The Neoliberal University Is Failing on Coronavirus

With days before the fall semester, Marquette University is sending its workers and students into harm’s way. And without a faculty union, administrators and trustees are accountable to no one for the damage they’re doing.

On August 16, in a secluded suburb on the Milwaukee metro area North Shore, a coalition of students, faculty, staff, and alumni from Marquette University marched to president Michael Lovell’s house under the watchful eyes of police and private security. The driveway was blocked off by an orange construction fence. The group had come to protest Marquette’s decision to open for face-to-face education in the midst of a global pandemic.

Through masks, they described delaying care for COVID-19 because Marquette had not offered them health insurance. They shared their fears for immunocompromised partners living amid the student body, some of whom were already holding parties unmasked and without social distancing. Others called for a union that would finally give Marquette workers a substantive voice in decisions over their own working conditions.

The demonstration came after the Lovell administration’s most recent in a series of fantastical plans that promised a safe reopening of campus. The plan commits to a wholly inadequate disease-mitigation strategy. Students will only be tested after showing symptoms, and instructors are being asked to provide online and in-person education simultaneously.

To attract students, Lovell promised maximum flexibility: students could take classes in whatever form they preferred. Instructors were not given the same discretion. While many tenure-track faculty were approved for remote learning, graduate student instructors and contingent faculty, who teach the bulk of freshman courses, were far more likely to have their requests to teach online rejected. Administration is desperate for incoming freshmen, leading it to magnify existing inequalities among instructors by placing the greatest risk on the instructors least able to defend themselves.

Similar stories are playing out at universities across the country. Universities hungry for tuition dollars are prioritizing profit over the safety of students, faculty, and staff. But COVID-19 did not cause these problems so much as shed a glaring new light on underlying issues of inequality and powerlessness in academia.

Since the mid-twentieth century, there has been a severe decline in faculty job security. In 1969, 78 percent of faculty at American institutions of higher education held tenure-track positions. Today, 75 percent of positions are held by non-tenure-track, contingent instructors.

The reduction of tenured faculty in favor of contingent instructors has created a vulnerable academic workforce that endures ever greater research expectations, service requirements, and teaching loads in return for the merest suggestion of job stability. The gradual transformation of university instruction into a precarious, poorly paid career has made this pandemic even more dangerous.

Virtually every major decision at Marquette reflects a widening indifference of university administrators to the concerns of the faculty, staff, and students. In July, more than forty Marquette students contracted coronavirus in an outbreak, when campus was comparatively deserted. Meanwhile, the University of North Carolina has experienced multiple outbreaks of COVID-19 mere days into its reopening and has decided to shut down its campus after only a week. Will Marquette repeat UNC’s mistake? It is almost a certainty that holding face-to-face instruction will force universities like Marquette to transition to virtual learning mid-semester, creating more unpaid work for instructors and disrupting students’ learning environment on top of the health impacts.

Just beyond campus, the health of working-class neighborhoods of color surrounding Marquette — neighborhoods in which the impact of Milwaukee’s incredibly high levels of segregation are most deeply felt — is also threatened. A Marquette outbreak would be the latest event to show that Marquette continues to struggle with racism and an inability to live up to its social justice mission.

Just like other universities, official channels for “shared governance” have been powerless at best and a mouthpiece for university administrators at worst. Marquette’s bylaws grant final say in all matters to the Board of Trustees and the president, which means that “shared governance” means whatever Michael Lovell and the Board want it to mean. Despite supermajorities of non-tenure-track faculty and graduate student workers calling for a union, President Lovell has evaded scheduled meetings with workers and run a deceitful union-busting campaign in direct contradiction with the university’s Jesuit values and social justice mission.

Further, Lovell has tried to mask his union-busting with Catholicism, claiming that imposing budget cuts and precarity on Marquette instructors is being a good financial caretaker of the Jesuit university — while surreptitiously coordinating with the Trump administration, joining a phone call with Mike Pence on which university presidents asked for legal immunity from damages their students suffer from coronavirus.

When employers have all the power, they abuse it: President Lovell is reopening Marquette despite knowing that it will cause the illness and deaths of students, faculty, and staff.

Marquette’s nonprofit status and identity as a Jesuit institution committed to cura personalis — a cornerstone of Jesuit theology that translates to “care of the whole person” — has offered no protection at all from exploitation and abuse. The Lovell administration has dedicated exorbitant resources to administrative pay and the endowment: Marquette spends more on administrator pay than 80 percent of comparable institutions. The label may say “nonprofit” but, in practice, overpaid administrators behave little differently from the management at for-profit corporations.

Whether at Marquette or other universities, the only way to protect educators is to organize. The biggest victories at Marquette of the last few years are direct results of our ongoing union organizing: the union effort helped librarians implement safety precautions during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, won longer funding for new graduate students, and stopped an anti-demonstration policy that would have suppressed speech on campus. The only way to make positive change on campus is to organize when administrators have interests opposed to the communities they exploit.

While we were writing this article, a former student reached out to one of us to thank us for speaking out against the impending reopening. They expressed fears for their own health and said that they now felt better knowing that their instructors shared their concerns. Academic workers are fighting not only for ourselves, but for our communities, as well. In 2020, lives depend on our success.

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Tom Hansberger is a member of the Marquette Academic Workers Union, a PhD candidate, and a lecturer in philosophy at Marquette University. He is also a cochair of the Milwaukee chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Sarah Kizuk is a member of the Marquette Academic Workers Union, an adjunct instructor at Mount Allison University, and a PhD candidate in the philosophy department of Marquette University. She is also the assistant director of the Marquette Center for the Advancement of the Humanities.

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