The neoliberal restructuring of the university has created a laundry list of what are now familiar problems including the adjunctification of the faculty, skyrocketing tuition and student loan debt, administrative bloat, and sterilization of the intellectual and learning environments. In some ways, the university is now the institution that conservative policy makers in the 1980s hoped it would become. Yet, the right continues to demonize higher education as a bastion of progressive ideology—it’s delusional to think it was ever that at all—and the left continues to blithely spout the civic and economic virtues of higher education while ignoring the fact that today universities are financed like Ponzi schemes, as Jessica Lawless states in the following interview. Lawless is a former adjunct professor, an artist, and union organizer, and she offers compelling and challenging insights into the state of higher education, its role in society, the value of a degree, and how adjunct organizing fits, or fails to fit, into larger movements for social justice. Lawless has a broad perspective and does not pull any punches in her critiques of higher education.

She convincingly argues that academics need to get beyond lamenting the loss of their privileged place in society and begin to understand the connections as well as differences between groups like adjunct faculty, food service workers, and Black Lives Matter activists. This is a necessary step in organizing to address the problems of neoliberalism of which the academy is only a small part.


Pete Sinnott: I know that you’ve discussed this in other interviews, but could your briefly talk about your background, particularly how your perspective on higher education has changed as you transitioned from being a graduate student, to adjunct professor, to organizer?

Jessica Lawless: Discussing my background is the same as discussing how my perspective on and relationship to higher education has changed. For example, when I wrote from the location of an adjunct professor I would list out my degrees, publications, places I exhibited and presented. I would firmly locate myself in the elite world of academia to prove I had the right credentials to speak with authority. Before I had those credentials, I had other ones but they weren’t valued in academia.

I started grad school at 33, an age that I thought was young in relation to the many female mentors I had at different times in my life who had earned their degrees much later. I started grad school and learned about these mythical creatures that didn’t exist in my former worlds, people who went to college right after high school to grad school right after college, who had PhDs before they were 30. Most of my friends and communities were trying to make it to 30 alive. I lived in Seattle during the 90s so deaths from drug overdoses were all too common. And it wasn’t just ODs. Zolah committed suicide at 22, Mia was raped and murdered at 27. Rebekah died at 33 from a brain tumor she started dealing with at 29. Ray crashed his bicycle on his way to his girlfriend’s house after a night at the bar where we all hung out. Flesh eating disease from shooting up, HIV/AIDS, death or suicide from being in violent relationships. There was a pallor of grief, a focus on survival, and a need to numb the ever present pain of constant loss. My credentials were heroin use and homelessness due to domestic violence. My credentials were also being a co-founder of Home Alive, a feminist self-defense organization we started in the wake of Mia’s rape and murder. An instructor from another feminist self-defense organization (that offered classes we couldn’t afford and had proprietary techniques) clandestinely held free classes for us. In turn we passed on the skills to our community of musicians and artists for no cost. Because I belonged to many communities based on my experiences, gender, sexuality, ethnic identity, and politics, I also worked with another collective member, Zoë Bermet, to develop classes for women living in shelters.

As is typical of collective organizing, we had internal conflicts along the lines of sexual orientation, race, and political values. I became curious about the way we used the term “community” to specifically denote the predominantly white and straight 90s Seattle music scene when many of us belonged to other communities of equal personal importance. This curiosity, and the need to get away from the drugs and violence, lead me to a cultural studies program to study what I learned was post-colonial and post-structuralist theory addressing concepts of Imagined Communities, The Subaltern, Situated Knowledges, and ways popular culture and media both reinforce and create heterosexist, white supremacist, neoliberal tropes of normalcy. I realized I was there to learn how to bring theory to my praxis while my colleagues were trying to figure out how to merge praxis with theory. For most of my colleagues, that was teaching, but at the time I didn’t want to be a professor. I wanted to continue working in the arts, making art, and teach a course or two at a Community College. I had no idea that meant being an adjunct professor. I was simply used to piecing jobs together to be able to prioritize art and activism. The gig economy is not a new concept for artists. In 1999 I was looking for a way to get out of precarious gig work. I thought earning a degree would lead to knowledge and skills more broadly valued and therefore more broadly financially secure. Despite my anti-capitalist politics, I created a Horatio Alger story to bring to life: Former homeless woman, survivor of addiction and domestic violence finds middle class security through education.

I graduated in September, 2001, just as Al Qaeda attacked the World Trade Center and attempted to attack the Pentagon. Just like during the Great Recession, advertised jobs would be defunded before interviews could take place. I was literally on my way out the door to a job interview at a public museum when I got a call explaining they just learned funds were being redirected to Homeland Security and the job no longer existed. More than one small private museum asked me to write a grant – for free!—  and that would fund the position they wanted to give me. It was absurd. I pieced together various part time and temp jobs as I always had, earning the same hourly wage I did before I had a graduate degree and exorbitant student debt. Middle class security and health care for my chronic illness continued to be out of reach. In 2001 I thought it was my own failings, not the sound of the final nail being hammered into the coffin of higher education as a path out of poverty.

At the same time I loved the new knowledge I had. I made a video for my MA thesis project that was being distributed by AK Press. That led to making a video with a friend, a comedy about trans men as a counter to films such as Boys Don’t Cry and Southern Comfort. My degree helped me to center creative practices again. This was at the same time that MFAs in Studio Art were proliferating in Los Angeles and LA was becoming one of the largest art markets in the world. The professionalization of art meant an MFA was a necessity to teach and gain access to the culturally elite art world. Another result of the glut of MFA degrees was that queer, feminist artists who had alternative art practices became a darling of that elite art world. This destroyed the historical grassroots nature of those art communities along with any grounded politics in those practices. The politics were just a performance, both literally and figuratively, for spaces coded as white and wealthy. Sarah Schulman named the process of losing a generation of gay male artists to HIV/Aids and the queer culture they created in 1970’s NY as “Gentrification of the mind.” I believe the assimilationist machinations of the art world and the inevitable loss of the 1990s queer culture that politicized me to be another type of gentrification, perhaps a part of the process that has depoliticized the term “queer” and allows us to understand marriage, a conservative value, as radical.

I had rejected the need for an MFA long before. But in the era of the LA MFA, many people I knew and respected had them or were earning them. Furthering the case for the depoliticization of queer culture, I applied and, by the skin of my teeth, got into one of the fancy LA MFA programs. It was an indoctrination into elite academia, and I bought into it more than I expected. I needed consistent health care and a reprieve from $12-15/hr post-911 jobs. I was ready for class privilege, not just access. My Horatio Alger story shifted in critical ways: Former survivor of domestic violence becomes professor. Gone was my acknowledgement of the heroin addiction or the desire to teach at a community college. This was where earning my grad degrees went south.

I graduated in 2006. Three years later with $85,000 in student debt, having been in a sabbatical replacement position, visiting professor positions, and teaching adjunct courses all while on the academic job market, I had to supplement it all with freelance gigs editing gay porn and working as a home health care aide. Similar to my job search post-911, I applied to tenure track positions and was met with very collegial letters letting me know the position had been defunded, the program was being shut down, or “We received applications from more qualified candidates than ever before, sorry you aren’t one to get an interview.” I attended College Art Association conferences, took advantage of any workshops and mentoring for the job market. I was told my materials were strong, my letters of interest pithy, just keep trying. It became clear MFAs were a Madoff level Ponzi scheme. Eight years later, when I became a union organizer at art schools—a complicated and difficult process pragmatically and emotionally— the Ponzi scheme had been cemented through the administrative university, adjunctification of the professoriate, and staggering debt for students.

When I started working for SEIU Local 1021 in the Bay Area in 2014 I was part of an organizing team that won union elections at five private nonprofit colleges in less than a year, an unheard of number in that short a time in any industry. Two of the colleges were Catholic, one was a women’s college, and two were art schools. Because of my education and life experience, I assumed the Catholic colleges would be a nightmare and the art schools would live up to their social justice mission. As he who shall not be named would say, “Wrong!”

The two art schools put up the biggest boss fights. They were the last to reach a first contract, which took over two full years after the faculty voted to have a union. San Francisco Art Institute proudly houses a Diego Rivera mural and the Dean of Faculty fighting the union is published in “work [that] explores themes of gender, activism, and labor through historical texts and visual projects.” At California College of the Arts, the president is focused on ensuring that school is a feeder into the tech industry at the expense of the fine arts and crafts department, creating an elite vocational tech school. The lawyer for that college was a sexist, condescending stereotype that actually told the adjunct faculty bargaining team, “Go fuck yourselves,” during negotiations. The former provost fighting the union election was a former drag king who “Primarily [studied] Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, the Guerrilla Girls, looking at the ways in which they were using political tactics and design to bring that kind of artwork out in the public sphere.” The current provost who took up the fight was instrumental in the Riot Grrrl and Queercore movements and helped create a queer visual vernacular in art. The women in positions of power involved in the art school union campaigns were feminist and/or queer and have areas of focus and education similar to my own. I imagine they never thought they would be fighting unions and standing on the wrong side of social justice history.

It’s infuriating and deeply perplexing to understand how they justify throwing a whole lot of other women and queers under the bus. There are plenty of academics serving as department chairs, deans, and other administrative positions who use the security of tenure to publicly support adjunct faculty unions instead of fight them. Many of these folks signed an open letter encouraging their colleagues at CCA to do the right thing. Regardless of their solidarity, I now understand that “Higher Education is dead.” There is nothing idealistic to believe in any longer. Institutionally, most schools have become a system for laundering federal and private student loan money in order to make a few people wealthy while the rest go into debilitating debt. In other words, bastions of neoliberalism. Or maybe more accurately, bastards of neoliberalism.

PS: If higher education is dead, what drives you to continue keep fighting whether it’s by union organizing or creating an archive of this struggle through the site ”Cultural Capital Doesn’t Pay the Rent”? Does graduate study still have a value beyond either cold hard cash or cultural capital? I don’t mean this cynically and I’m not suggesting that advanced degrees in the arts and humanities have no value. I’m wondering what you think about a) the intrinsic value of an advanced degree and b) if that value still exists when so many graduate programs operate as ponzi schemes.

JL: Part of what I loved about teaching was advising students on how to get to where they wanted to in higher education, especially when I taught at a community college in New Mexico. Most of the CC students were first generation college students. They were from minority racial, ethnic, and indigenous groups. Many had been in the military, one of the very limited options for young people in New Mexico to have an income. All of them were incredibly open and fascinated by the queer/feminist/of color culture and knowledge I brought to the classroom. I witnessed and contributed to many situations where education was the path out of poverty for an individual. At the same time students there often enrolled because getting a Lottery scholarship from the state Lottery funds as well as receiving student loans were the only ways to have an income in an extremely impoverished state. For these students, education was a path into debt and deeper poverty.

From the time I began teaching to the time I left and became an organizer I came to understand there was no intrinsic value in education, and potentially never was. There are plenty of arguments illuminating the long history of higher education as a way to keep white supremacist, hetero- and cissexist, patriarchal power structures in place. Once an institution only for “landowning men of letters” the social and civil rights struggles to make higher education a more inclusive system in the U.S. and Western Europe has only lasted a very brief period in the overall timeline. In my view, the adjunctification of the professoriate and the unbearable weight of debt necessary to earn any degree, is a backlash against people of color, cis and trans women, queers, poor and working class folks, Dreamers, and others who kicked down the doors of the ivory tower for a few short generations.

During that time the Christian Right implemented a long game that began with gaining seats on local school boards. In three decades they won the White House with the appointment of Devos to Secretary of Education and Falwell Jr to special advisor on Higher Education. Without taking into account the need to fight the Christian Right agenda of hate, xenophobia, predatory lending schemes, and concerns bigger than education in and of itself, our strategies will only contribute to keeping higher education a luxury for those who already have systemic privileges.

PS: You and other artists and organizers that you have worked with see adjunct organizing as part of a broader struggle. How would you describe this broader struggle and how is education justice connected to other struggles for social justice?  In what ways are activists and organizers in higher education forming alliances beyond the college campus? What could organizers being doing better to form these alliances?

JL: When I was struggling economically and emotionally with my academic career and feeling like I had personally failed, what helped me see the systemic failings I was caught in the midst of was a group of adjunct faculty activists with a few tenured allies who were equally pissed and equally willing to be public about our personal struggles. It was lifesaving. It was another example of how organizing is the best way to fight back.

Inside of that experience, I found myself connecting with people who were becoming activists for the first time because they had been personally affected by the adjunctification of higher education, which is great in terms of becoming an activist. Despite being very intelligent people, there was a social justice intelligence to learn that wasn’t occurring at the same time. White educated people, some who owned homes, all who had graduate degrees, were comparing their situation to slavery, to prostitution, to indentured servitude. It was more than troubling. Challenges to these comparisons would result in mob-mentality social media responses demanding a right to victimization, especially straight, white, cisgendered men who were experiencing the system failing them for the first time. To be frank, it was tedious. It was not a movement I could jump into with both feet even though the allegiances I found were significant in my own journey to where I am now.

Almost none of us experience pure oppression and pure privilege. There is a skill in being able to navigate the complexities of being both privileged and disadvantaged within a system. There is a skill in recognizing where one has institutional power and where one is being oppressed by institutional power. I’ve spent decades building those skills in many different arenas. My academic and art work address these concepts. It’s how I organize. It’s what “Cultural Capital doesn’t Pay the Rent” means. It also reflects the reality that my partner is a food service worker, he’s been a cook on college campuses for the last six years. We were already living the nightmare of the new economy as a couple trying to make it on food service and adjunct professor wages.

When I became a paid organizer for SEIU on the higher ed campaign, I looked for openings to bring an intersectional perspective to the organizing. One opening occurred when SEIU was also behind the Fight for 15 campaign, an aspirational campaign to raise local and national minimum wages to $15/hour. A lot of this began with food service workers, fast food specifically. In the Bay Area we focused on building relationships between food service workers and adjunct professors, making education the common denominator. One group was told it was their fault they made so little, just get an education and you can make more money. The other group was told it was their fault they made so little, they should have studied something else, even though they got all the education one could get in a given field. We produced art and created relationships through rallies and events that made clear no one but a few were doing well under neoliberal capitalism and labor unions were one of the tools for intervention.

At the same time, the Black Lives Matter movement was building momentum. The always too many black cis and trans people being murdered by the state hit a tipping point and made it into mainstream media. The students on the campuses where we were organizing adjunct faculty were out in the streets getting arrested. Alicia Bell, a staff member at the college where I was assigned was involved in creating the fantastic Black brunches and eventually being a part of the group that shut down the Bay Bridge. It was obvious adjunct faculty couldn’t ask students and staff to support their movement without supporting the students and staff. Standing in solidarity was important to building relationships and building a union chapter centering social justice.

Getting involved in racial justice organizing should be a key component of faculty organizing. There is a reason why the majority of faculty, contingent or not, are white: institutional racism in education. In higher ed we don’t necessarily think about mass incarceration having an impact on our work. However, the school to prison pipeline is one of the reasons faculty are predominantly white. Youth of color end up in the criminal justice system despite the rhetoric to “stay in school.” In school there are Zero Tolerance policies and armed police. A small infraction can result in expulsion or imprisonment and the beginning of a byzantine nightmare that traps someone in the incarceration system instead of the education system. As I wrote elsewhere:

Terrence Crutcher, one of the more recent Black citizens killed by police, was coming home from a music class at Tulsa Community College when he was murdered. Four days earlier he had been asked to become a mentor to younger students struggling to get it together. Because he was real, and struggling at 40, but doing what he needed to do for himself. His car broke down on his way home from class and he was killed by police. He was some adjunct professor’s student. I am sure of that. Music classes at a community college? He was one of our students. We cannot let this happen to our students. Job security is not such a sweet win if our students are being mowed down by police.

Maybe Terrance Crutcher was on his way to being a professor of Ethnomusicology. I promise you there was a time in my life that no one could imagine me as a professor. In fact I think a lot of people may be surprised now to find out that I used to be one. Despite my struggles, the barriers to middle class security—the barriers that being queer, female, mixed ethnicities may present or not—I have race and class privileges in a white supremacist culture that Crutcher did not have. It’s not a given that my intelligence is what defines the difference in the possibilities we each had in life; it is a given that race and class did.

PS: In addition to the ongoing neoliberal restructuring of the university—state disinvestment, adjunctification of the faculty, administrative bloat etc—Iowa and Missouri are considering bills to eliminate tenure at state institutions, and a far right group has created a watchlist of “anti-american” professors. How do you think these new attacks from the extreme right will affect efforts to organize adjuncts? For instance, do you think that this new pressure will make tenured faculty and administration more or less amenable to unionizing efforts or will it have no effect at all? In addition, Since the election and first weeks of the new administration, what has been your mindset and the mindset of other education organizers and activists that you’ve talked to?

JL: Well, I am in California so it’s taken longer for the reality of what’s happening nationally to sink in. Besides being more buffered from the immediate effects of attacks on academic freedom, there are massive well orchestrated organizing campaigns going on to address all of the horrors coming down on us daily. The union organizing in higher education – students, T/TT faculty, and contingent faculty– as I am experiencing it, has not yet contended with the relationship between the inevitable so called right-to-work laws and the inevitable attacks on academic freedom. However, I experience this from the position of union staff. This is very different than being inside of the academy forming a new union or organizing within an existing union. One tactic inside of unions (not union chapters but the organization of the union with paid staff like myself) is potential campaigns that build “wall-to wall” worksites in the private sector as exist in the public sector. For example at state schools there are faculty union chapters, support staff union chapters, food service workers union chapters, maintenance workers union chapters, etc. This builds power across campus if the groups are organized by the same union or are able to work in solidarity across different unions.

For this to be effective it means breaking down internal hierarchies between students, faculty, and staff. It means not only understanding the different stakes between faculty ranks, but the different stakes for all the campus workers and for undergraduate and graduate students. Beyond understanding, it also means taking collective action that may not be about one’s own self-interest but would benefit the campus community as a whole. I’m honestly not sure most faculty are ready to do this. It means being able to understand oneself as a worker who needs protections. That concept is one of the biggest barriers in organizing faculty of all ranks.

For unions to be an effective structure that can fight the erosion of academic freedom on college campuses, union members have to be active in educating their colleagues about why choosing the option of being a fee payer will add to the attacks on academia. Members will also have to be active in learning about the funding structures that are behind their jobs. As an example, if a school has more than 25% Latinx students it can be designated an “Hispanic Serving Institution” and receive federal funds even if it is a private college. If a significant part of those students have an undocumented member of their family or are undocumented, and Sanctuary City laws are repealed, a city not only loses major funding but enrollment of Latinx students could also drop and the school would lose a significant source of funding. That funding loss will play out on adjunct faculty, dining hall workers, maintenance crews, support staff, scholarships, and on and on. It will certainly not play out in the loss of senior administration positions.

The same scenario can be played out with the travel ban/“Muslim ban” and the billions of dollars of higher education funding generated by international students. This means faculty need to do more than feel bad about what their students might be experiencing and find concrete ways to be involved in the fight against the repeal of Sanctuary Cities and the Travel Ban.

Betsy DeVos is dangerous stupidity. If you aren’t familiar with the Amway scam her in-laws made their billions on, please get familiar. It’s one of the original Ponzi schemes and will ensure this concept is not metaphorical but concrete when it comes to education as a whole, not only arts and humanities degrees. “Earn this degree and then earn this salary!” But instead there is no market and one owes more than they can ever pay back. It’s horrifically frightening. Then add in her brother is Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater. Of course her lack of experience in higher education is not going to be a problem since Jerry Falwell, Jr has been appointed special advisor on higher education…It’s right about here that I check out every time. I start getting lightheaded having to revisit the intense hatred of women and gays of the Moral Majority that I fought as a young queer feminist. While I was out in the streets protesting Falwell and Helms and the like, holding up posters made by Robbie Conal, my partner who is ten years younger than me was still under the influence of his evangelical family. He was home schooled and in Christian grade school with moral majority-like curricula. When he went to a public school for the first time it was also the first time he learned about the Vietnam war. To this day he is angry it took until he was in high school to learn about the atrocities committed by the U.S. military. My heart aches for the generations that are about to be so painfully miseducated.

What all this means in terms of organizing in higher ed is that we have to be able to have a really broad and long view. Unions are going to be weakened. It doesn’t matter what college administrations do or don’t do. Or even what one’s union does or doesn’t do. What matters is what we do as union members, as potential union members, as higher ed activists with or without unions. The fight is on.

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