COVID-19 has exposed the fragility and inequity of the U.S. system of higher education. Decades of state disinvestment coupled with the rise of corporate management techniques has led to skyrocketing tuition, soaring student debt, precarious academic labor, and many other pernicious effects—from racial disparities in access and outcomes, to the explosion of predatory for-profit colleges. As a result, American universities are uniquely vulnerable to the pandemic’s economic shocks. Faced with declining enrollments, massive budget cuts, hiring freezes, layoffs, and more, countless schools are in financial peril and many may have to close their doors for good. But deeper austerity is not the only possible response—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.

This is what’s happening at Rutgers, New Jersey’s venerable public university which recently declared a COVID-induced “fiscal emergency.” Using the organizing framework known as Bargaining for the Common Good, Rutgers faculty have built a powerful coalition that won a huge victory last year and is currently embroiled in an even bigger fight to keep the entire Rutgers community safe and secure in the months and years ahead. The coalition’s guiding vision of a university governed by and accountable to the community it serves is not only inspiring; it is also strategic and pragmatic, bringing otherwise distinct unions and constituencies into a formidable coalition. And the fight at Rutgers contains lessons applicable across the country. It is clear Rutgers has extraordinary resources: the challenge is forcing powerful decision-makers to distribute them fairly and prioritize the well-being of staff and students. I spoke with Todd Wolfson, anthropologist, professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies, and president of the Rutgers local of the American Association of University Professors–American Federation of Teachers (AAUP-AFT). We discussed why creating cross-sector solidarity is so important and why the university must not only be saved, but transformed.

—Astra Taylor

Astra Taylor: Higher education seems to be in a perpetual state of crisis. What are your general thoughts on the crisis? And how did that set the stage for the devastation that the pandemic has brought to higher education?

“We’ve come to this critical moment because of history: the long-term trend of disinvestment in higher education.”

Todd Wolfson: Rutgers, and higher education writ large, has been hit quite profoundly by the pandemic. Campuses swiftly shuttered in March. Students living in dorms were asked to pack up and leave; faculty teaching classes were asked to rapidly shift those classes online; staff across the university were asked to work remotely. Since then, faculty, students, staff and administrators have been trying to navigate a growing crisis. Many campuses will be entirely online in the fall, and students and parents are questioning the effectiveness of that approach. Meanwhile staff, faculty, and graduate students who make our colleges and universities work are facing increasing precarity. Many have either lost their jobs or been furloughed.

While the pandemic has had a particularly adverse impact on higher education, we’ve come to this critical moment because of the history that precedes it: the long-term trend of disinvestment in higher education. This retrenchment has taken place on both the state and federal levels, and it has been catastrophic for public state universities like Rutgers that have been starved for resources. In response, many—if not all—managers of public schools have adopted the logic of the increasingly corporate and neoliberal university, marked by the twin developments of eroding faculty governance and increasing administrative bloat. This has led to the explosion of administrative positions, from executive vice presidents and senior vice presidents to provosts, vice provosts, “deanlings” and “deanlets.” These new administrators, many not out of the ranks of the faculty, increasingly control the operations of our colleges and universities.

In its last report to the Department of Education, Rutgers said it had 312 management-level non-medical staff, whose salaries totaled more than $65 million (for an average of about $209,000). Most of those—233—were not faculty members at all. The large majority of these top-level administrators are thus not part of the professoriate, and they don’t come out of the teaching faculty. The managers that run the university are accountants, lawyers, and human relations bureaucrats. This situation has come to a head at Rutgers during the pandemic. There were almost no teaching faculty involved in any of the critical decisions made around COVID-19.

So, on the one hand, there 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.

First, these higher ed bureaucrats have grown the adjunct workforce and diminished the quantity of long-term stable jobs of tenure-track faculty. Adjuncts themselves are fantastic, of course: they are great, dedicated teachers, working under terrible constraints, and they often teach at five or six institutions. (At Rutgers adjuncts work up and down the Eastern seaboard, from the Hudson Valley down to Maryland.) But the roles of adjunct professors are increasingly insecure. Overall, we’ve seen a major decrease in the number of secure positions and a huge increase in the number of precarious positions.

Second, university managers continue to raise tuition for both undergraduate and graduate students, producing ballooning student debt for our graduates.

And finally, at Rutgers specifically, the university has chosen to subsidize athletics by hundreds of millions of dollars—between $30 and $50 million a year. There is this magical idea that athletics will change the university’s reputation and correspondingly its bottom line. So, while all of the athletic programs lose money, the students at Rutgers—alongside New Jersey taxpayers—subsidize the athletics program.

This arrangement does not reflect the core mission of the university: research, teaching, and service to the community. Instead these decisions, made by higher education bureaucrats, are about creating a corporate institution that boasts a public profile while prioritizing the growth of the endowment. The crisis in public higher education today is the result of this long-term strategy to deprioritize the students, staff, and faculty.

AT: You have been pushing for shared governance. On the one hand, there is this classic idea of the university: one in which the faculty function as a kind of guild, maintain autonomy over their teaching and research, and are insulated from practical concerns about the university’s funding. That is one alternative to the now dominant managerial, neoliberal model. But you and other faculty are making a much more radical proposal: reserving seats at the decision-making table not just for faculty but for all staff and community members. Can you discuss that? Why has COVID-19 shown that more people should be involved in crucial decisions?

TW: For a long time Rutgers faculty have been excluded from the university’s decision-making process. We have a vision of a different university, the classic model of which includes “faculty governance.” But we do not believe that faculty governance means only including teachers. Rutgers has 30,000 workers who are making a life serving this institution—serving the students, maintaining our buildings, feeding us lunch, teaching us, conducting research. They should be making decisions about the university, not lawyers, accountants, and human resource bureaucrats. Add to that the 50,000 undergraduate students and 20,000 graduate students and you have a body of 100,000 people.

“Rutgers has 30,000 workers who are making a life serving this institution. They should be making decisions about the university.”

We want to build that body into a Rutgers worker and student council, one that unites us all. And together this council will work collaboratively to make decisions. That does not mean every decision is made together—faculty should still determine how curriculum works, groundskeepers should still play a key role in developing the vision for facilities—but together we can build a vision for the future of the university that serves us all. Together we can lift our voices.

Collectively we can help reorient the university that has lost its way. Students should be involved as well, in a deeper, democratic sense. For instance, the Rutgers board of governors, the entity invested with ultimate authority, lacks any student voices. When the board considers tuition hikes, not one student has a role in helping to make that decision, which is why you see tuition hikes as the preferred solution to budget shortfalls. This is the first year that tuition has not gone up. For the past two decades, tuition has risen every year because student input is not respected.

Moreover, Rutgers is embedded in three cities that are primarily comprised of working-class populations of color: Newark, New Brunswick, and Camden. Rutgers continually pays lip service to its commitment to those communities. In our vision, by contrast, the university should have a much larger commitment to communities where the university resides. People who live in these cities send their children to Rutgers, or are working at Rutgers, or have a partner working at Rutgers. We envision a university that supports their development with their voices at the center. This entails a very different university—one that values our amazing dining staff, adjunct faculty, groundskeepers, and building staff. We imagine a university that includes and hears everyone’s voices and prioritizes the core missions of the institution: teaching, research, and service, particularly service to the communities in which we are located.

AT: I want to talk about the really remarkable Bargaining for the Common Good project—a framework for organizing that goes way beyond the traditional bread-and-butter model. Your predecessor, Deepa Kumar, facilitated impressive victories last year, which you’re building on.

TW: Our predecessors, particularly Kumar and David Hughes, asked how we might create a social justice union that fights to refocus the university. We studied some of the core problems that our members face, including—surprise, surprise—that women and people of color are paid less. We also fought to ensure that the faculty at the university reflect the people of the state.

“We want to fight alongside our residents, communities, and neighbors.”

New Jersey is approximately 20 percent Latinx and 13 percent African American, yet Rutgers faculty is 2 or 3 percent Latinx and less than 5 percent African American. Neither of these statistics mirrors the state’s demographics. Over half of New Brunswick is Spanish-speaking, and many residents are undocumented.

In the last contract campaign we nearly went on strike. It was driven not solely by the desire for raises or benefits, but instead by the belief that women and people of color should be paid as much as their white and male counterparts and that the university faculty should reflect the state’s diversity. Based on the leadership of my predecessors, we won on both of those counts. We got a pay equity process—which enables women and people of color to get equity raises—and about $40 million in funds to recruit and retain people of color on the faculty. These were critical first steps in our bargaining for the common good approach and Kumar and Hughes were instrumental in this work.

In conjunction with this focus, we collaborated with many of the community groups in New Brunswick, Newark, and Camden, asking about community needs and how we can best support their fights. This happened the most in New Brunswick where we conducted a study with a group called New Labor, which represents largely Spanish-speaking workers in New Brunswick and Newark. We tried to locate their key concerns and connect them with the concerns of Rutgers students. Through the study we found that the primary concerns for both the undergraduate population and New Brunswick residents are low-wage work, housing, and health care. In response, we’ve been crafting a campaign to merge those concerns and bring community, faculty, staff and students together.

These will be among the core issues we hope to address in Bargaining for the Common Good. How do we make sure that if Rutgers sets the housing market in New Brunswick, it does so justly? How can we demand that Rutgers stabilize the housing and rent markets for both students and the community? The largely Spanish-speaking majority that lives in New Brunswick has had no way to negotiate, but we imagine this process as a way to bring them into the bargaining process.

I should emphasize that the bargaining table can’t only address the needs of faculty members. The Chicago Teachers Union provides a shining example. In their last fight with the city of Chicago, they didn’t just say, “we need better raises and better pay for our teachers.” They said that thousands upon thousands of students in the Chicago school district are homeless or housing insecure—if we’re going to rebuild and reimagine the Chicago school district, we need to address that problem. We watched that and said—that is the future of the union movement.

That is how we want to orient ourselves. We want to fight alongside our residents, communities, and neighbors. Of course, we will fight over the problems that our faculty and students face, but we will also go to bat for the communities that we serve.

AT: I would like to raise a question about fiscal responsibility, and the fact that privatization isn’t about cost saving. To the contrary, it’s a form of extraction. Can you tell me about the proposal you put on the table and how that would have actually saved Rutgers money?

TW: There is no doubt that COVID-19 has had a financial impact on Rutgers. But the university has the finances, in their unrestricted reserves, to address this.

“Administrators tend to ride out crises on the backs of those most vulnerable. We knew the university would respond in the laziest and most damaging way.”

They say that they’ve lost $50 million in the refunds from dorms and dining fees during spring of last year, about $70 million in state appropriation money, and another chunk from elective surgeries in their health system. But their numbers keep shifting, and because they don’t give us anything more than top-line figures, it’s hard for us to verify any of their claims about the financial impacts of the pandemic. All told, they claim to have lost somewhere around $200 million, and then probably more going into the next fiscal year. They haven’t been transparent with us, which is one of the problems with a university run by accountants and lawyers.

We also know that administrators tend to ride out crises on the backs of those most vulnerable. History tells us this. We knew the university would respond in the laziest and most damaging way. We knew, in particular, they would focus on laying off the most vulnerable because it’s extra-contractual to do layoffs. And then they would go after some low-hanging fruit, like workers’ raises won in the last contract negotiations—they could declare a fiscal emergency and take our raises.

We said no. It is important to note that this took place before George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were murdered, before the uprisings around white supremacy and police violence exploded. But even before that, we knew we needed to have a proactive position.

My union, in conjunction with other unions, began to discuss and forge what is now called the Coalition of Rutgers Unions (CRU), a collaboration of more than 19 union locals representing 20,000 workers. The other 10,000 workers at Rutgers are non-union. We assembled as the Coalition of Rutgers Unions and collectively put forward a work-sharing program that CRU put hundreds of hours into working out. The idea of worksharing is that Rutgers employees accept furloughs, but their lost pay is fully made up through government unemployment benefits Based on New Jersey law, people can workshare between 20 to 60 percent of their time. With these state benefits and, crucially, the $600 weekly federal unemployment supplement passed in the CARES Act, we saw a way to protect the incomes of all 30,000 Rutgers workers with worksharing through the end of July, when the CARES Act runs out.

This could have saved the university upwards of $140 million if the administration had acted quickly—a huge chunk of their potential losses, if not all of their losses. We did all of the work to make that happen, while the university administrators did little to address the crisis. We also put together a program we called a “people-centered response to the pandemic.” We brought this proposal to the table and said, look, we’ll proactively work on this with you.

In return, we asked for simple things such as no layoffs and the rescinding of existing layoff notices such as the layoff of 20 percent of our adjunct faculty for the fall, which had already been announced in April. We called for a hardship fund for international students ineligible for CARES Act support and unable to work off campus. We called for a one-year funding extension for graduate teaching and graduate assistants whose research was brought to a halt by the pandemic. We called for hazard pay for our health care workers who are treating COVID-19 patients. And we called on the university to give free COVID-19 testing to residents in our communities. We submitted these requests to the university alongside the workshare program, and our asks were a tiny fraction of the overall savings of the program. The university never responded in a meaningful manner. Once a week they met with us and repeatedly said they were crunching numbers. They were actually just bargaining to an impasse because they didn’t want the Coalition to take the lead. As far as we know, they were advised by a firm known for union busting, Jackson Lewis.

“The moral arguments should win, but it’s not about morality; it’s about power. It always will be.”

One of their strategies is to bargain to an impasse, to break the morale of the union and its workers. It makes sense. Of course they don’t want a coalition of 20,000 workers and 19 unions leading right now; they would rather take the easy and lazy path of layoffs. To date, a thousand people have been laid off. It’s quite possible that another thousand will also lose their jobs. In order to win a frugal deal, about 750 people were threatened with layoffs until they agreed to furlough at 60 percent of their time through the end of the calendar year, with no job security down the road. The people that they’re laying off or putting on indefinite leave are largely people of color, people two to three times more likely to contract COVID-19.

To be clear, a thousand workers lost their health care in the middle of a pandemic. It’s unconscionable, and the savings the university garnered with the layoffs is a fraction of what we offered. We proposed that if COVID-19 returned in the fall and again devastated the university, we would come back to the table to discuss other measures that might save the university. We did not want to lock them in forever; we wanted to stop these layoffs. But to no avail.

The moral arguments should win, but it’s not about morality; it’s about power. It always will be.

AT: Do we want the university as we know it to survive the pandemic? How would you change the university? If you had dictatorial powers for a week—to get even more dramatic—what would you change?

TW: If they had worked on this solution with us we would have saved thousands of people’s jobs, instead those people are now looking for work and living without healthcare in the midst of a global health crisis. This would have made a profound difference. But on a deeper level it would have shown that workers and unions are able to lead in a moment of crisis. The current university leadership—this isn’t the new president coming in July, who we have great hopes for—does not have a vision for how to lead the university. They don’t have an understanding of what it means to teach, what it means to do research, and what it means to do service in our communities.

“All workers and students are necessary if we are to solve the problems in front of us.”

But there are people who do. That’s the 30,000 workers who actually make the university work. That is the kind of leadership the university needs. So when we talk about the university we aim to build at Rutgers, we are talking about a university that is not run by lawyers and accountants. We are talking about a university where the voices of all 30,000 workers as well as 70,000 students are heard and respected. We are also talking about a university that is deeply committed to local communities.

Too often the faculty, who I represent, think that they’re the only ones that have all the answers. We are not, and we do not. It’s not some exclusive guild. All workers and students are necessary if we are to solve the problems in front of us. That was clear when we were pulling together the workshare plan. It could not have been done without the critical leadership of the service employees, the healthcare employees, and the administrative staff.

The faculty plan was influenced by other unions’ members and leaders. Talk to Christine O’Connell, the president of Union of Rutgers Administrators, or Danny Duffy, the president of the AFSCME local, or Justin O’Hea and Ryan Novosielskithe co-president’s of the nurses local, or Amy Higer, the president of the adjunct local and you’ll see that. They led. It was critical that faculty stepped back, saw our privilege, learned, and then worked to center other voices and other unions.

I think there’s also a great pedagogical element here. It raises the question of what the pedagogy of a more democratic university would be. Is there room for faculty to think in terms of solidarity with students and staff? There can’t be a single brain in a multi-headed creation.

And then there’s the issue of power. As we’ve said, it’s a power struggle. Maybe that could be our closing thought. This is about power we created by making better arguments than the administration. We’ve continually made the better argument and they’ve continually responded: it does not matter.

Our campus is sick. This is why we must build a coalition of unions, students, and communities. We need to build a different kind of power, and Rutgers AAUP-AFT and the Coalition of Rutgers Unions is doing this work.

The next frontier is to figure out how to build worker’s councils at Rutgers that represent all workers and extend it so that we can build power with our students and community members. We see a huge opportunity to change the balance of power at Rutgers and in New Jersey. And in so doing we also see an opportunity to reimagine the public university of the twenty-first century. But to do it, we need to build power and a structure that includes every voice that has a stake in the future of Rutgers.