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Scholars for Social Justice

Interview with Gillian Mason, conducted by Jennifer Berkshire, newsletter editor


Tell us about Scholars for Social Justice—what does the group do?

Scholars for Social Justice is a group of academics who are invested in social justice and are interested in fighting corporatization both inside and outside of the university. We’ve currently got just over 300 members and they come from all over the state from Amherst to Boston. We try to amplify their voices and connect them to opportunities for activism on issues that matter most to them.

So members aren’t only focused on issues related to higher education then.

The idea is to build a network of academics but also connecting academics to the larger community. Let me give you an example. Last year the head of the adjunct union at UMass Lowell, Ellen Martins, was dismissed by the university. She was one of the original organizers of the union and Scholars for Social Justice was able to get a petition out that was helpful in union negotiations. Ellen ended up getting her job back. But while all this was going on the members of the adjunct union also mobilized to support workers at Walmart who’d been fired or disciplined for protesting low wages there. It’s a great example of what we’re capable of doing.

As we detail on page 3, there’s a lot of organizing happening among adjuncts in the Boston area. Is Scholars for Social Justice involved in this?

Absolutely. Many of our members are adjuncts, which isn’t surprising given that 75% of university courses are now taught by contingent faculty. We see our primary focus as being about the corporatization of higher education and that process falls heavily on adjuncts, in fact corporatization creates adjuncts.

Talk a little more about this idea of corporatization. What does it mean for students and teachers here in Massachusetts?

Not only do adjunct and contingent labor make up the bulk of our academic labor force but nonprofit universities are starting to look more and more like for-profit operations. For example, at BU, students can pay a little extra in order to get a penthouse room with a view of the river. Here at UMass Boston, international students who don’t meet the admissions criteria can attend the university by paying a for-profit company called Navitas. These students, who are typically wealthy, pay Navitas, which then pays UMass Boston. Arrangements like this are more and more common.

Student debt is another big issue that seems like it has the potential to really fuel grassroots activism. Is this something that Scholars for Social Justice is interested in?

I’m glad you asked. As it happens we’ve got a big meeting coming up on December 3rd (for details see calendar on page 7), it’s the inaugural Massachusetts meeting of the Campaign for a Debt Free Future. The meeting is open to students, alumni, adjuncts, tenure-track faculty, union members. We want to find out what kind of work people are already doing and how we can collaborate. One issue that’s definitely on our radar though is the idea of debt forgiveness for adjunct faculty. Adjuncts are overwhelmed with debts. Many of them get PhDs or masters degrees and go onto the job market and, if they’re lucky, they’ll earn $3K per class. In places where there is a lot of adjunct organizing happening, there are increasing calls for some kind of student debt forgiveness for adjuncts. We got into debt because we wanted to teach and there has to be some accountability in the profession. ▪

Gillian Mason was an adjunct faculty member at UMass Boston and now works as an organizer for Massachusetts Jobs with Justice. For more information about Scholars for Social Justice contact