The University vs. administration

Contextualizing the strike: A brief history of my time at the Universtiy.

Jason Stahl

I am now entering my seventh year as a graduate student in history at the University of Minnesota. This will be my final year here, so I thought it would be a good time to look back at my first six years – particularly in light of the most recent strike here on campus. I think that those of us who are in solidarity with the workers who went out on strike tend to forget that many students on campus (particularly the recently arriving freshman class) do not know the recent history of anti-worker, anti-student decisions made by the administration that currently runs the University. To these students, and to many others, the strike is occurring in a bubble and the only context they have for it is that given by the numerous administration emails we received over the course of the strike. These emails encouraged those at the University to see the strike as a minor labor squabble perpetuated by greedy workers rather than as part of a history of decisions which have pitted the narrow interests of the University administration against the interests of those who make this university a great place to be – its students and its workers.

When I arrived at the University, I tended to think of the University administration as relatively apolitical. I quickly realized that this was not the case. Rather, the elite few who make decisions here at the University have an ideological worldview best characterized as corporate conservatism. Like most who run modern corporations, they are foremost concerned with making the university profitable and that this profitability leads the University to an elite status as “one of the top three public research universities in the world.” This is the goal of the University’s “Strategic Positioning Plan” which was introduced back in 2005.

This focus on profitability, just as in the modern corporation, benefits a select few at the expense of everyone else. So, those departments that could turn a profit and bring in research dollars, as well as top university administration, saw big monetary benefits. This happened at the same time students have seen massive tuition hikes (111 percent over the past ten years and another 4.5 percent hike coming) and the lowest paid workers have seen stagnating wages which do not keep up with the cost of living. The latter has led to two strikes since I’ve been here as well as an administrative campaign to thwart the efforts of graduate employees who tried to unionize back in 2004 and 2005.

This corporate conservative mentality has manifested itself in other ways as well. Most notably, just as in a modern corporation, there has been an increasing focus on the image of the university as portrayed to the public rather than on what is best for those who work and study here. So, as part of Strategic Positioning, General College – once a gateway into the University for poor, working class and minority students – shut its doors while the Honors College was expanded. This leads to an increase in the overall undergraduate G.P.A. which, in turn, leads to a better image in national collegiate rankings. The new football stadium money pit is also clearly part of this image campaign. Finally, the administration’s ubiquitous “Driven to Discover” ad campaign has wasted $6 million on telling everyone what kind of super fantastic (and profitable!) research occurs here at the University.

What is most frustrating about this corporate conservatism (besides its disastrous effects on workers and students) is that, just like modern corporations, it seems as if there is no accountability for the administrators who are making bad policy. Like the modern CEO, President Bruininks, Provost Sullivan, and the few others who make decisions here seem determined to keep taking us down this disastrous path from which they, but few others, benefit. And like the modern CEO, it seems as if there is no accountability for their actions.

Given that the administration stole part of the pay raise that the legislature recommended for worker raises, thus starting us down the road to this last strike, maybe it is time for the legislature to start writing such recommendations into the higher education funding bill. This – combined with student, faculty and worker agitation toward better policy – is the only way I can think to begin to bring some measure of accountability to this disastrous administration. Until such accountability starts to occur, we will continue to head down the path of the past years – a path in which the administration continues to undermine our university and the people who make it great.

Jason Stahl welcomes comments at [email protected]