The events of the last month at the University of Missouri’s flagship campus in Columbia have been a sight to behold. From the seeds of student activism led by Black students in an area once known colloquially as Little Dixie, flowers have bloomed on college campuses across the country.
These demonstrations, coupled with a demand-making focused on material benefits that can improve opportunities for higher education for children of the working class, are part of an awakening. Students in the United States are starting to understand just how global capital has reshaped their colleges and universities for the worse. And now, they’re starting to understand how to fight back.
It began as many disputes do in a country without a publicly-funded national health service: as a fight over insurance.
The graduate students of the University of Missouri got a surprising email as the lunch hour approached on August 14th. With the screaming subject line “CHANGES IN STUDENT HEALTH INSURANCE SUBSIDY FOR GRADUATE TEACHING AND RESEARCH ASSISTANTS”, then-Assistant Vice Chancellor for Graduate Studies Dr. Leona Rubin dropped a bomb: medical insurance for graduate students would be discontinued. Citing the Affordable Care Act and alleging that the university would face substantive fines because they provided subsidies for “individual market plans,” the university decided to end the subsidy. Instead, they would use the money to give a one-time fellowship to graduate students that would allow them to purchase coverage on their own.
However, there were three issues with this arrangement. The first was that the subsidy would be taxable, which shifted the tax burden from a university that holds an endowment worth over $800 million and expenditures of nearly $600 million onto a graduate student population where nearly a quarter are living below the federal individual poverty line. Given the meager compensation that many graduate students receive, the notion that they might be able to purchase their own health insurance and still have money to eat and pay bills is one that is disconnected from reality. It certainly was not my reality: as a Thurgood Marshall Fellow and a graduate research assistant, I still took out loans in order to make ends meet during my time at MU. And that was without being asked to pay the equivalent of $254.25 per month for insurance so that I could see a doctor at the Student Health Center.
The final insult to injury? The insurance cancellation was effective August 15th. That’s right. The University of Missouri Columbia told its graduate students that they had roughly thirteen hours to search for insurance that they could afford (and that the Student Health Center would accept) and use their one-time stipend towards its purchase. If anyone has ever navigated the labyrinth that is American health insurance and the tax laws that govern such entities, you know that thirteen hours is probably not enough time to make an important and costly healthcare decision. The Show-Me State’s flagship university seemed to be showing 6,266 graduate students nothing but a stipend and a kick in the ass.
In isolation, perhaps this indignity might have passed with only mild grumbling. But the truth is that this is part of a decades-long disinvestment in higher education. The University of Missouri System, which encompasses the campuses in St. Louis, Kansas City, Rolla, and the statewide extension service in addition to the flagship in Columbia, saw about 57 percent of its operating revenue covered by state appropriations in fiscal year 1999. That percentage was down to around 36 percent in FY 2014. As bad as that might sound, the state of Missouri is only following a national trend: The Government Accountability Office found that overall state appropriations for higher education decreased from 32 percent in FY 2003 to 23 percent in FY 2012. For undergraduate students, that means soaring tuition: that same GAO study found that tuition as a proportion of university funding has risen by 55 percent in that same ten year period. If you are a graduate teaching assistant, it means that your median wages have barely kept up with the rate of inflation while your teaching load has exploded.
Compounding all of those issues was the sense that the university cared little about racism on campus.
Each of the two years that I spent on campus earning my master’s in public affairs saw racist incidents met with a fairly weak response. The response to the latter incident was to create a campus diversity initiative called One Mizzou. While the campaign had noble intentions, the writing was on the wall when no members of the Legion of Black Collegians (LBC), the university’s Black student organization, were present at the initial meeting of the initiative. Nor did the local news coverage of One Mizzou’s launch feature any Black students or faculty. One Mizzou put on a series of events to end the Spring Semester in 2011, but soon after the school year had ended, an EF5 tornado ripped through the city of Joplin in the southwestern part of the state. When it was all said and done, 162 people had lost their lives in the deadliest tornado to touch down in the United States since 1947. As expected, MU pitched in for Joplin relief efforts….under the banner of One Mizzou. Those expecting that One Mizzou might return to its original mission of promoting diversity and racial acceptance on campus would be disappointed—it eventually became a marketing effort for the university. You know, like the ads you see on television during college football and basketball games.
As an admission that One Mizzou no longer served the purpose that it had been intended to serve, MU ended the campaign in June 2015 after student complaints. Meanwhile, the kind of racism that would lead a pickup truck full of white men to harass the president of the Missouri Students Association, Payton Head, by repeating calling him a nigger or a drunk person to hurl slurs at the LBC homecoming court seemed to go without a vigorous response from the university.
It seemed to the students of color at the University of Missouri Columbia that One Mizzou seemed to include everyone but them.
We have all heard what happened next: a student decided to go on a hunger strike, Black students decided to rally behind him, and then the football team effectively went on strike. The result was the immediate resignation of University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe and resignation of the Columbia campus’s chancellor, R. Bowen Loftin, effective at the end of the year. And while the aftermath of that unqualified victory has focused on the peripheral (muh free speech) and the extrapolatory (This Is Just The Beginningism), there has been one aspect of this that has, surprisingly, been left on the table:
This was a rare example of a successful student labor strike.
The actions of Jonathan Butler were brave, and the coalition of Black undergrads and graduate students of all backgrounds that came together to give him support was a sight to behold. But the truth of the matter is that, as a labor organizer friend once told me, anything is negotiable when you threaten a capitalist’s money. And with football making up 43 percent of the university’s $83.7 million athletic budget, the thought of forfeiting games - and losing money through the refunding of ticket sales - because of ineffectual organizational leadership was something that became too hard a pill to swallow for the powers that be.
The event opens up a sea of possibilities for student activists looking to transform the modern university into something that is more open and democratic. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 46.1 percent of postsecondary students have had classes that were taught to them by graduate students. This data was taken in the 2003-2004 school year, and with the adjunctification (yes, I just made that word up) of higher education, this proportion is probably much higher today. This gives graduate students an incredible amount of leverage; the day that Wolfe and Loftin resigned, graduate students had planned a walk-out and teach-in in solidarity with the Black students on campus. Imagine the possibilities if graduate students in the United States decided to go out on strike for better pay and benefits, either one campus at a time or through a nationwide general strike? One could look to York University in Toronto as an example of what is possible: graduate students there won an increased funding package, a tuition reduction for international graduate students, and a tuition freeze.
But the graduate students at York would not have been successful without solidarity from other quarters of the university, such as the faculty and staff who refused to cross the picket line. Faculty and staff would need to play that role in potential student labor conflicts in the United States, but there is a huge potential for success if student-athletes join the coalition for change in higher education. Athletes have often been seen as a population apart, whether it is because of the athletics-involved scandals over the years or simply because of the geography of the big-time college campus. With regards to the latter, athletes at many universities live in separate dorms, eat in a separate cafeteria, and exercise in a separate gym. It effectively isolates them from broader political and social discussions on campus since most students will only personally encounter athletes in class or at campus social events. If this sounds familiar to those who know their labor history, it should: it is basically the setup of the company towns that once dominated the lives of the working class across the South.
But student-athletes have shown signs that the political milieu of the moment are not passing them by. There were the recent efforts to form a student-athletes’ union and reclassify them as employees under federal labor law, which hit a big snag with the National Labor Relations Board’s decision not to assert jurisdiction over the case. There were the prominent college athletes speaking out on social issues, like Ohio State quarterback and BCS National Championship Game MVP Cardale Jones voicing support for the Black Lives Matter movement. And now there is the Missouri Tigers football team working to bring down not just the person who ran the individual campus, but also the person who ran the entire university system. College athletics, according to PBS Frontline, is “probably an $8 billion industry, roughly the size of the NFL.” Threaten that kind of money, and the sky is the limit with regards to the aims we can achieve.
All of this might seem extraordinary. But only because the U.S. isn’t used to this sort of thing. Throughout the rest of the Americas—nay, the rest of the world—the spirit of revolt against a model of higher education that devalues the worth of working-class students and the overwhelming population of contingent labor that teaches them has been underway for quite some time.
That is because governments across the globe have engaged in a war on higher education for some time. In the United States, universities are raising tuition to heights once thought unthinkable for something that is widely perceived to be a public good. What is also clear, however, is that this neoliberal consensus amongst the power elite is being challenged from below. A global threat to the integrity of public higher education is being met with a global challenge from those communities most affected. Whether it is the California tuition protests in 2009 and 2014, Quebec’s Maple Spring of 2012, the ongoing challenge to two successive presidential administrations by the students of Chile, or the ongoing effort in South Africa, it is our youth that are leading the resistance to a punitive ‘reform’ of higher education.
Within this context of global pushback from students, perhaps this Semester of Discontent at the University of Missouri Columbia is not so surprising. The neoliberal model of higher education depends on your continued acquiescence and docility in the face of increasing privatization and shrinking access for students who are not of the monied class. Only through radical coalition building and the fashioning of actionable material demands will we put an end to all this and take our colleges and universities back for those that they were meant for.
It is time to fight back.