To Save American Universities, We Need to Go On Strike

If political pressure and desperate pleading with administrators could fix the crisis in American academia, it would be fixed already. Instead, transforming the university will require academics to do something we’re notoriously bad at: stop working.

A graduate student chants slogans and marches during a protest at the University of California, Irvine. (Paul Bersebach / Digital First Media / Orange County Register via Getty Images)

The American university is in a state of crisis, and everybody knows it.

Students pay increasingly exorbitant tuition fees, relying on loans with usurious interest rates, for classes taught by increasingly stressed and underpaid adjuncts and graduate workers. According to a report by the Service Employees International Union’s Adjunct Action, an adjunct in Boston would need to teach seventeen to twenty-four courses a year simply to make ends meet. Meanwhile, graduate workers get by on small stipends while producing cutting-edge research and teaching courses, hoping this will lead to a tenure-track position. But these have become rare, with the majority of faculty now contingent.

Even the fortunate few grad students who do make it through the gauntlet onto the tenure track face serious challenges. On top of high expectations for research and teaching, they are burdened with significant service work on committees and in administration. This eats away at the time they might otherwise devote to both students and their own families — families often delayed, disrupted, or uprooted by the job search process. As for tenured faculty, many can only receive a raise via an “outside offer” from another institution, which can be difficult to obtain in the current job market.

While the specifics vary between institutions and disciplines, the broad characterization of academia in crisis applies across them. Virtually everyone in academia is in a serious bind, and virtually everyone stands to benefit from radical change.

To effect change on the scale necessary to address the crisis, the standard strategies simply won’t work. We know because they’ve been tried relentlessly: if political pressure, internal pleading, or op-eds could fix this, they already would have. The university crisis is one of power as much as resources. There is more than enough need for faculty — student populations have been growing, not shrinking. But budget priorities at many large, four-year institutions have shifted to constructing elaborate new buildings to impress funders and attract students.

In order to challenge power relations in the university enough to spur transformation, academics need to strike.

The mere threat of strikes has won significant concessions at individual institutions. At my own institution, Rutgers, strike threats in 2019 achieved greater pay equity and raises for graduate-level workers. A recent strike authorization at Howard University also won pay raises for contingent faculty. Unlike political pressure or advocacy alone, a strike cannot be met with half-measures or distractions. Because they disrupt business as usual and force negotiations, strikes shift the conversation onto workers’ terms, allowing workers rather than administrators to determine what redress is enough.

To truly transform higher education with strikes, academics will need to collaborate across institutions. A national crisis demands a national response. Individual strikes can improve adjunct pay, but they can’t fix the adjunct crisis or reshape the university governance structures limiting the demands workers can make. Coordinated strike action, on the other hand, has the potential to force change across institutions, halting and reversing the current race to the bottom.

Even if individual strikes can accomplish more than they have so far, they will likely improve outcomes only at wealthier institutions. State universities and community colleges are suffering from a severe long-term decrease in government funding. This reflects the preferences of politicians rather than the public, some 62 percent of whom support increased funding for community colleges. Broad collective action can mobilize this majority against austerity-minded statehouses. Coordinated timing and communication efforts, up to and including a potential general strike in the future, could overwhelm anti-worker forces within universities and build opposition to them beyond their walls.

Academics are in a strong position to coordinate collective action in multiple workplaces at once. We attend conferences multiple times a year, have strong working and personal relationships across institutions, and share a sense of group consciousness and experience. In my discipline, history, the mood among graduate students at conferences is similar to that of some of the eighteenth-century sailors I study: comrades brought together by inevitable doom, whispering tales of friends lost after three harrowing years on the job market. It is time for a mutiny.

By shifting us away from individual despair toward collective hope and action, strikes can turn widespread sympathy among academic workers into powerful solidarity. Collective action can utilize and strengthen existing interinstitutional ties, while extending them across disciplines to further empower labor within universities. Support and foundations for this kind of collaboration, such as the recently-created Higher Education Labor United, already exist.

Striking to save the university will also require collaboration within institutions.

Tenured faculty’s importance and power is a crucial asset in any confrontation with administration. Larger bargaining units are an important step toward making this happen: if exploiting adjuncts or graduate workers means risking a strike by all faculty, it will become that much more difficult for administrators to do so.

Tenured faculty make valiant efforts to help their own graduate students, but these by their nature cannot solve the broader problem we face. By organizing and supporting strike efforts, sympathetic tenured faculty can help graduate students transform the current Thunderdome job market rather than compete better in it. But it’s important that tenured faculty not participate out of sympathy alone: collective action will also help them address their own significant grievances, such as heavy service loads and a lack of raises or cost-of-living increases.

The rule of thumb is that the more university workers united in struggle, the less capable the administration is of dismissing their demands. For that reason, faculty should collaborate with other university workers, like dining and facilities workers, to build power and address inequality within our institutions.

This kind of solidarity can be at the core of a new vision of the university. The academic crisis is only one face of broader economic and social trends affecting all workers, from increasing precarity to short-term institutional thinking to financialization. For rideshare drivers facing legislative campaigns to keep them from unionizing, perhaps academics’ concerns about adjunctification, science’s postdoc problem, or the death of the humanities may ring hollow. But they don’t have to if we reframe the fight to save the university as part and parcel of the fight for broader economic justice.

Universities can be worker-governed hubs for organizing in their communities. They can steer public discourse and knowledge creation toward the goals of the public rather than school donors and society’s wealthy minority more generally. Academic workers can fight to stop student debt, train organizers rather than managers, and challenge the legitimacy of hierarchies in our writing and lecturing. Many academics already do.

This renewed and expanded vision of the university has the potential to be both popular and powerful. Achieving it together requires us to do something we are notoriously bad at: stop working.