One of the themes of the conference this past weekend was a university mired in a crisis that has, at least in part, been created by the top-down management of boards of governors and academic administrators. So, there was a great deal of discussion of “unsettling the university” by forming unions and instituting more faculty governance.
However, otherwise dedicated and creative scholars had some difficulty imagining another alternative: the self-governing university. A university without bosses or, if you prefer, a university in which the workers are their own bosses.
As it turns out, that’s the topic of an essay by Shaila Dawan that was published while I was at the conference. She explains that, in the face of massive inequality (as analyzed by, among others, Thomas Piketty),
The oft-proposed remedy for this state of affairs is redistribution — namely, taxing the rich to benefit the poor. Piketty, in fact, proposes a global tax, one that can’t be avoided by private jet. Others want to raise the minimum wage. In contrast to those Band-Aids, worker co-ops require no politically unpalatable dictates. And by placing workers’ needs ahead of profits, they address the root cause of economic disparity. “If you don’t want inequality,” says Richard Wolff, the author of “Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism,” “don’t distribute income unequally in the first place.”
Exactly. The same, of course, might be true in universities. Perhaps even more so, because our colleges and universities both include profound inequalities (e.g., among campuses, academic units, and individual faculty members and staff) and reflect the growing inequalities in the wider society (e.g., in terms of unequal access to different kinds of higher education).
Creating colleges and universities that are owned and run by their workers (both faculty and staff, mind you) can—just like the bakeries and other enterprises mentioned by Dawan—change the way education is produced and, particularly important, the way the surplus is appropriated and distributed. In both private and public universities, the faculty and staff produce a surplus that is appropriated not by themselves, as a group, but by their “bosses,” the small number of individuals who sit on boards of trustees or regents (who, in turn, hire the growing number of administrators who run the institutions on a daily basis).
What if, instead, the university workers made up their own board (or, in larger institutions, elected representatives to a board) and hired the university administrators? Such a board would directly involve the workers in appropriating and distributing the surplus they produce and mean that they—not a board filled with representatives of large business and political cronies from outside the university—would decide on the general parameters of how the university functions. The worker-board would then hire administrators to carry out those decisions on a daily basis.
I understand, there are no guarantees. But it’s certainly likely the worker-owned university (with new roles for both students, who have to work with professors to get a good education, and members of the larger community, who want their children to get a good education) would both include and create much less inequality than is the case right now. And, at the same time, they would work with others to improve the quality of higher education.
Now, that would be real unsettling of the university. And the people who work in our institutions of higher education know they don’t need bosses to accomplish that.