Sunday, February 10, 2013

Labor Studies and the Corporate University

By Chris Morrill (from

There's nothing quite like the Labor Studies program at UMass Boston. It's more than just the only Labor Studies B.A. in New England. Labor students have an opportunity to be treated as equals by sharing their experiences and knowledge, not just be told the “right answer”. The most age- and race-diverse classes I've had have been in Labor Studies.

The closing of the Labor Studies program is not only a tragedy for students in the program like me, but also for anyone who worries about paying their tuition bill or who loves rich, cooperative learning. Taking a stand for Labor Studies is to take a stand for the best parts of UMass Boston.

This kind of learning is becoming increasingly extinct at UMass Boston, slowly killed off by the corporate model for education. The soul of learning at UMass has been torn apart by the “free market”.

This isn't a new trend. Since the decline of the social movements of the 1960s and 70s, higher education has shifted from being a right and a source of enrichment for all people, to being a paid service for improving your job opportunities for only those who can shell out the cash.

Since the 2008 financial crash, this shift has been even more pronounced. Using budget shortfalls as an excuse, both Democrats and Republicans have ramped up their project of raising fees and further imposing the cutthroat, profit-centered ideology of the free market on public schools like UMass Boston.

We only need to look at the results at UMass Boston to see why we need to challenge the market model for education.

Under the market model, learning is being reduced to numbers and cents – its richness and variety is getting carved out. The value of learning for students is reduced to the size of your starting salary when you graduate. Just like a corporation, the university sets out goals for academic programs' growth – any program not growing isn't a worthy “investment”. The most valuable programs are those that can net the school high-value research grants. That's why a program like Labor Studies – that teaches working people their own inherent dignity and value – is always going to be misunderstood by corporate administrators at UMass Boston.

Under the market model, profit for the corporation (once known as a school) is priority number one. So when Assistant Provost Kristine Alter pities us “poor” Labor Studies students for our small classes, she has little sympathy for students. What she really bemoans is lost dollars for her and her fellow university executives. After all, the fewer students in the class, the less tuition money the university keeps after paying the professor. No wonder they're looking to pack more students into large lecture halls in the new General Academic Building (taught by inexpensive graduate assistants). It's sound business, even if it is a terrible plan for the rest of us.

Under the market model, there is absolutely no shared control of our learning. Just like a corporation, the university is controlled solely by its administrators from the top down. Decisions like whether Labor Studies program will continue to exist are not opened up for discussion and debate. Instead, memos are sent out and programs are closed without warning. Corporate administrators always pretend to listen to student and faculty concerns, but without us organizing they are under no pressure to act.

It is this corporate model for education that is at the heart of the administration's desire to “update” UMass for the 21st century. It is this model that is at the heart of nearly all the issues students face at UMass Boston – from rising tuition and parking fees, to growing class sizes. It's not a coincidence. The corporate model for education hurts every student, staff person, and faculty member.

This is why defending the Labor Studies program right now is so important for the entire UMass Boston community. We need to challenge this corporatization of our school every time it sticks its neck out – even if it doesn't affect us in obvious ways.

By fighting these smaller battles, we can lay the groundwork for winning the kind of school all of us deserve.