The Fire This Time (January 29, 2021)

I am sure most of you reading this post are already fully aware of the dire situation at the University of Florida this spring in terms of the coerced face-to-face teaching demanded by the university’s higher administration.  This has become a national scandal and there have been numerous major media reports, of which the following list represents only a sample:

Orlando Sentinel, January 26

Washington Post, January 23 

Gainesville Sun, January 23

Inside Higher EdJanuary 21

Chronicle of Higher Ed, January 19

EdSurge, January  14

As these stories all make clear, the response of our university to the pandemic differs from that of not only universities in other states—in the last week, the University of Michigan has suspended their sports programs and then issued a stay-at-home order for their entire campus—but also from other  campus in our state system. Indeed, as the Orlando Sentinel reports, “The start of the semester has gone smoother at Florida State University, where in-person classes resumed on Jan. 19. Just over half of the school’s course sections are taught face-to-face this spring, though many of them are small, said Matthew Lata, a professor in the College of Music who serves as the president of the faculty union there. ‘So far, I’ve had almost no complaints,’ Lata said, adding his administration’s approach had been more conciliatory than UF’s. ‘It’s a much happier shop here in Tallahassee than it is in Gainesville.’”

Downtown Gainesville, January, 2021

Despite their claims to the contrary, our university is pursuing these policies in disregard of the recommendations of national and international medical experts and in the face of skyrocketing numbers of infections in Florida and in Alachua County, the county where UF is located, currently, according to The New York Times, at an “extremely high risk” level. As a result of these policies, the university is endangering the health and even the lives of many, including those of the most vulnerable populations on campus of untenured faculty, graduate students, staff, and campus support workers, as well as elderly community residents and those who have few options but to serve in the entertainment and service sectors of the local economy (and this keep in mind, as the January 23 story in the Gainesville Sun  bears out, is occurring in a state with Governor DeSantis mandated 100% bar capacities and local municipalities are barred from enforcing compliance with CDC guidelines). One person who has already paid the price is the university’s basketball star, Keyontae Johnson, whose NBA career may very well be in jeopardy because of his infection and subsequent collapse in the opening moments of a game at Florida State on December 12. (This recent story underscores the fact the university continues to stonewall any information on the cause of his collapse, hiding behind “student privacy” concerns).

However, one important point that all these excellent reports tend to pass over is the fact that these decisions, policies, and actions have their roots in larger contexts, of both recent developments and transformations in higher education that have been underway for decades. A half century ago, Fredric Jameson observed that ideology is never simply a matter of content—of the ideas, beliefs, and values we hold in our heads—but rather of the very forms of thought we use to understand the world: “The dominant ideology of the Western countries is clearly that Anglo-American empirical realism for which all dialectical thinking represents a threat, and whose mission is essentially to serve as a check on social consciousness . . . The method of such thinking, in its various forms and guises, consists in separating reality into airtight compartments, carefully distinguishing the political from the economic, the legal from the political, the sociological from the historical, so that the full implications of any given problem can never come into view; and in limiting all statements to the discrete and the immediately verifiable, in order to rule out any speculative and totalizing thought which might lead to a vision of social life as a whole.” Thus, in order to more fully understand the current crisis, and even more significantly not to repeat the errors of the past, we need to make these connections explicit. 

UF’s Provost Joseph Glover has stated the reason for pursuing such a plan of action is the fact that “Our [his] first commitment is to our students: to provide instruction in the format they requested, whether in person or online.”  Whether this McDonald’s customer-first approach to higher education is true or not—and if so, it says a great deal about the attitudes the university currently has toward its faculty, workers, and their families—the situation is far more complex.  First of all, such declarations on the part of the university administration conveniently provide ample cover for Florida’s Trump-acolyte governor and Scott Atlas-endorsed “herd immunity” advocate, Ron DeSantis. (I touched onto DeSantis’s response to the Covid crisis and its consequences for the university in a blog post last October.) Moreover, as Theodor Adorno would put it, “it is hardly an accident” that the Covid pandemic has led to the suspension of hiring in many departments and programs, already cut to the bone by more than a decade of prior cuts and scanty hiring; the Board of Trustee’s approval last fall of expansive new furlough powers on the part of the administration; and likely significant budget cuts later this spring. These changes parallel those in many other Republican-dominated states, including the recent decision in Kansas (what’s the matter with Kansas?) to use the crisis as an excuse to suspend tenure protections.

However, the University of Florida has made amply clear that the one exception to any contemplated cutbacks is its vaunted AI initiative, launched in earnest this past fall.  The “intent” of the initiative, the university’s website proclaims, is to “use this initiative to create a model for AI workforce development that can serve as a template for other colleges and universities in Florida and across the U.S.”  No surprise then, in the midst of the Covid emergency, the university recently sent its faculty the cheery news that a new “Data Science and Information Technology” building was underway at the center of our “historic campus,” and this after other already approved projects, such as a long-planned and desperately needed new music building, have been suspended. The building will be named after the alumnus-donor who is also the owner of the company whose proprietary technology underwrites this entire initiative. Moreover, last summer, the university announced the opening of a new luxury “boutique hotel,” one that just happened to be funded by “UF reserve funds, or money left over from previous budgets:” that is, money not spent on hires and other needed infrastructural developments. 

As my colleague and our former union president Kim Emery argues in a brilliant essay from a decade ago, these current policies and actions are very much in line with a longer and ongoing program by university administrators, in conjunction with state Republicans from Jeb Bush to the present, to strategically use what Naomi Klein  famously terms the “shock doctrine” and Emery calls “management by crisis:” the deployment of “events”—manufactured ones, as was the case in 2006 in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, wherein as Emery notes, the university first “‘uncovered” a significant fiscal deficit” and then used it to announce a “Five-Year Plan,” which included “combining some departments and reducing others” as well removing the “Department Chairs of Math and English;” and actual, as in the economic collapse in 2008 and the Covid pandemic in the present—as the means of at once of eroding faculty governance, destroying unions and other collective organizations state-wide, and reorganizing higher education in Florida. This was in turn is part and parcel of a larger neoconservative push that extends back to the early 1980s, which, as the historian Alan Taylor argues in an outstanding essay published on the eve of our unrelenting Trump “error,” worked to undermine the post-World War II project of education for democratic citizenship, or what Taylor refers to as “political goods,” and replacing it with an education system focused exclusively on “economic goods,” or individual and institutional financial rewards. (I talk about Taylor’s essay and the consequences of these changes in more detail in the first chapter of my book Invoking Hope.)

The cynical use of the Covid crisis to justify such a neoliberal remaking of the American university is laid bare in an opinion piece published last summer in Inside Higher Ed where the authors argue for the need to use “this moment to move toward needed transformation” instead of “the industry” (!!) reverting “to an old playbook, where cuts are neither strategic nor grounded in important goals of creating a sustainable business model that is aligned with the institution’s strategic vision.”  Not surprisingly, their recommendations include the shift from “Budget balancing (‘Do I have enough?’) to return on investment (‘What do I get from what I have?’)” and establishing “clear lines of authority. People need to know who will make final decisions about strategic priorities and how resources will be aligned with these priorities. Good leaders will establish who the deciders are and how stakeholders [sic] can provide input.”

            In years past, the university’s success in foisting these changes was in a large part based on the tried-and-true strategy of divide and conquer. In 2006, for example, the university succeeded in pitting against each other departments in the college and individual faculty members within the same departments, by appealing to individual grievances, resentments, and narrow self-interest.  The same strategy worked well in a number of other situations in the decade to follow.  In the current emergency, the aim is clearly to reproduce this successful strategy by setting undergraduate students against the faculty, graduate students, and university support staff. 

UF Turlington Hall, Fall, 2006

In the current moment, such an approach happily thus far seems to be failing. No one among the targeted communities sees any benefits from the situation; undergraduates have made their displeasure clear; and a number of departments have expressed an unwillingness to play along.  Moreover, as had been the case in past challenges, UF’s faculty and graduate student unions have marshalled an effective challenge to these policies. A number of other new actions have also been started. Recently, a MoveOn boycott initiative has been launched, after a viral thread exploded. The university administration remains deeply invested in  institutional rankings and its “Preeminence Initiative:” what such a preeminence means to Governor DeSantis, is made evident in this 2019 story about UF’s rise to #7 in The U.S. News and World Report’s ranking of public universities, complete with a photo-op of him receiving a football jersey from thankful administrators. Making them aware that their current actions will do long-term damage to the university’s reputation and may even lower UF’s rankings will surely have an impact, and international letter writing campaigns are underway. (The email addresses of the president and provost are readily available on the university’s website.)

All of this makes evident a key lesson of this challenging moment.  Whatever the outcome of the current crisis, it is vitally important that all of us in the university community—as well as in university communities across the nation and our planet—understand that the what has happened the last few months are not isolated occurrences, ill-conceived and hasty reactions to an unexpected series of events, but rather an opportunistic use of one more in what now seem to be an endless series of crises.  As such, the next crisis will produce a similar response and the only possible hope we have lies in a shared, collective refusal of such a deeply anti-democratic vision of the university and higher education.  

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