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The Point: Zombie University


Greetings, Colleagues:

Happy New Year!  I hope the break brought you some peace and some time to regroup after what I know was, for so many of us, a truly challenging semester.  I also know that there are some (good) reasons to feel like perhaps we can exhale a bit, perhaps let go of some of the adaptive vigilance we have had to don like armor for the past year.

But on every political level—from our campus and Dorchester neighborhood to the unstable national scene—it seems as if perhaps we better stay fired up for the near term.  Here’s why.  (I mean it might be enough to note that Massachusetts’ vaccine rollout efficacy compared to other states seems to be hovering right around where our funding-per-public-high-ed student is: that is to say, as my ExCom colleague Joe Ramsey explained not too long ago, in the bleak mid-30s.)

The overlapping crises we find ourselves confronting right now in public higher education don’t actually represent a historical rupture or strange U-Turn from the path we were on: every expression of austerity budgeting and administrative overreach we encounter parses, in fact, as the logical culmination of decades of careful, devastating attack.  Writing in Inside Higher Ed, John Warner encourages us to think of the landscape of higher education as our “present dystopia”:  “I feel like there's not nearly enough alarm about the threat to higher education if we maintain our current trajectory. Seems akin to climate change, a hesitancy to confront how bad things are because it means dealing with hard stuff.”

Some of you might find Warner’s tone alarmist, but the reading I did over winter break—from colleagues’ emails to that new genre of essay, every one of which seems to have a title featuring the phrase faculty burnout, to numerous news stories about attacks on tenure and shared governance—tells me he is right to be ringing these bells.  “This isn’t arranging deck chairs on the Titanic,” Warner suggests, “it’s diving under the water after the ship is already sunk and believing you can move into one of the staterooms.”

Two stories worried me above all the rest.  One is about the attack on tenure and shared governance made by the Board of Regents in Kansas.  Claiming financial exigency, the Board there voted to allow for “emergency” employee terminations and suspensions in the state’s public higher ed institutions. Tenure is no protection.  For years contingent faculty members have been trying to get the attention of their tenure-stream colleagues, trying to make it clear that the logic of institutionalized austerity meant that no jobs would ultimately be safe.  “Ultimately” is here.  Of course we should all sign this solidarity statement but we should also begin conversations about how the protocols of the gig economy have been exerting a malign influence on our own workplace. Especially as we commit, with our new chancellor’s leadership, to transforming UMB into an anti-racist and health promoting institution.

The other story is almost too incredible to believe.  It turns out that a class at Montreal’s Concordia University is being taught by a dead professor: the materials were originally loaded onto the university’s eConcordia online learning platform and now are being repurposed for the remote “in person” realities of the COVID era. Talk about your distance learning!

But in all seriousness the implications of this tragic story are as predictable as they are terrifying: I know that you recently got a mailing from FSU president Steve Striffler about the current realities surrounding online courses, intellectual property rights, and remuneration. If you haven’t already, please have a look at his email—the problem (file under: why I never use Blackboard) is not going away any time soon and has far-reaching implications for the work we do, how we do it, and who “owns” it.  The warped extractive logic of academic capitalism—teaching being done from beyond the grave by ghosts while thousands of qualified teachers remain un- or underemployed—has reached some kind of endgame.

More broadly, the Kansas story and the Concordia story remind us that the university so many of us came of age in has begun to look more and more like what the British cultural critic Raymond Williams defined, in 1977, as part of a residual culture--not completely a relic of the past, but certainly long ago eclipsed by more powerful “experiences, meanings, and values” of the dominant culture.  The question we have to grapple with is what the “emergent” post-COVID university (to use another Williams’ keyword) will look like.

This is your union: please tell us at how you think we can achieve the university that UMB students, staff, and faculty all deserve.


Jeffrey Melnick

American Studies Department

Communications Director, Faculty Staff Union Executive Committee

For information on the FSU, links to our contract and bargaining updates, and a calendar of events, see the FSU webpage