The American workforce is at a crossroads. Shaken to its foundation by the Great Recession, the economy is slowly rebuilding — and we’re making some seriously wrong moves. Over the last 30 years, the number of people in labor unions has decreased by half. U.S. CEOs earn 350 times more than the average employee, according to Harvard Business School.
And for most U.S. workers, real wages — what people earn after inflation is taken into account — have been flat or falling since the 1960s, says the Pew Research Center. As the nation tries to close race and gender pay gaps and improve wages, workers need powerful advocates. But they are becoming less common, and possibly now, there will be even fewer.
The future of the University of Massachusetts Amherst Labor Center is in jeopardy. Over Labor Day, former Labor Center director Eve Weinbaum went public with a list of ways she says the university is “cutting” the center, which educates students on topics such as labor unions, bargaining, and community organizing — charges the university says are “untrue.”
Regardless of the reason, both Weinbaum and UMass note that the Center will be providing fewer classes than it was a few years ago.
What’s happening to the Labor Center is symptomatic of the new higher ed — a system bent on attracting students with luxe amenities for coeds. Though its mission is important to the nation’s future, the center is struggling because its academic programs aren’t attracting enough students, and money to support the center is getting tight. Meanwhile, tuition and fees shoot skyward like sparkly new student buildings on campus.
In a letter posted to The Double Standard, a local labor blog, last weekend, Weinbaum said UMass has eliminated funding for the center’s graduate student teachers and researchers as well as part-time faculty, cut the director’s position down from 12 months a year to 9, reduced the center’s course offerings, and ousted Weinbaum as director. She alleged UMass officials told her the Labor Studies master’s degree program could continue only if it were a “revenue generator.”
UMass has a different spin on the situation. First, UMass officials say the Labor Center hasn’t so much been “cut” as funding has been reduced due to a lack of student interest. In 2005, for example, the Labor Center educated 83.2 full-time equivalent students, but in 2015 that number had shrunk to 51.1 students. The university doesn’t require any of its programs to be “profit centers,” and the School of Behavioral Sociology has been regularly subsidizing the Labor Center’s budget, said spokesperson Edward Blaguszewski.
“The university is simply requiring the center to use its own funds to run its own programs,” he said. Blaguszewski said that Weinbaum wasn’t dismissed; her three-year term running the center was up and her resignation was part of a settlement UMass reached over grievances she filed in response to earlier changes at the center. The university has created a part-time position to help student recruitment at the center.
Like most public universities, UMass has been struggling against cuts in state aid for decades, leading the campus system to make all kinds of adjustments — lay-offs, courses cut, and maintenance deferred — to keep the halls of academia open. It’s also forced public higher-ed to be more strategic in how it attracts and spends money, making sure campus research is in line with popular (read: lucrative) areas of interest and encouraging the university to spend on attractive perks for students like new stadiums over investment in academics. Both Weinbaum and Blaguszewski noted that the state picking up less of the operating budget than it used to also contributes to the center’s woes.
So, I have a radical proposal for spending higher-ed dollars: Invest the money in academics.
This approach is going to take some serious getting used to for those who expect colleges and universities to serve as educational Disneylands — providing comfortable, entertaining, magical experiences that inspire as well as thrill. The University of Iowa has a $53 million campus recreation center, complete with an 18-foot diving well, bubble benches, and lazy river. California State University, Long Beach, has a $70 million wellness facility with hand scanners for secure entry. UMass hasn’t built anything this ostentatious, but it did spend $30 million to update its stadium. Meanwhile, UMass annually pays millions to subsidize the football program, according to a Faculty Senate report.
Our expectations of what an educational experience should be have grown so far beyond studying for a career that college is no longer an affordable option for many people who need careers. We cannot continue to build state-of-the-art campus gymnasiums while places like the UMass Labor Center shrink because people aren’t as interested today in protecting employees from abuse as they were 10 years ago. Academia is not a place to be popular. Academia is a place to invest in important ideas, people, and the future — regardless of whether society is on board.
But we can’t do that with the educational system we have now, and important educators — especially those who look out for the interests of the abused and maligned working poor — are paying the price. Make no mistake: we’ll all eventually pay for investing in what’s popular over what’s necessary.