Fighting for Public Education at the University of Oregon

Higher education in the United States is in a grave crisis. As numerous accounts attest, American universities are being transformed into profit-driven corporate institutions that drive students into ever greater debt, transform faculties into insecure, underpaid labor pools, and produce an ever-expanding, overpaid stratum of administrators. Even the great public universities, which once had pride of place as the centerpiece of American democratic aspiration, have been all but fully privatized, degrading their educational mission and billing students, often leaving little to cheer for except for their semi-professional sports teams. From this perspective, the future of university education is bleak indeed.

The University of Oregon, like many schools, has been headed down this road for a long time. This research institution (which has been in the news lately as "Nike University" for its corporate-funded football program) has vastly increased its pool of adjunct labor, undermined faculty sovereignty, put college education out of reach for working and middle class students, and concentrated managerial power at the top.

Yet while Oregon represents the gloomy trajectory in higher education, it also provides an unusual bright spot. Last year the faculty, both tenure-track and non-tenure, voted to form a union -- United Academics -- whose mission is to strengthen the quality of university education and research, to shape the future of higher education, and to use our collective power for the preservation of public education and the role of faculty governance.

United Academics has been in negotiations for several months for a first contract. While bargaining has often meant pushing back against increasingly antidemocratic, anti-intellectual, and profit-driven corporate imperatives, we have won important concessions on a number of issues thus far, others remain which go to the heart of the struggle for the future of higher education.

The end of privacy. Currently, the administration rejects the right to "a reasonable expectation of privacy," insisting on the authority to monitor all emails, files and Internet activity of faculty members - including emails sent on private accounts whenever it deems there is a "legitimate business need" to do so. Under this proposal faculty could not conduct confidential correspondence with research subjects or collaborators, prepare grant applications, or even record their own personal musings on intellectual topics or works-in-progress, without fear that administrators might seize their words and use them in any manner they see fit.

Intellectual property. Under current practice, faculty own their own inventions, unless they choose to enter into a partnership with someone who sponsors their research. But the administration is demanding that any invention, innovation, lab discovery, class syllabus or even lecture notes developed by faculty are the sole property of the university, and administrators can sell these products to whomever they want.

Consulting in the real world. Consulting with outside businesses and non-profits is one of the ways that faculty contribute to the broader society beyond the campus. State law gives faculty the right to serve as consultants to outside organizations one day per week, but university administrators want this right eliminated. In addition, the administration is demanding that it have exclusive ownership of any consulting products, and banning any consulting that is "contrary to the University's best interests" - again, to be defined unilaterally by administrators. Consulting work that is looked at unfavorably by major donors - some of whom sit on the University's newly independent board of directors - could potentially be deemed contrary to the school's best interests.

A living wage for full-time faculty. Under the University of Oregon's proposal, many full-time faculty members would make significantly less than the local living wage for an adult with two children.

Faculty terminations. Like other schools, a majority of faculty at the University of Oregon are non-tenure track. Many of these instructors have served as long-term members of their department - advising students, serving on department committees, and teaching a huge share of the classes; and are subject to regular reviews. Yet the UO insists that no matter how long someone has been on the faculty, and no matter how positive their performance reviews, they can be fired for any reason the administration wants, other than illegal discrimination.

The intransigence of administrators over these issues reflects the broader corporatization of American higher education, where research is increasingly a commodity to be bought and sold, education a product to be made as cheaply as possible, and professors are laborers stripped of rights and job security. In this context students become a highly exploited customer demographic. This need not be the future of education. Faculty and students at Oregon and elsewhere have begun to fight to turn back the tide. Such struggles will become ever more central to the effort to preserve the central values of an educated public and a democratic society. All who value these things should support the effort to save higher education.