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The Point: Fanfare for the Common Good


In which we argue against the easy fixes of “drive-by diversity” in favor of a profound mobilization across the communities of interest—students, faculty, staff, community members—that should run this university.

Greetings, Colleagues,

For those of us working in higher education everything is up for grabs, isn’t it? 

I mean even figuring out how to start an email to a colleague is not a simple task: “hope this finds you well” seems problematic at best.

“First do no harm” might be a good place to start.  I know that the interim provost stirred a bit of controversy last week by emailing guidance about webcam requirements during synchronous classes. I’ll stay out of it (for fear of what it will do to my reputation if I publicly agree with upper admin!) but I was heartened, in doing my reading on the subject, to discover that we have experts on the “cameras on/cameras off” question right here on campus: Professor Liza Talusan, for instance, has urged us to think about the boundaries we cross when we insist students have their cameras on and pushes us all to center questions surrounding equity in the discussion. 

As we move past the first weeks of class many of us will have to confront the reality that the EdTech solutions that have been offered to us (I’m thinking of Respondus Monitor in particular) will, as Shea Swauger has written “have discriminatory consequences across multiple identities and serious privacy implications.”  (I’m old enough to remember this song by Rockwell, how about you?) Practitioners of critical race theory, currently under attack by the president of the United States, have been urging us for years to investigate how our most (seemingly) anodyne daily practices are shot through with racism.  Algorithms are no exception.

Like many of you, I am trying to get my mind around how every single one of our workplace concerns has been put under a high-powered microscope in the past half year, from the most granular teaching practices to the macroeconomics of our overall project.  It is daunting to take on all this work, but it is the special responsibility of university-based intellectuals to frame our current challenges in the proper political and cultural contexts.  It is clear, as Daniel Bessner has recently written that we are some kind of inflection point for higher education: “[I]ncreasing debt, administrative overreach, the casualization of labor, the instrumentalization of knowledge, the collapse of the humanities, and the growing reliance on anti-union consultancies and law firms—emerge from a broken system that overrewards the few at the expense of the many.”

As we take stock after this pandemic and BLM summer, we have to act on the clarity that comes with acknowledging that the underfunding of public higher education in the past 20 years is a kind of social engineering that as Anastasia Martinez explains, explicitly targets “low-income students and students of color”:

The increased costs of public higher education have created the steepest obstacles for Black and Latinx students. In 2017, the average, annual net price of a public four-year institution in Massachusetts (the price of tuition and fees, room and board, and books and supplies, minus the average aid received for a student) accounted for 38 percent of a Black family’s median household income and 43 percent of a Latinx family’s median household income. In comparison, this price is just 21 percent of a white family’s median household income.

Systemic inequality must be met with systemic responses--there is always the danger that administrators will want to settle for what Cyrus Mehri calls “drive-by diversity”:  “If diversity and inclusion is buried in the organizational structure, it’s not going to have a lot of power. When you keep choosing the options on the menu that don’t create change, you’re purposely not creating change. It’s part of the intentional discrimination.”

Undoing these decades of harm will take, as Bessner and so many others have suggested, “cross-occupation solidarity, in which people working at various jobs in the academy come together to demand transformation.”  This is one reason that the FSU leadership has adopted bargaining for the common good as a central principle.  We co-sign the words of anthropologist and Rutgers faculty union president Todd Wolfson, who argues that austerity is not the only possible response to our current crisis: “we could also seize this moment of crisis to make our universities more equitable and resilient by restoring public funding and prioritizing a deeper democratic purpose. For this to happen, faculty, staff, students, and adjacent communities must mobilize and demand a seat at the table.”  Wolfson pulls no punches in outlining the dimensions of the crisis of public higher education:

[T]here is the structural issue of massive disinvestment. On the other, there is the flawed response to this massive disinvestment: a corporate neoliberal logic that places those managers with absolutely no qualifications to run institutions of higher education in the highest positions of power. This trajectory has had a terrible impact on the future of higher education. This arrangement does not reflect the core mission of the university: research, teaching, and service to the community…The crisis in public higher education today is the result of this long-term strategy to deprioritize the students, staff, and faculty.

But, as Wolfson continues, another university is possible—“one that values our amazing dining staff, adjunct faculty, groundskeepers, and building staff….a university that includes and hears everyone’s voices and prioritizes the core missions of the institution…particularly service to the communities in which we are located.”

This is your union: please tell us at how you think we can all best work to make the kind of connections that will empower the larger community of UMass Boston.


Jeffrey Melnick

Graduate Program Director, American Studies Department

Communications Director, Faculty Staff Union Executive Committee

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