Higher Education, the Pandemic, Capitalism and Power

This article is based on a talk I gave at a recently held conference on how higher education unions are responding to the pandemic and proposed cuts. It was held by Higher Educators United, a Northern California group of faculty from many different colleges seeking to work together to address shared issues and concerns, something badly needed.

Many teachers have goals that include enriching the lives of students so they become more well-rounded as they develop the skills they need and want. A hope is they become socially engaged and work to improve society.

However, we live in a capitalist society that undermines these educational ideals. It shapes institutions in ways that serve to reproduce capitalism.

Under capitalism, our taxpayer funded higher education system is increasingly being turned into job training centers to serve the needs of business—perhaps, most directly, at the community college level.[1]

Additionally, colleges are being run as if they are businesses. Teachers are being told to be more productive—accept more students in their classes. Students are being treated as if they are being processed on a speeded-up assembly line. The ideal student is usually one who, upon entering college, soon decides on a major and focuses on completing requirements and quickly graduating.

To pay the ever-greater costs to enroll in college, many students have to amass large debts that they will be obliged to pay back with interest adding to the well-being of those who own and run financial institutions. The good news about student debt for creditors is that debtors won’t be able to cancel their student debts if they go bankrupt.

All of the above are some of the deep structural flaws in the U.S. higher education system which are largely flaws of capitalism.

These flaws are being made more evident during the pandemic and by the widespread anti-racist, anti-police brutality actions that bring out what has been obvious for years:

1. Many people of color have always been brutalized by cops and the criminal justice system.

2. Many people of color and poor whites have been suffering economically, are more negatively impacted by environmental degradation, and experience a lack of opportunities and proper health care especially now during the pandemic as is reflected in who is dying from Covid-19.

3. Despite the country’s greater wealth, higher taxes are not being imposed on billionaires to raise revenue needed to address the growing needs of people who are now experiencing even greater hardships.[2] Additionally, much of the tax revenue currently raised goes toward aiding the reproduction of capitalism by being squandered on the military, on wars, corporate subsidies and the “justice” systems police-prison-industrial complex.

4. Adding to our woes has been the weakness of organized labor though there have been signs of this beginning to be reversed by recent, predominantly grassroots, worker activities.

Unions have been severely weakened. Fewer workers belong to unions. Many, if not most, have not experienced their pay packages keeping up with increases in the cost of living even if their level of productivity—the amount of work they accomplish in the work day–has increased.

Many union leaders add to the weakness of unions by being secretive and operating in a top down manner–not having members make decisions concerning goals and strategy. This harms their effectiveness because when members make decisions that determine goals and strategies, they own them, and are more likely to fight for them.

Let me tie this to what is happening in higher education and at the public college where I teach, City College of San Francisco (CCSF.)

Over the last few years, well before the pandemic, in progressive and gentrifying San Francisco, hundreds of classes have been cut, depriving CCSF’s predominantly working and lower middle-class students of color of educational opportunities, reinforcing structural racism and classism.[3]

In a message dated May 15, CCSF’s interim chancellor wrote “Unfortunately, we have had to remove teaching assignments for nearly 250 part-time faculty for the Fall 2020 Semester” [which is about a third of the number of part-time faculty employed the previous year.][4]

A week later, in her May 22, 2020 message to the college community, she threatened more class and job cuts.

“Initial work on the 2020-21 academic year schedule was based on a budget of 1200 FTEF [Full-time equivalent faculty,] leading to a reduction of approximately 800 classes. … If we are not able to negotiate the required salary concessions from our constituency groups, we will be forced to furlough or lay off more employees and potentially drop down to 900 FTEF [a cut of about one-fourth of the already reduced number of scheduled classes] which would be a catastrophic blow to our community.”

The chancellor essentially stated employees must accept concessions. If they don’t, she will cut more classes including ones students are enrolled in causing more chaos in their lives, and eliminate more jobs even though doing so would be a “catastrophic blow to our community.” The faculty union would be hurt since class cuts reduce faculty income which determines the amount of union dues collected.

And what has been the response of the faculty union leadership at CCSF? It was illustrated in a union email message sent out on June 11 with the title “Concessions bargaining Update” asking members what form of austerity do they prefer? In their words:

The District is asking that all labor groups including AFT 2121 make a collective sacrifice to prevent further program cuts and layoffs in the face of this crisis. We are fighting to ensure that any such sacrifice protects our members and our college.  So with many difficult decisions ahead, we have been working with our members (you) to identify our collective negotiations priorities.

Protecting members and our college is left undefined. Furthermore, no mention is made of fighting to reverse cuts that have resulted in 250 part-time faculty losing their jobs teaching in vital programs such as English as a Second Language.

Three union meetings concerning negotiations have been held. Nothing has been debated or voted on—just a number of ideas have been floated out. Ultimately, the leadership will decide what positions to put forward in negotiations which may not matter since, as they acknowledge, they lack power: “If we cannot reach an agreement, administration could impose program cuts and layoffs.”

CCSF’s administration and board of trustees have enabled cuts and lay-offs to happen. However, they are not totally responsible for these conditions.

More responsibility rests with the policies of the people in charge—the Obamas and Trumps, and the Democrat Party in California who, for years, have dominated the state government and have been failing to adequately fund public education institutions despite ongoing endorsements and political support from teacher unions. [5]

Additionally, most of us teaching in higher education have been working for decades under two-tier contracts. We are job insecure part-timers/contingents who receive significantly less in pay and benefits for teaching the same classes (for which we are just as qualified) as our full-time colleagues.

Now, with the pandemic, as is happening at CCSF, most of the cuts around the country are going to be absorbed by part-timers and contingent faculty exacerbating this structural problem in higher education.[6]

This is unacceptable and needs to be fought. This won’t be a happy fight because the inferior position of part-timers and contingent faculty has been perpetuated for years by faculty unions in higher education controlled by full-time faculty members. They have accepted the second-class treatment of many of their colleagues, probably because the low pay of part timers and contingent faculty results in bigger salary packages for themselves.

In many ways, faculty union leaders have been collaborating with administrators as if the faculty union is a company union occupying a weaker and inferior position. The faculty union leadership at my college, and presumably elsewhere, are constantly being jerked around by the overpaid administrators whose numbers and salary packages have been swelling.[7]

We have to go well beyond reversing what we are facing. That includes making sure critical social programs and public institutions such as the post office are properly funded, and that the labor movement is tremendously strengthened and embraces social justice policies benefitting all of society.

There are alternatives. One example relevant to those teaching part-time in higher education, even in a capitalist society, is the Vancouver community college collective bargaining agreement. Under it, all faculty—part-timers and full-timers are, in theory, treated the same—with equal pay and benefits per class and equal seniority rights so part-timers with more seniority have priority over full-timers with less seniority.[8] However, this alternative has shortcomings. Faculty face lay-offs when government funding cuts are made.


1) In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama expressed his ambition to connect “companies to community colleges that can help design training to fill their specific needs.”https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2014/01/28/president-barack-obamas-state-union-address

2) https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/05/15/simple-solution-to-californias-anticipated-54-billion-budget-deficit/

3) Approximately 80% of CCSF’s students identify as being people of color. see https://www.ccsf.edu/dam/Organizational_Assets/Department/Research_Planning_Grants/Reports/FactSheets2018/Factsheet_StudentDemographics_Aug2018.pdf

4) One must scroll down.

5) California Federation of Teachers’ endorsements at https://www.cft.org/article/cft-endorsements-november-3

California Teachers Association’s endorsements https://justfacts.votesmart.org/interest-group/2268/california-teachers-association

On the lack of funding for public education in California, see my articles: https://www.counterpunch.org/2015/09/17/california-democrats-starve-public-education/ and https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/11/19/what-can-we-expect-from-the-democrat-alternative-in-california/

6) Some faculty union leaders will claim they favor social justice and will issue statements that include condemning police brutality, supporting striking workers, and showing solidarity with struggling peasants in poor countries. However, that support is rarely extended to many of their own dues paying members who are exploited job-insecure part-time faculty, some of whom live in poverty.

At CCSF, from the fall 2011 to fall 2019 term, student enrollment declined from 63,179 to 38,256 or by 39.4%. From fall 2011 to 2018, the number of full-time faculty declined 35.8% while the number of top administrators, who in 2018 were paid on average, $172,620, (more than $27,000 above the state average,) went from 40 to 56, an increase of 40% even though there are almost 40% fewer students.

In 2019, despite the large number of class cuts instituted to address a claim that the college was facing an almost $50 million deficit, the CCSF administration, right before the budget was approved, snuck in a provision providing themselves with a massive salary increase of as much as $100,000. After protests, the board of trustees approved a “modest” 10% salary increase. https://www.sfexaminer.com/opinion/city-college-budget-is-a-victory-for-inclusion/

7) Enrollment, pay and faculty and administration positions see https://datamart.cccco.edu/DataMart.aspx

8) See https://dissidentvoice.org/2012/04/disposable-teachers/ and https://www.chronicle.com/article/A-Canadian-College-Where/123629


More articles by:

Rick Baum teaches Political Science at City College of San Francisco. He is a member of AFT 2121.

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