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Looking Backward on a Strike

Wright State faculty and allies join in a “solidarity” line traversing the length of the Wright State campus entrance. Photo by the author.
Fig. 1. Wright State faculty and allies join in a “solidarity” line traversing the length of the Wright State campus entrance. Photo by the author.

When the cold January turned to an even colder February, I would have loved nothing more than to begin teaching Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward as part of my class on twentieth-century utopian literature. But instead of going to class, I put on my wool socks, three layers of clothes, a winter coat, and snow boots to spend hours standing in the frigid Midwestern climes outside the main entrance of my university, sign in my hands, equal parts exasperation and anxiety in my heart. My colleagues and I were one week into what would end up being the longest faculty strike in the state of Ohio and the second-longest in the history of public higher education in the United States. As I prepared for the chill air and tear-inducing winds, I registered the ironic contrast between the day that was meant to be and the day that was. It turned out that the very question that had led me to formulate the utopian literature class—what possible value utopias can offer us in these troubled, uncertain, undoubtedly dystopian times—had become even more starkly personal than I could have ever imagined.  Standing in the cold I recognized that if modernist utopian literature meant to push us towards radical changes that could counter an increasingly broken society, this current strike was going to force us to recognize what those changes might be. What, in fact, are our aspirational politics in higher education in these times and how, practically, do our actions push that agenda forward?

Just one week prior, my students had been working through the introduction of Fredric Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future. One of the points they were most moved by was what Jameson calls the “negative purpose” of utopianism: its ability to make us “more aware of our mental and ideological imprisonment.”[1] My students understood, instinctively, that one’s dreams are necessarily delimited by the ideological constraints of the moment. At a macro-level, I sense we have been feeling this constraint more acutely in the past years, as we’ve gone from imagining the possibilities of a better world to simply trying to hold on to the remnants of the one we have got. For many in these times, aspiration has given way to mere survival. More tragically, for many of our students, this kind of abortive futurity is the only one they have ever understood: a future choked by an exponentially- growing list of unresponsive, hostile institutions. They bear witness to the increasing cost of higher education, the promise of a future constrained by debt, paired with imminent and intractable ecological and political instability; the feeling of disempowerment is palpable. In fact, when I first presented the possibility of a class on utopian literature, my students (understandably) responded with a wearied sigh. But, as I reflect back on the last few months, I recognize that their exasperation, just as my own, is not a foreclosure of political action, but is rather its antecedent. During the strike, students performed a days-long sit-in on the floor of the administrative wing, and delivered letters of encouragement, emails of support, and hot coffee to strikers. They were on the lines, too. I was surprised that the aspirational vision of utopian literature is not, as I feared, a sanguine anachronism, but is instead a challenge to students ready to assume the mantle of social change-makers in the spheres in which they can exercise their influence.

That first week of class, after discussing the political necessity of utopianism and excitedly previewing writers like Bellamy, H. G. Wells, Katharine Burdekin, James Hinton and Ursula Le Guin, I had to change topics radically to talk about yet another unresponsive institution throttled by its own ideological limitations: the students’ own university. Time was running short, and there was to be no reprieve; the university was not actively negotiating with the faculty union, and it was clear that a strike was, barring a miracle, imminent. I told my students that, unlike many strikes, ours was not to be about money, but about basic working conditions: the negation of standard teaching load agreements, the imposition of unlimited furlough days, and the reduction of job security for instructors. Describing the contract that had been imposed on us, I found myself holding back tears. In part, they were tears of fear; I did not know what was coming, how to prepare my class for it, or how to prepare myself. But partly, they were tears of exasperation, born of the same sense of disempowerment our students so often feel. The deafening silence of the university’s higher administration suggested an imperviousness to our reasonable demands, even after knowing for months that a strike would surely follow. I wondered: could a strike actually push that immovable object and restore the educational quality of our institution? What would it tell our students if we didn’t prevail? If the strike failed, I worried, not only would future students suffer from a sub-par education for years to come, but our current students would have a case study in the impotence of collective action. I was reminded of the struggles of the General Strike in Storm Jameson’s None Turn Back, particularly the suggestion of poet T. S. Heywood that the strikers were already “beaten” and what lay before them was a “slow crumbling, decayand “barbarism.”[2] As I talked to my students, I only hoped we were not already beaten and could pull our institution back quickly from its crumbling barbarism. I was right to hope, but it took far longer than any of us could have anticipated.

The Ideological Imprisonment of Higher Education

Yes, our institution suffered from its own ideological imprisonment. But our institution is not alone, and our lengthy strike underscores two serious concerns that we should all keep in mind as we serve our students. The first is the privatization of public universities, a concern emphasized by AAUP President (and chief negotiator for the union at Wright State) Rudy Fichtenbaum in a post-strike interview. As federal and state appropriations dry up (a phenomenon that goes mostly unnoticed by the public), larger public institutions often raise tuition or reach for more private endowments. But after tuition is raised to a premium and the endowments dry up, universities must look elsewhere for funding: alumni-pleasing but expensive expansion projects, the creation of semi-autonomous institutional bodies, lacking university or faculty oversight, which seek to facilitate the influx of grant money or enable real estate speculation. Wright State’s economic crisis derived from this perfect storm of depleted funding and unconventional private-sector schemes. But the solutions proposed by the administration seemed based on one short-sighted premise: whatever the causes of financial difficulty, the rectification of those shortfalls must necessarily fall on the students and their learning environment. We all know that increased teaching loads reduce the quality of education and stifle the university’s research agenda. We all know that increasing the precarity of faculty leads to a university-wide culture of anxiety and fear. We all know that unlimited furloughs will lead to a decrease in educational quality across the board. But these were the very policies that the university contractually imposed on faculty to relieve its financial struggles. That many more universities, suffering under similar economic burdens, may look to such solutions should fill us all with deep concern. It’s also worth noting that, as these larger economical struggles continue in higher education, they are far more likely to impact working-class universities and the students they serve (a point elaborated on by Crystal Lake in her essay on the strike for The Rambling.

The second concern relates to the management of state institutions by politically-appointed boards that seek to operate universities like businesses, not places of learning. To see how far we’ve travelled down this road, we might look to Bellamy’s Looking Backward. In Bellamy’s utopia, he outlines a political infrastructure led by recognized experts and trusted institutional alumni. In an aside, the nineteenth-century time-travelling ambassador Julian West notes that this form of leadership is “nothing more than the application on a national scale of the plan of government by alumni, which we used . . . in the management of our higher educational institutions.”[3] When I was on the picket line, I frequently thought of this passage with incredulity. Bellamy may have been incapable of imagining a world without monopolies (which he nationalizes to transform from malignant to benign institutions), but we in twenty-first-century academia have our own blind spots. Far from being panels of experts and institutional alumni, our trustees and regents’ boards in the United States are often entirely disconnected from the institutions they are meant to manage; they instinctively turn to solutions derived from the private sector that are absolutely devastating when applied to public institutions. As just one example, since Governor Scott Walker neutered tenure in Wisconsin, the Board of Regents can now unilaterally dismiss faculty in respons