided that states chip in the rest. Students have to keep a GPA of at least 2.5 and be enrolled part-time. This tuition assistance would be in addition to Pell grants, so students would be able to use Pell money to pay for other education-related expenses: things like books and transportation, but not off-campus housing (which is what nearly all community college students have). All this — roughly $60 billion per year — would be funded by new taxes on the top 1% of earners.

But of course, there's a lot more to the pricetag of community college than tuition. As Chris Hicks at Jobs with Justice points out:

Four out of 10 community college students graduate with an average of $14,000 in student loans, and more than 20 percent of these graduates will wind up defaulting on those loans. [...]

Tuition only makes up about 21 percent of the cost of attendance (or $3,347 in the latest academic year, according to the College Board). Instead, the bulk of the costs facing community college are actually spent on housing ($7,705), books ($1,328) and transportation ($1,735).

And the requirements placed on community colleges have been kept vague. What the White House means by "Colleges must also adopt promising and evidence-based institutional reforms to improve student outcomes" remains to be outlined, and this would be a big means of imposing horrendous corporate-style ed reform currently dominating K-12 education across the country. Bill Gates has said that community colleges are great places for his kind of reform, in large part because faculty are almost entirely adjunct — there's very little to keep administrators from making whatever drastic changes they want. Pushing universal standardized tests on all colleges was a dream of the Bush Administration, and similar moves are being attempted at the state level. Be on the lookout for "accountability" being posited as a solution to every ill, from high tuition costs to low graduate employment.

While any tax increase (arguably anything at all) that Obama proposes will likely be DOA given the Republican-controlled Congress, the President did float several targeted education-related tax cuts and credits, including making Pell grant money tax-free (read more about them here). It's possible some of them may pass inside a larger GOP bill as a "sweetener" to pull in Senate Democrats and the White House. Given the improbability of its passage in the next two years, one has to wonder aloud why Obama launched this proposal, which seems tailor-made to excite his base, at such an electorally inopportune time. Wouldn't it have been more useful to propose this — or something even more ambitious — before November 2014?

UPDATE: Here's President Obama's 2015 SOTU address. Here are the higher ed passages below — nothing surprising:

That’s why I am sending this Congress a bold new plan to lower the cost of community college — to zero.

Forty percent of our college students choose community college. Some are young and starting out. Some are older and looking for a better job. Some are veterans and single parents trying to transition back into the job market. Whoever you are, this plan is your chance to graduate ready for the new economy, without a load of debt. Understand, you’ve got to earn it — you’ve got to keep your grades up and graduate on time. Tennessee, a state with Republican leadership, and Chicago, a city with Democratic leadership, are showing that free community college is possible. I want to spread that idea all across America, so that two years of college becomes as free and universal in America as high school is today. And I want to work with this Congress, to make sure Americans already burdened with student loans can reduce their monthly payments, so that student debt doesn’t derail anyone’s dreams.

For reference, below are the relevant SOTU passages about higher ed for the last six years:

2014:

The Joining Forces alliance that Michelle and Jill Biden launched has already encouraged employers to hire or train nearly 400,000 veterans and military spouses.  Taking a page from that playbook, the White House just organized a College Opportunity Summit where already, 150 universities, businesses, and nonprofits have made concrete commitments to reduce inequality in access to higher education – and help every hardworking kid go to college and succeed when they get to campus.

Five years ago, we set out to change the odds for all our kids.  We worked with lenders to reform student loans, and today, more young people are earning college degrees than ever before.

We’re working to redesign high schools and partner them with colleges and employers that offer the real-world education and hands-on training that can lead directly to a job and career. We’re shaking up our system of higher education to give parents more information, and colleges more incentives to offer better value, so that no middle-class kid is priced out of a college education. We’re offering millions the opportunity to cap their monthly student loan payments to ten percent of their income, and I want to work with Congress to see how we can help even more Americans who feel trapped by student loan debt. And I’m reaching out to some of America’s leading foundations and corporations on a new initiative to help more young men of color facing tough odds stay on track and reach their full potential.

2013:

Right now, countries like Germany focus on graduating their high school students with the equivalent of a technical degree from one of our community colleges. So those German kids, they're ready for a job when they graduate high school. They've been trained for the jobs that are there. Now at schools like P-Tech in Brooklyn, a collaboration between New York Public Schools and City University of New York and IBM, students will graduate with a high school diploma and an associate's degree in computers or engineering. We need to give every American student opportunities like this.

Through tax credits, grants and better loans, we’ve made college more affordable for millions of students and families over the last few years. But taxpayers can’t keep on subsidizing higher and higher and higher costs for higher education. Colleges must do their part to keep costs down, and it’s our job to make sure that they do.

So tonight, I ask Congress to change the Higher Education Act so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid. And tomorrow, my administration will release a new “College Scorecard” that parents and students can use to compare schools based on a simple criteria -- where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.

2012:

Jackie Bray is a single mom from North Carolina who was laid off from her job as a mechanic. Then Siemens opened a gas turbine factory in Charlotte, and formed a partnership with Central Piedmont Community College. The company helped the college design courses in laser and robotics training. It paid Jackie’s tuition, then hired her to help operate their plant.

I want every American looking for work to have the same opportunity as Jackie did. Join me in a national commitment to train 2 million Americans with skills that will lead directly to a job. My administration has already lined up more companies that want to help. Model partnerships between businesses like Siemens and community colleges in places like Charlotte, and Orlando, and Louisville are up and running. Now you need to give more community colleges the resources they need to become community career centers -– places that teach people skills that businesses are looking for right now, from data management to high-tech manufacturing.

When kids do graduate, the most daunting challenge can be the cost of college. At a time when Americans owe more in tuition debt than credit card debt, this Congress needs to stop the interest rates on student loans from doubling in July.

Extend the tuition tax credit we started that saves millions of middle-class families thousands of dollars, and give more young people the chance to earn their way through college by doubling the number of work-study jobs in the next five years.

Of course, it’s not enough for us to increase student aid. We can’t just keep subsidizing skyrocketing tuition; we’ll run out of money. States also need to do their part, by making higher education a higher priority in their budgets. And colleges and universities have to do their part by working to keep costs down.

Recently, I spoke with a group of college presidents who’ve done just that. Some schools redesign courses to help students finish more quickly. Some use better technology. The point is, it’s possible. So let me put colleges and universities on notice: If you can’t stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down. Higher education can’t be a luxury -– it is an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford.

Let’s also remember that hundreds of thousands of talented, hardworking students in this country face another challenge: the fact that they aren’t yet American citizens.

2011:

America has fallen to 9th in the proportion of young people with a college degree. And so the question is whether all of us – as citizens, and as parents – are willing to do what’s necessary to give every child a chance to succeed.

Of course, the education race doesn’t end with a high school diploma. To compete, higher education must be within reach of every American. That’s why we’ve ended the unwarranted taxpayer subsidies that went to banks, and used the savings to make college affordable for millions of students. And this year, I ask Congress to go further, and make permanent our tuition tax credit – worth $10,000 for four years of college.

Because people need to be able to train for new jobs and careers in today’s fast-changing economy, we are also revitalizing America’s community colleges. Last month, I saw the promise of these schools at Forsyth Tech in North Carolina. Many of the students there used to work in the surrounding factories that have since left town. One mother of two, a woman named Kathy Proctor, had worked in the furniture industry since she was 18 years old. And she told me she’s earning her degree in biotechnology now, at 55 years old, not just because the furniture jobs are gone, but because she wants to inspire her children to pursue their dreams too. As Kathy said, “I hope it tells them to never give up.”

If we take these steps – if we raise expectations for every child, and give them the best possible chance at an education, from the day they’re born until the last job they take – we will reach the goal I set two years ago: by the end of the decade, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

One last point about education. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of students excelling in our schools who are not American citizens. Some are the children of undocumented workers, who had nothing to do with the actions of their parents. They grew up as Americans and pledge allegiance to our flag, and yet live every day with the threat of deportation. Others come here from abroad to study in our colleges and universities. But as soon as they obtain advanced degrees, we send them back home to compete against us. It makes no sense.

Starting this year, no American will be forbidden from serving the country they love because of who they love. And with that change, I call on all of our college campuses to open their doors to our military recruiters and the ROTC.

2010:

Still, in this economy, a high school diploma no longer guarantees a good job. I urge the Senate to follow the House and pass a bill that will revitalize our community colleges, which are a career pathway to the children of so many working families. To make college more affordable, this bill will finally end the unwarranted taxpayer-subsidies that go to banks for student loans. Instead, let’s take that money and give families a $10,000 tax credit for four years of college and increase Pell Grants. And let’s tell another one million students that when they graduate, they will be required to pay only ten percent of their income on student loans, and all of their debt will be forgiven after twenty years – and forgiven after ten years if they choose a career in public service. Because in the United States of America, no one should go broke because they chose to go to college. And it’s time for colleges and universities to get serious about cutting their own costs – because they too have a responsibility to help solve this problem.

2009:

Because of this plan, families who are struggling to pay tuition costs will receive a $2,500 tax credit for all four years of college. 

In the wake of war and depression, the GI Bill sent a generation to college and created the largest middle-class in history.

And half of the students who begin college never finish.

This is a prescription for economic decline, because we know the countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow.  That is why it will be the goal of this administration to ensure that every child has access to a complete and competitive education – from the day they are born to the day they begin a career.

We have made college affordable for nearly seven million more students.

And so tonight, I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training.  This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship.  But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma.  And dropping out of high school is no longer an option.  It’s not just quitting on yourself, it’s quitting on your country – and this country needs and values the talents of every American.  That is why we will provide the support necessary for you to complete college and meet a new goal:  by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

I know that the price of tuition is higher than ever, which is why if you are willing to volunteer in your neighborhood or give back to your community or serve your country, we will make sure that you can afford a higher education.  And to encourage a renewed spirit of national service for this and future generations, I ask this Congress to send me the bipartisan legislation that bears the name of Senator Orrin Hatch as well as an American who has never stopped asking what he can do for his country – Senator Edward Kennedy.

 

 

Trustees: a Legion of Doom on every campus

Meanwhile, at the Board of Trustees...

Boards of Trustees (or Regents, Visitors, etc.) are as old as American colleges themselves. The University of Virginia's initial Board of Visitors included two Presidents —Thomas Jefferson and James Madison — and a host of local and national politicians. Compared with UVa's all-white all-male board in 1819, the past two centuries haven't done much to improve diversity. Across the country, more than 2/3 of all trustees are men, and more than 3/4 are white. However, the occupational makeup of boards has changed considerably. Elected officials make up less than a tenth of trustees these days, while 49% categorized under the heading of "business" — people like business owners, executives, middle management, bankers, and the like. Only 15.5% are considered to have a professional background of "education."

And as one would imagine, the relative stature and importance of the trustees varies by the stature and importance of the institution. At my alma mater, Moravian College, their trustees comprise mostly local and regional business executives and attorneys. But join NYU's Board of Trustees and you'll find yourself in a much more exclusive club. There you'll rub elbows with people like Bloomberg empire co-founder Charles Zegar, the Vice President of UnitedHealth Group, and execs from a dizzying array of real estate and financial investment firms.

While the member selection process varies, the structural function remains the same. Trustee boards are an opening for universities to sink their claws into the ranks of the elite; naturally it's also an opening for the elite sink their claws into universities. University presidents gain access to new high-dollar donors, increasingly complicated endowment investments, and firm allies in the quest for increased administration size and control. Board members gain the social prestige that all charitable efforts by the 1% engender and an outlet for one of the favorite pastimes of the business class: dispensing advice for which their only qualification is their wealth. Even more important, they also get privileged access to the financial decisions of multi-million (sometimes multi-billion) dollar organizations. An investigation by the Chronicle of Higher Education found that one out of every four private colleges directly do business with their trustees, which can take the form of noncompetitive contracts for construction, financial investment of endowment funds. The Chronicle's example of St. Olaf College is particularly revealing:

At St. Olaf College, the Boldt Company has completed or is working on $125-million worth of campus building projects. In 2007-8 alone, the company was paid nearly $40-million by the college.

The CEO of the company, Thomas J. Boldt, a St. Olaf alumnus, served on its Board of Trustees for 12 years before stepping down last year (board members can serve up to two six-year terms). Both Mr. Boldt and college officials say there was no competitive-bidding process for the projects his company managed, although Paula Carlson, a vice president at St. Olaf and liaison to the board, says there is "always a review of the cost" of a project, to make sure it is reasonable.

Asked if the college might have been charged a lower price if others had been allowed to bid on projects, Mr. Boldt calls that a "hard question to answer" because of the complexity of the design-and-construction process. He says his company works closely with clients to make sure buildings fit their needs. St. Olaf, he adds, has been happy with the work that Boldt has done.

But the effects of corporate board members go beyond sweetheart deals. Boards have been the primary conduit for introducing market structures and practices into higher education over the past several decades, primarily through drafting budgets and selecting university presidents.

When boards occasionally overreach, their crisis of legitimacy, always simmering just below the surface, threatens to boil over. The crisis of legitimacy can be found in the campus cohabitation of both the autocracy of the Board and the vestigial faculty guild-democracy of academic life. Faculty members in many cases still elect their department chairs and deans and participate in all-faculty governing bodies, but are subject to presidents picked by unelected outsiders. This is not a tension found in corporate boards of directors because they pin their legitimacy to the shareholders they represent: there is no need for even a pretense of caring about the opinions of workers. Outside the scope of this post but worth looking into as a case study is Dartmouth's board, which saw a protracted fight over the proportion of seats nominated by alumni.

At last count, 70% of public universities had student trustees, compared to only 20% of private universities. Faculty trustees are much less common, only seen at 13% of public and 15% of private universities. Part of the reason for the dearth in faculty participation is due to state labor laws — generally speaking, if public university faculty are represented by a union, they can't take part in management.

Either university boards are dispassionate caretakers of an institution they have no strong ties to (the governance equivalent of a blind trust, and in the case of public institutions, ensuring prudent management of taxpayer dollars), or boards represent those who are affected by the decisions they make. The halfhearted attempt at many institutions to reach a "happy medium" with token constituent representatives has only drawn them further into controversy and general hatred.

Why is that? Because the rationale for adding faculty or student trustees to a board obliterates the rationale for keeping the rest. If the board admits it needs expertise that can only be found in campus constituent groups, we suddenly move from a question of "should the board be representative?" to "how representative should the board be?" Why couldn't the board made entirely of, for example, faculty representatives with a few token seats for outsiders with specialized expertise? Or entirely of students? Once the leak in the dyke is sprung, the end result only depends on the pressure exerted upon it.

None of this is news for trade groups like the Association of Governing Boards Of Universities and Colleges (AGB), which opposes the introduction of either student or faculty trustees. Their primer on student trustees makes several arguments against schools adding students to their boards, at least one of which is an argument we would use as well:

Creating a student trustee position may lead faculty, staff, alumni, and others to argue for a seat in the boardroom, and having numerous places set aside for specific constituencies could dilute the influence of the board’s lay trustees.

AGB also posits what for them must be a terrifying, untenable situation: "since boards have the final say on student tuition, how can [student trustees] ethically vote on tuition issues if their student members are directly affected by board decisions?"

Not that, in truth, many boards should have reason to fear. When student trustees earn headlines, it's usually them acting against student interests. At Indiana University in 2012, a vocal student protest was held inside IU's Board of Trustees meeting due to a number of issues, first and foremost the simultaneous 5% tuition hike and 21% raise for IU's President the board unanimously approved the previous summer. After the students had ground the meeting to a halt more than once through the use of a people's mic (what one older trustee hilariously denounced as "the robotics"), the board chair deployed the only countermeasure he had, short of telling the police to haul them all out. He gave the floor to the Student Trustee, Cora Griffin, who told the protesters that the board had to get through its agenda for the day, "but there are certainly channels to speak with any of us," and reminded them that they "work very closely with student governments."

That same year at Ohio University, student trustee Allison Arnold voiced her support for a tuition hike and a raise for President McDavis. OU's two student trustees, who are non-voting members of the Board, both believed that "voting rights are unnecessary due to the good working relationship between the administration and themselves."

Arnold said that voting rights would be inappropriate because Student Trustees are consumers of the university and could confuse their student interests with those of the University. “If we’re customers can we really be the management?” she said. Roden also pointed out that if voting rights were in place, Student Trustees could be harmed by students who dislike their decision making.

“Unlike us, students can’t stand outside [the voting trustees] houses and picket them. They don’t get backlash from professors and students… there’s a safety issue,” she said.

Safety on campus is of course incredibly important. I have never come across, however, any instance of a student's safety put at risk based on votes she or he has made (if people have, please post in the comments), and there are plenty of controversial votes that can and do occur in plain ol' student government. If safety were to become a problem for voting student trustees, the solution is to create a safer environment on campus, not to stifle student participation.

Those few student trustees who want to use their positions to make change are often confronted with confusing and opaque procedures, paperwork, and organizational structure. A friend of mine was a student trustee at a New England public university and described the roadblocks he encountered as soon as he was identified as a "troublemaker." Some of the roadblocks were simply unavoidable: for example, the gigantic binders of documents, resolutions, and meeting minutes each board member receives, usually a matter of days before the meeting, are impossible to navigate without the professional assistants and support staff most trustees have access to through their regular jobs. In my friend's case, it also meant procedural shenanigans on the part of the board chair to keep his proposals from being considered and ensuring he was assigned to the most inconsequential subcommittees and task forces.

The track record of student trustees should be enough to disabuse even the most reformist student activist of the productive potential of these positions. That isn't to say, however, that there aren't tactical advantages to be exploited. The position of student trustee can to a certain extent be a platform for popular dissent within board meetings and in the outside world, leak important information helpful to activists, and deny one more spot for students interested in selling out their classmates in exchange for a plum internship or resume boost.

Trustees are the group of people at a university that are at once the most powerful people on campus and also those least affected by how they exercise that power. They're the votes that matter when hiring and firing the President, raising tuition, and increasingly determining curriculum and research priorities. Sometimes organizers can play them against another player or institution on campus, but we should never forget which side they're on. Sadly, unlike the Legion of Doom, trustees and regents are much more competent in carrying out their plans. The task of foiling them remains with us.

UC on strike! Here's why, and how you can help

Student workers at three UC campuses are striking today, and six more will strike on Thursday. 

UC grad student union strikeThis strike is the culmination of almost a year of inconclusive bargaining between the UC administration and the roughly 12,000 grad student workers in UAW Local 2865, and six months without a contract. The grievances that have spurred the strike are specific to higher ed, but the general line of attack from UC is one that workers experience everywhere: unreasonable increases in workload, intimidation of employees who exercise their rights, and foot-dragging on contract negotiations.

The grad student union's press release lays out several of the myriad unfair labor practices they've been subjected to: "From threats to international student’s visa status who participate in union activity, to unlawful videoing, and calling legal strikes illegal, the UCs are taking every opportunitiy to try and intimidate its members."

Back in November, when UC student workers went on a one-day sympathy strike with service and health care workers, management did their best in the days prior to intimidate them against joining the strike, sending threatening emails (which often included outright lies, like claiming foreign students' work visas were at risk or that the strike itself was unlawful).

The class size TAs have had to manage has also exploded. Grad student worker Josh Brahinsky told the Santa Cruz Sentinel, "Over 100 person per TA (teaching assistant) just didn't exist a decade ago." Ever-increasing class size, itself another facet of the UC's slow self-immolation at the hands of its leaders, means that many TAs simply don't have the time to properly grade exams, review papers, teach, and advise students. Even though labor law clearly places class size in the realm of negotiability, UC representatives have repeatedly refused to put it on the bargaining table.

As a communiqué from a group of student strikers put it,

To exist, universities depend on the extraction of un- and underpaid labor from students and faculty, exploiting a population convinced of its special intelligence and competitive edge. Fear of imposture, of mere adequacy, is the coin of the academic realm. As minter of this coin, the university holds its subjects in a state of blind dependency: students compete for the attention of a shrinking pool of professionals (part-time instructors currently outnumber tenure-track faculty by a ration of four to one), while the latter scurry to commodify the drippings of a hive-mind on the brink of colony collapse. 

The strike itself should be impressive — 96% of members voted in favor. But just as important is the solidarity shown by other segments of the UC population and the larger community around them. On the union's strike FAQ, they listed out things we all can do to support the strike:

There are many ways to support the strike. You can:

A. Join the picket lines on Thursday. We will keep our facebook page updated with the location of pickets – https://www.facebook.com/UCLAStudentUnion

B. Send out the link to this blog and forward other strike-related emails from the union and fellow members to everybody you think should be participating

C. Sign our strike pledge and encourage others to do so – http://uawstrikeucla.wordpress.com/2014/03/14/pledge-to-support-the-strike/

D. Attend whatever meetings are scheduled in the lead-up to the strike, again by staying appraised at our facebook page.

UPDATE 12:50PM EDT: At least 20 people have been arrested at UC Santa Cruz, mostly undergraduate students. Students were picketing the campus' west entrance, when cops in riot gear (seriously?) arrived and arrested them when they refused to stop picketing.

UC Santa Cruz strike arrests

5 lessons for student organizers from the UAW failure

UAW President Bob King

Last Friday, workers at Volkswagen's factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee voted 712 to 626 against unionizing with the United Automobile Workers. There are more than a thousand unionization votes in the U.S. every year, so what made this vote particularly important?

This vote was probably 2014's most important union election for several reasons.

First, its location: this was organized labor's best shot at a new union plant in the deeply anti-union South, and could have worked as a foothold from which to build future organizing victories.

Second, it was unique in its relationship to management: VW was officially neutral in the union election. This meant that VW management didn't lobby its employees against joining the union (which management almost always does), although apparently lower-level supervisors did make their opposition known. Part of this neutrality was due to VW's union-friendly orientation at other plants, particularly in their home country of Germany.

Third, VW's top brass wanted the factory to be unionized as that was the only legal way in the U.S. that they could form a works council (basically worker participation in key management decisions). This would be the first works council of its kind this side of the pond, and a model that unions are keen to see spread. The Chattanooga plant is the only factory that does not have a worker representative sitting on VW's Global Works Council.

Fourth, the astounding level of outside opposition to the union: while VW bowed out of the role of hostile election opponent, right wing economic and political elites quickly more than filled the part. In an unprecedented episode of meddling, outside money flooded Chattanooga to fuel the opposition campaign, while state and Federal politicians gravely warned of the consequences of unionization (one State Senator even threatened to halt any future development funds to the VW plant if the UAW won.

Mike Elk's coverage of the UAW campaign has been fantastic, and his In These Times writeup is the best recap I've seen so far. Read it.

Student organizers can learn much from other social movements, and labor especially. So what are some lessons students can learn in the aftermath of the UAW campaign?

1. Your target should be your best organizer.

There's an old labor adage that tells us "the boss is your best organizer." That is, unionization campaigns are most successful when organizers focus relentlessly on management and highlight worker-owner antagonisms. This applies in most campaigns across all social movements: it helps to have a Bad Guy. As Saul Alinsky wrote in Rules for Radicals, "Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, polarize it. Don’t try to attack abstract corporations or bureaucracies. Identify a responsible individual. Ignore attempts to shift or spread the blame."

In the case of VW, organizers lost their best organizer. Because of the agreement UAW reached with VW to ensure management neutrality during the campaign, union organizers were forbidden to cast VW or its management in a negative light. The relief they received from employer harassment and mandatory anti-union meetings came at the price of their most effective arguments.

Student organizers should be acutely aware of this danger. If you're working to build a student union, beware of being perceived as too buddy-buddy with the administration. When considering whatever benefit could be derived from administration's (or faculty's, or anyone's) seal of approval, weigh it against your ability to keep pressure on them in a way that 1) remains effective and 2) is believable by students. For example: would an easy, minor victory now, say, a few token seats on a committee, short-circuit your ability to build toward a larger victory by removing your ability to assail that committee for being unresponsive and undemocratic?

2. Build trust by being accountable to students.

The UAW was new to Chattanooga, an unknown quantity. As Mike Elk put it in the New York Times:

The key to organizing workers in areas like the South, where unions hold little sway, is building trust. From conversations at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant, I learned that the U.A.W. lost because workers were suspicious of it. Meddling by antiunion politicians was a factor in U.A.W.’s defeat, but that's not the whole story. Many workers who voted against the U.A.W. said they weren't opposed to unions, but they just didn't trust the U.A.W.

When UAW brass negotiated VW's neutrality, they also agreed to some key concessions, in particular their pledge to "maintain or enhance the cost advantage and other competitive advantages" that VW currently has. This pre-negotiation unsettled many Chattanooga workers, who rightfully wondered why they should take part in a process whose outcome looked preordained from the outset. UAW concessions elsewhere, like the development of two-tier contracts (in which new employees are essentially screwed out of the benefits that long-time employees earn), also left a bad taste in their mouths.

Student unions are as foreign to U.S. students as labor unions are to southern (hell, northern) workers. There is no shortcut, no backroom deal with administrators or faculty that will substitute for the hard work of building a cohesive student body that can collectively push for change. Otherwise we risk constructing the same old compliant student governments under a different name — a committee to agree to and then trumpet concessions on behalf of the student body.

3. Educate, educate, educate.

Mike Burton, a VW worker who led the anti-union drive, said many workers felt that they were paid well and treated well without having a union and thus saw no need to have one. (NYT)

An organizer has to convince people 1) why things are horrible right now, and 2) why the organizer's proposed solution is good and worth fighting for. UAW wasn't able to convince enough workers that the benefits of joining their union outweighed the dues withdrawn from their paychecks every month, particularly when VW was already paying them comparatively well. There also wasn't sufficient education of workers about why a Works Council was such a big deal, either (though the progressive blogosphere was practically writhing in ecstasy over the prospect).

A movement's need to educate its members and allies is never done. Especially in the early organizing stages, and especially when you're pushing for something that is new and foreign to most people.

4. Your opponent will pull out all the stops.

As I wrote above, the outside pressures against the UAW drive were enormous, and to a lot of workers, a complete surprise. A good gauge of how seriously you're threatening the administration is the extent to which they're resorting to extraordinary means and using outside help to stop you. For university staff and faculty unions, this often takes the form of hiring high-priced union-busting consultants and law firms, along with courting outside vendors to replace those jobs entirely. For student organizers, the most common escalation is the move from campus police to city/state police, particularly during protest actions and occupations. Adminstrators can and do throw the book at activists, threatening not only expulsion but criminal charges, and placing restrictions on all forms of public expression on campus.

While administrators can turn up the pressure, so can we. Over the past decade social justice organizers have become more skilled and effective at moving against secondary targets — those individuals and institutions which support the primary target in one way or another. For administrators, secondary targets are usually those whose tacit consent keeps everything moving smoothly: from the Board of Trustees to the company that processes payroll to local political elites to the school's accrediting organization.

5. Failure is inevitable. But that's okay.

The UAW pinned a lot of hopes on this organizing drive, which made it all the more heartbreaking when the vote fell short. It's something all activists and organizers experience far more often than feels fair. All the power maps, spectrums of allies, and tactic stars could point toward an inevitable, maybe even easy, victory, and at the end we can still stand there, shellshocked, wondering how in the world we failed.

But until we've won a just world we can't give up. Document your campaigns with recorded notes, photos, audio and video, down to the most mundane details. Pull people together for a post-mortem (whether you win or not) to figure out the lessons for next time. Keep kindled those crucial relationships developed over the campaign. And especially for graduating students, figure out how to impart these lessons to those you're passing the baton to.

The path to the incredible Québec student strike of 2012 was littered with failed campaigns, many of which organizers thought would surely be "the big one." Failures will only hurt us if we refuse to learn from them and grow.

Surprise! Harvard economist gets everything wrong about unpaid internships

Edward L Gleaser loves him some unpaid internships, because capitalism.

Edward Glaeser, an economics professor at Harvard, recently penned a defense of the unpaid internship. There's so much wrong going on in this op-ed that I'm going to blockquote extensively, but please read the piece in its entirety first. After mentioning the closure Conde Nast's internship program, which was threatened by lawsuits from former interns, Glaeser lays out the case for working for free.

Well, free for your employers, not for you, because you should really just take out a few more student loans while you're at it:

In a variety of industries, current students and recent graduates don’t yet have the skills and experience needed to contribute meaningfully to an employer’s success, and even entry-level paid positions attract an ample supply of well-qualified applicants. In these cases, internships are one tool for turning unskilled neophytes into able veterans who can better compete for full-time jobs.

Instead of ending unpaid internships, we should promote those that deliver real skills, and we must find ways — perhaps through student loans — to help less-privileged students take part in certified skill-building internships.

Student loan debt has topped $1 trillion and is helping ruin our current and future economy, while corporate profits are at record heights. Yet because this is Edward L. Glaeser we're reading, the burden of financing these internships should rest on the already-indebted students, not the employers who are making a profit off them. And because such a solution would be part of a student loan, students have the added benefit of not only paying for the privilege of a job, but also then paying interest on it to Wall Street for years to come. (It'd be a matter of minutes before Internship Debt Swaps emerge to fully financialize it.)

He continues:

Almost 13 percent of Americans ages 20 to 24 are unemployed. To some degree, this reflects a skills deficit that other countries address far more directly than the United States does. Germany’s apprenticeship model has long provided practical skills to younger workers, and the unemployment rate for Germans age 20 to 24 is under 8 percent.

Under the US Fair Labor Standards Act, unpaid internships can avoid minimum wage rules only if interns learn skills “similar to training which would be given in an educational environment.” The training requirement is essential and could be strengthened. If interns are given mindless jobs that don’t expose them to new people or ideas, then their employer has reneged on a promise, and they have a right to sue. Public policy could do a better job of encouraging former interns to anonymously rate their former employers, and publicizing the results.

Glaeser knows that there's a big problem with unpaid interns not being trained to do anything beyond memorizing management's daily Starbucks requirements and using the copier. His nodding approval of the current remedy, taking the employer to court, is laughably implausible, particularly for the young people who are most exploited. And even if you could cobble together the resources and discount lawyers to win, you'll have a public record of suing your employer available for every prospective boss to see.

There are already a few internship review sites out there, so that you can know in advance from a previous intern that working for Teen Vogue is "Good for your resume, but not for your spirit." But internships are scarce, compared with those who want them, so I'm not sure what benefit more ratings would provide — landlords widely known to be total assholes still get a steady stream of willing tenants, especially in large cities.

As for Germany's apprenticeship program, it is indeed heralded as a major factor in keeping youth unemployment down: nations around the world are beginning pilot programs to see if the model can work elsewhere. But the verdict is far from in. If you compare pre-recession youth unemployment numbers, you find a much more mixed story:

youth unemployment, Germany and United States

Clearly there is a lot more going on. Simply pointing to an apprenticeship program is unhelpful because the German and U.S. economies are structured so differently. As an excellent Atlantic article on the topic (very much worth reading) summed up:

So for President Obama to cite Germany's vocational training for youth as a model is certainly a step in the right direction. But the German example cannot be cherry-picked. It is the sum of its parts -- from vocational training, through the strength of its SMEs [small to medium sized enterprises, which in Germany are mostly manufacturing], to its high-productivity export focus -- that makes it the envy of so many Americans.

But here's where Glaeser really loses coherence. The German model is highly regulated and overseen by the government, and involves the companies actually paying their apprentices pretty damn well. Yet two paragraphs later:

At the same time, it’s unrealistic to think individual private businesses will provide new skills to temporary, not-yet-qualified workers simply out of public benevolence. Throughout much of Western history, young apprentices paid to learn — either explicitly with cash or implicitly by working for little pay. James Watt, whose steam engine helped power the Industrial Revolution, learned instrument making by working as an unpaid apprentice for 10 hours a day. Indeed, Watt paid 20 guineas for that privilege

But wait, isn't business providing new skills to not-yet-qualified workers precisely what his vaunted German model does? Though German companies don't think of it as public benevolence: they understand that a highly-skilled workforce helps everyone, including themselves. Only the supremely petty and shortsighted owning class in the United States (and their Harvard apologists) couldn't see the very clear long-term benefits.

If Glaeser was truly looking for reasons why German youths are employed twice as much as U.S. students, he would have started with the fact that tuition in Germany is entirely free.

Moreover, like most economists Glaeser gets his history wrong. "Much of Western history" (which for economists usually means the British Isles going back to around 1500), had a very different economic setup than we do now, and as such apprenticeships held a very different place in society. As David Greaber describes it:

In a typical Medieval town, the majority of young men were apprentices and journeymen in the employ of an older master craftsman. Ideally, any apprentice could expet to someday become a master himelf, and full member of the guild — it was for this reason guild regulations limited the number of apprentices a master was permitted to take on. But the more capitalist relations came to dominate a given industry, the longer a journeyman would have to wait before being able to achieve full adult status, a wife, a household, and a shop of his own. In the meantime, he would continue working for wages for his master. The result was that a large part of the work force, men in their thirties and forties, found themselves living in a sort of suspended social adolescence. In the end, many began to to abandon the idea of autonomy entirely, to marry young and resign themselves to the status of permanent wage laborers. With the enclosure movements and rise of commercial agriculture of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many of the rural poor were left in much the same position.

For all the exhaustion and deprivation Watt experienced, at least the Master he worked for provided a roof over his head. The realities of modern capitalism have all but eliminated the traditional apprenticeship model outside a very few sectors. Whereas one used to apprentice to escape wage labor, today we apprentice merely to enter it.

After a perfunctory plug for the institute he runs, which gives stipends each year to a whopping twelve unpaid interns, Glaeser concludes:

Critics are right to worry that unpaid internships provide access only to students from wealthy families. One solution might be to expand federal student loan programs to cover students taking unpaid internships, whether or not they receive college credit for them, or even recent graduates. I would set a high bar for making internships eligible for such loans, by requiring official certification of their educational quality. With a loan program in place, more widespread unpaid internships could help move young Americans toward permanent employment. Internships provide a pathway towards employment that should be encouraged — not penalized.

Glaeser's call for a "high bar" on which employers would qualify for student loan-backed internships doesn't recover what is an irredeemably bad idea. Youth would continue to pay for their exploitation, and the intensely competitive environment these scarce positions would create would also mean any student would be crazy to blow the whistle if their work became increasingly menial.

Not that I take seriously any call by Glaeser to increase the number of employment regulations, given his track record. For example, he's written extensively against the minimum wage, against requiring employers offer paid sick days, has warned that presumptive New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio's suggested workplace regulations "will only deter" the city's "entrepreneurs," and just recently grilled the two Boston Mayoral candidates in a public forum on cutting regulations.

Hat tip to @MaxwellJohnLove for alerting me to this op-ed.

Make $38k Using this One Weird Trick: Pepper Spray Students

Former UC Davis cop John Pike, made infamous when cameras captured him casually pepper spraying dozens of peaceful protesters, is now receiving a big pay day from the university:

The campus police officer shown in a viral video pepper-spraying Occupy UC Davis protesters will receive workers’ compensation totaling $38,059.

John Pike, 40, of Roseville, reportedly suffered depression and anxiety brought on by death threats to him and his family that followed the Nov. 18, 2011, confrontation at an encampment on the Quad.

First off, funny how the act of walking up to a bunch of students sitting on the sidewalk and assaulting them is described as a "confrontation," implying two aggressors. But it gets worse: before he was ultimately fired, Pike was on paid leave for 8 months. Given his $121,680 salary, that means he received an additional $81,120 for doing zero work. That's a hell of a severance. On top of that, he'll also be receiving his pension from working 11 years at UC Davis.

Not even UC's public task force could hide what an idiot move his pepper spraying was:

A public task force, led by former California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso, faulted both police and administrators. It found that Pike did not need to use the pepper spray, used a spray not sanctioned for use by the department and used it at too close a range.

That's right: an 11-year veteran of the UC Davis police department made what by all accounts was a rookie move.

So how did the students fare?

Pike will receive an almost identical settlement amount as many of those he pepper-sprayed.

In January, UCD settled a federal lawsuit by agreeing to pay protesters $1 million. Twenty-one plaintiffs who were sprayed or arrested were to receive $30,000 each. Another 15 who came forward later had claims approved. They were to be paid $6,666 apiece.

What's worse? Being a victim of police abuse, or having basically everybody hate you for committing police abuse? According to these UC settlements, the latter. To add insult to injury, given that these were UC students their tuition dollars essentially subidized their attacker's payday. But most worrisome is the message it sends to other capsacin-happy cops:

Bernie Goldsmith, a Davis attorney supportive of the student protesters, said the settlement “sends a clear message to the next officer nervously facing off with a group of passive, unarmed students: Go on ahead. Brutalize them. Trample their rights. You will be well taken care of.”

While we wave Officer Pike into the sunset (he's still angling to get his job back — not bloody likely), let's reminisce with some of the best Pepper Spraying Cop memes:

Pepper Spraying Cop

Pepper Spraying Cop

Pepper Spraying Cop

Pepper Spraying Cop

Pepper Spraying Cop

Obama's Whack-a-Mole Approach to Higher Ed

Yesterday, in the middle of a packed auditorium at SUNY's Binghamton University, President Obama laid out a number of proposals aimed at reforming the U.S. system of higher education.

You'd be forgiven for a sense of déja vu, as the ideas Obama discussed have been brought up before, notably in his 2012 State of the Union Address (which I covered here). The difference this time is that the Department of Education has had another year and a half to flesh out the details.

The Administration has lumped together these otherwise scattershot reforms into three categories:

Pay Colleges and Students for Performance

  • Tie financial aid to college performance, starting with publishing new college ratings before the 2015 school year.
  • Challenge states to fund public colleges based on performance.
  • Hold students and colleges receiving student aid responsible for making progress toward a degree.

Promoting Innovation and Competition

  • Challenge colleges to offer students a greater range of affordable, high-quality options than they do today.
  • Give consumers clear, transparent information on college performance to help them make the decisions that work best for them.
  • Encourage innovation by stripping away unnecessary regulations.

Ensuring that Student Debt Remains Affordable

  • Help ensure borrowers can afford their federal student loan debt by allowing all borrowers to cap their payments at 10 percent of their monthly income.
  • Reach out to struggling borrowers to ensure that they are aware of the flexible options available to help them to repay their debt.

Please, I encourage you to take a look at their expanded bullet points to get a better idea of what they mean.

Rather than go point-by-point, I'd like to weave some of these proposals into a bigger picture.

Pay-for-performance has a long history in American K-12 education — a history riddled with failure and unintended consequences. First students were evaluated by test scores, then schools were evaluated by their students' test scores, and now teachers are evaluated by their students' test scores. The results have been disastrous: students' lives are dominated by test prep, budget-crunched schools cut arts and music programs that aren't included in standardized tests, and teachers are forced to throw pedagogy out the window because their very livelihood is based on their students' scores (often competing with their colleagues for job security and pay raises). And now it's heading to higher ed.

The obsession with quantification is a shackle generously gifted to us by titans of finance and industry, along with their allies in elective office. Just as employees should be measured by the quality of products they churn out, teachers and schools should be measured by quality of students they churn out. But students aren't products: an insight lost on economic elites, who can't seem to wrap their heads around the idea that even their own employees aren't expendable tools. Those teachers and schools who miss the mark on standardized tests are given the boot, to be replaced with charters or vouchers to private schools.

Quantification goes hand-in-hand with competition: once we've assigned everyone a number, why not force them to fight over scarce resources? That'll clearly improve everyone's performance!

The administration is vague on details about what criteria the ranking and funding will be based upon, but they throw out a few possibilities:

  • Access, such as percentage of students receiving Pell grants;
  • Affordability, such as average tuition, scholarships, and loan debt; and
  • Outcomes, such as graduation and transfer rates, graduate earnings, and advanced degrees of college graduates.

Okay, so judging from these three criteria, we can surmise that the White House wants universities that do well by poor students, keep cost to the student low, and send off lots of graduates who will then be successful in the real world.

Seems reasonable, right? In fact, I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a significant number of university presidents or state legislators who would tell you that they disagree with that goal. Then again, Wal-Mart executives wouldn't disagree with wanting businesses to treat their employees well and support their local communities, either.

So where's the disconnect?

Much of it stems from how modern liberals think institutions work, and how government can influence those institutions to achieve popular goals. Because those who are making higher ed decisions are often those least affected by them, there is a perennial disconnect between what is done and what should be done. University administrators and trustees more interested in prestige than affordability will squander millions of dollars on monuments, buildings, and landscaping, all the while feeling bad about having to raise tuition, cut tenure-track positions, and outsource staff. "If only we had more money," they sigh.

All the problems that the President outlined are correct: from tuition, to student debt, to graduation rates. But his solutions, far from being game-changers, are the definition of what he said he wanted to avoid: "tinkering around the edges." They're all incomplete and indirect measures to nudge institutions in a certain direction. And as any health insurance or finance executive can attest, regulations were made to be avoided and rating systems were made to be gamed. ObamaCare mandated that most employers provide insurance to full-time employees. What do employers do? Cut employees' hours down just enough to avoid the requirement. Congress puts an end to checking account overdraft charges? Banks add new fees elsewhere.

So long as the underlying logic of the institutions remain the same, we'll continue to play whack-a-mole, expending untold amounts of time and energy to put half-measures into place that they'll find a way to avoid. No matter how well-constructed (which very much remains to be seen), a brand new Federal college ranking system will likely introduce just as many distorted outcomes and incentives as the justly-maligned U.S. News & World Report rankings, outcomes and incentives that will need to be addressed by yet another round of regulations and reforms.

Our public universities don't need money with strings attached to it, right now they just need money. The staggering reduction in funds to higher education on the part of state legislatures has to be reversed: divvying up the budgetary equivalent of tablescraps to competing institutions, like Obama's "Race to the Top" program, is a recipe for short-sighted, desperate policy changes. Students don't need more manageable debt, first they need less debt: make it dischargeable in bankruptcy.

Funding aside, that the government has to force institutions to do what reasonable people think should be done anyway suggests not a lack of carrots and sticks, but a deeper institutional dysfunction. Can we envision a bank that is designed with the fundamental goal of not shitting on its customers? Just go down the street to your local credit union. Can we envision a business intrinsically designed to keep worker safety and well-being a top priority? Just visit your nearest worker cooperative. Can we envision a university that's first and foremost responsive to the needs and interests of students and faculty? Absolutely, but it'll look different from just about everything we have, and these proposals won't get us there.

Here are some other analyses of President Obama's proposals you should take a look at:

 

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