On 3 May 2014, former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice backed out of giving Rutgers University`s commencement speech amid growing opposition among the school`s students, staff, and faculty. Rice, one of the architects of the US war in Iraq, was not only due to give an address to the graduating cohort. She was also to receive an honorary law degree. Not surprisingly, the decision to invite Rice as a commencement speaker at Rutgers was met with resistance. In the words of Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of History Jackson Lears:
As National Security Adviser to President George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice knowingly collaborated in the Bush administration’s campaign of distortions and untruths that sold the invasion of Iraq to the American people—an invasion with calamitous consequences for thousands of American soldiers and more than a hundred thousand Iraqi civilians . . . To invite her to address the Rutgers graduating class, and then to award her a Doctor of Laws degree, honoris causa, is a travesty of all the ideals this university embodies.
Yet, despite the fact that over 375 Rutgers faculty signed the petition calling on the Rutgers administration to rescind their invitation to Rice, Lears was denied permission to talk for even three minutes at the 1 April 2014 Board of Governors meeting.
The same day that Rice’s decision to pull out of the commencement speech was made public, Rutgers President Robert Barchi released a statement saying the university “stands fully behind [its] invitation” to Condoleezza Rice. This is not the first time the Rutgers administration has publicly voiced this position regarding Rice. On 7 March 2014, Barchi emailed the entire Rutgers community explaining why the administration would not rescind its invitation. While mentioning the importance of freedom of speech multiple times, and after celebrating the healthy civic exchange of ideas and academic freedom at Rutgers, Barchi emphasized Rice`s academic and political accomplishments, as well as her painful past: “Dr. Rice’s success and influence is all the more impressive when considered in the context of her childhood in the segregated South, during the most tumultuous and violent years of the Civil Rights struggle.” With this move, Barchi strategically hides the lack of democracy within the university under a liberal discourse of Rutgers’s commitment to academic freedom and diversity.
Using the Civil Rights Movement to justify the decision to choose Condoleezza Rice for commencement is neither sincere nor logical. While Rutgers` student body is one of the most racially diverse in the country, the same commitment to diversity is not as evident when looking at the gender and racial make-up of the administration or even the faculty. Like at so many other universities, the top administration is overwhelmingly composed of US-born white men. Moreover, in 2011 Rutgers’ president apologized to Muslim students for giving their files to the NYPD; in 2010 Tyler Clementi committed suicide due to his roommate video-recording him kissing another man; and in 2013 a video, of which President Barchi had knowledge, came out featuring the basketball coach bullying students with homophobic slurs. Within this context, Barchi uses Rice’s raced and gendered body to make an insincere argument for the importance of diversity at Rutgers, while refusing to acknowledge the egregious actions the US government has taken toward people of color at home and abroad (not to mention Rice`s active role in these actions).
The lack of transparency and democracy within Rutgers, and US universities in general, cannot be swept under the Civil Rights Movement rug. The decision to invite Rice to speak at Rutgers is not related to the importance of academic freedom and diversity. Rather, it is a symptom of the university`s lack of democracy within. Nobody outside of the administration knew of the decision to invite Rice until the invitation had already been extended. Furthermore, despite its lip service to the importance of free speech, the administration actively suppressed protests against the Rice invitation: when fifty students staged a sit-in outside President Barchi`s office to protest Rice’s commencement speech, the administration closed all bathrooms, forcing students to leave. In the end, it was Rice herself who pulled out of the deal, not the university.
While bad enough on its own, the Rutgers administration`s treatment of the Condoleezza Rice affair takes on a deeper meaning as part of a series of non-democratic decisions made behind closed doors. For example, on 8 October 2012, Rutgers signed a contract with the corporation Pearson Education for Managed Online Courses. Despite already having Sakai, an open-source course platform that Rutgers had a key part in developing, the university is currently paying millions of dollars to run its online classes using eCollege, Pearson’s platform. Meanwhile the faculty has repeatedly and strongly opposed the Pearson contract because Pearson holds intellectual property rights over all classes taught through eCollege, and Pearson gets fifty percent of the tuition revenue for these courses. Moreover, while faculty are paid a stipend to design an eCollege class, Rutgers doctoral students who wish to teach online are asked to take a zero-credit class on “Online and Hybrid Teaching,” which requires them to design a class on the eCollege platform for no compensation, effectively performing free labor for a corporation. The Pearson contract was signed behind closed doors; the faculty took no part in this decision and their protests and resolutions are now being ignored (link for the resolution: http://www.rutgersaaup.org/documents/faculty-resolution-opposing-contract-rutgers-administration-signed-pearson).
Meanwhile, the Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences recently decided to slash and reorganize graduate student funding without consulting any graduate students or the graduate departments. The decision, which replaces teaching assistant (TA) lines with fellowships, is framed by the administration as an effort to make more fellowships available for graduate students. On the contrary, this decision makes it difficult for departments in the School of Arts and Sciences to offer funding to doctoral students for the full length of their education, given that TA lines have traditionally been a major way to support unfunded students. Furthermore, if graduate students cannot survive off the fellowship money given to them–which is several thousand dollars less than TA lines and with poorer health benefits–they are forced to work as adjunct instructors, in effect doing the same work they would have as TAs but for a fraction of the salary, without full health benefits and with severely reduced collective bargaining powers. This decision also excludes many graduate students from the faculty union, of which fellows cannot be members. By turning teaching assistants into fellows, rather than investing in additional funding for graduate students, Rutgers is further exploiting doctoral students. In a recent petition, graduate students at Rutgers highlighted their precarious situation and protested this arbitrary decision:
In February 2014, Dr. Richard Falk, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, announced a new policy without consulting the graduate departments . . . The argument put forward by the Dean to justify this decision is that students will have more time to focus on their work if given fellowships, but the truth is when you are broke you can’t focus! The stress induced by worrying about whether or not to pay our heating bill or to pay our student fees is not conducive to quality education for us or for our students, and it is appalling that this situation is normalized in a top U.S. research institution.
Common sense might tell us that budget cuts are an everyday issue for public universities. One can easily say that the resources are limited and managers only take decisions accordingly. Yet, the issue is not that there are not enough resources: the issue is how the budget is allocated. Corporate and managerial interests are prioritized over academic ones at Rutgers, which is obviously against the university’s academic mission. On 10 April 2014, Dr. Howard Bunsis, professor of Accounting at Eastern Michigan University, revealed interesting facts about Rutgers at the university-wide event “Open the Books!” organized by the American Association for University Professors (AAUP). Dr. Bunsis discovered that Rutgers has an unusually large and highly paid management, and a sports budget that is a drain on its academic mission–all of this framed by a troubling lack of transparency about the university’s financial situation. While the university claims it cannot afford to pay its doctoral students, forty-four percent of athletic expenses are subsidized by academic assets, meaning that students, both undergraduate and graduate, are paying millions of dollars in fees and tuition that go directly toward financing the university`s sports industry. The other great expenditure of the university is management salaries—the football coach, not surprisingly, being the highest in line with 900,000 dollars per year (plus ancillary benefits). In total, seventy-nine administrative staff at Rutgers earn more than 250,000 dollars annually with a median of 330,000 dollars per year (non-inclusive of bonuses and other perks,) a “shocking” number compared to other public institutions, according to Professor Bunsis. Despite this, Rutgers claims that it cannot afford to pay all graduate students a living wage.
While the cost of tuition at Rutgers increased by twenty-five percent from 2008 to 2013 and while the enrollment of students increased by sixteen percent in 2013, at the university`s flagship New Brunswick campus well-paid tenure-track faculty jobs decreased by four percent and significantly lower-paid contingent faculty jobs increased by 154 percent. In other words, while the administration`s salaries skyrocketed, the number of adjunct instructors (making 4,500 dollars per course with no health benefits,) and non-tenure track faculty (working under fixed-term contracts) skyrocketed as well. Rutgers is also, in the name of efficiency, consolidating its administrative and support staff. This puts increased work burdens and job insecurity on the workers whose labor within the university is invisibilized: those who clean our buildings, cook our food, organize calendars for the well-paid administrators; in short, those who keep the institution running.
These corporate and managerial priorities will not change unless further organized action is taken up by the Rutgers community. As the grad students’ petition circulating at Rutgers reminds us: “We are NOT disposable workers . . . We teach tomorrow’s leaders, publish in highly ranked journals, and conduct cutting-edge research! Rutgers could not function without our labor, yet we are being asked to work more, for less.” What is happening to us is happening to many others and we need to join the struggles of graduate students across the United States. Thankfully, we are currently seeing a wave of organizing against these trends. Collective actions are already strong among other public universities: UC Berkeley graduate students are on strike, CUNY graduate students are doing grade-ins (grading together to make their labor visible), the University of Houston sit-in last year ended after teaching fellows were promised a million dollars, and Brandeis faculty and students “convinced” their administration to rescind their invitation to Ayaan Hirshi Ali, a well-known Islamophobic scholar. The examples of graduate students struggling together to reclaim our labor and to reclaim our universities go on and on.
We, doctoral students at Rutgers, join the Rutgers Community in saying no to Rice, no to Pearson and no to budget cuts. The lack of transparency and lack of democratic participation in decision-making mechanisms are key issues to be addressed if we are to end the managerialization and corporatization of our universities. We are taking action; our future is in our hands and united we are strong.
If you would like to support the petition mentioned in this article, please go to the following website: