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A Semester to Die For

Dispatch from the Frontlines of Care

July 6, 2020

We are proud to have a strong analytical focus on social reproduction here at Spectre. The current pandemic is tragically proving that to which social reproduction theorists have long drawn attention: that work needed to sustain life and life-making, such as nursing, teaching, cleaning—in other words, care work—is essential for any society to function. Indeed, it is care work that makes all other work possible.

A social reproduction focus, however, is not simply a philosophical orientation, but is simultaneously a political project. This is why during this time of crisis, we want our readers to hear the voices of workers fighting on the frontlines of care.

The work of nurses, refuse workers, teachers, and farm workers, among others, is sustaining us through this crisis. Our series, Dispatches from the Frontlines of Care, serves to remind ourselves that it is the roles of the stockbroker and the corporate CEO that are disposable, and we want a world where they remain so. If you have a story for us, please write to the series editor Tithi Bhattacharya at tithi@spectrejournal.com.

Today, as the United States logs another record number of new coronavirus cases, including a growing share of people in their twenties, I am reviewing my university’s plan for a “safe return to on-campus operations”—a plan for welcoming back next month to the University of Vermont more than 13,000 students, some 6,000 of whom will live on campus. What do administrators propose that will protect these students and the community where they will live, learn, shop, work, and play? In a surging pandemic now described not as a wave but a forest fire, what constitutes a “safe return”?

Like most others, my university naturally began with branding. Our brand is “UVM Strong!” Iowa State is “Cyclone Strong,” and Wayne State is “Warrior Strong.” Stony Brook promises “Coming Back Safe and Strong” while Colorado Mesa proclaims, “Safe Together, Strong Together.” The “Strong” slogan—”Jersey Strong” following Superstorm Sandy, “Vermont Strong” after Hurricane Irene, “Parkland Strong” in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas mass shooting—suggests a traumatized community joining together for mutual aid and healing. Yet what’s been rolled out so far under the hashtag “UVMStrong”—with a recently added admonishment to “Rally Together!”—communicates, You’re on your own.

For example, UVM’s reopening plan, like most others I’ve seen, is bullish on do-it-yourself tech such as the voluntary check-in and contact-tracing app that’s supposedly being developed by IT. (“Vaporware,” my techie partner calls it.) But mostly, the plan counts on our staying #UVMStrong by provisioning everyone with a low-tech “safety kit” containing three washable face masks and a bottle of hand sanitizer. In an online meeting with students and parents, the campus medical director further recommended that “faculty and students take a minute at the start of each day to think about how they’re feeling.” Since I was reading the meeting transcript while drinking my morning coffee, I gave this a try. I read her shockingly misinformed characterization of COVID-19 as spread by “symptomatic people,” checked in with myself, and instantly identified the feeling of runaway panic. To be fair, my university’s plan doesn’t depend on self-assessment alone. Students, we have been assured, will pledge themselves to mask-wearing and handwashing by signing a “Green and Gold Commitment”—campus and community health safeguarded by our school colors.

“Covidiots” is what one colleague called the ten administrators who, representing an annual base salary pool of more than $2 million, delivered a reopening roadmap identical to just about everyone else’s, lampooned by McSweeney’s as “A Letter from Your University’s Vice President for Magical Thinking.” What alarms me, however, isn’t that our universities are in the hands of people too dunderheaded to distinguish science from superstition, medicine from magic. To the contrary, we find at the helm people who do grasp—and embrace—how tragically we will be failed by iPhone apps and personal safety kits. Malthusian thinking, not magical thinking, is what we are up against.

Consider, for example, this statement at an early May faculty senate committee meeting from UVM’s Vice Provost for Academic Affairs:

Balancing public health is a valid concern. Or not even just valid but what should be the driving concern is the health of the population and the health of everyone who has contact with the university. But you have to balance that with do you want to have a university two years from now…. I think when we talk about public health drivers, we do have to think about whether we can survive as an institution if we did what would be best for everyone, which would probably be to have such a slow reopening that there would be only remote instruction all year next year. (emphasis added)

In under 30 seconds, this provost weighed public health—“what would be best for everyone”—against an inanimate and abstract “institution” to find in favor of the latter. At least I can thank her for speaking plainly rather than join Notre Dame’s John Jenkins who threw a clergy’s cloak over human sacrifice when he wrote in the New York Times that “The mark of a healthy society is its willingness to bear burdens and take risks for the education and well-being of its young.” As Inside Higher Ed points out, such moral claptrap is only a shade softer than the Texas lieutenant governor’s flat claim that “there are more important things than living.”

More than forty years into the neoliberal onslaught against all manner of public provision, I hear the expression of a capitalist system in such crisis, it must cannibalize the very laboring bodies it requires to survive.

There’s more to say about the long-running neoliberal hollowing-out of public higher education that weights this scale so decidedly against human life. Here my point is that campus reopening plans aren’t indicators of a covidiocy epidemic nor do I believe they are merely a cagey ruse to secure student deposits before revealing—presto change-o!—that Fall classes will proceed online. “[A] return-to-operation strategy is undergirded by a fundamental conviction that even a phenomenon as menacing as COVID-19 is one of the inevitable risks of life,” wrote Purdue’s Mitchell Daniels, the first out of the gate in the race to reopen. Soon to follow was UVM’s Suresh Garimella (a former Purdue vice president): “The bottom line is that ongoing education is critical, not just on an individual level, but to our state, nation, and society as a whole.” In their pronouncements and others’, I hear the There is no alternative voice of Margaret Thatcher. More than forty years into the neoliberal onslaught against all manner of public provision, I also hear the expression of a capitalist system in such crisis, it must cannibalize the very laboring bodies it requires to survive.

To explain, I’ll turn back to the first weeks in March. In those weeks, across the country and across all educational levels, teachers turned seemingly on a dime from in-person to online teaching. At UVM, according to our faculty union’s calculation, this turn involved 1,606 courses with a total student registration of 23,144, the majority of these students taught by lecturers without access to long-term employment security. Responding to our union’s “Pandemic Pedagogy” survey, these faculty and their tenure-track colleagues described a “Herculean effort” to provision themselves with makeshift home offices, technology to tele-teach science labs and jazz ensembles, and sufficient bandwidth not only for their classes but for their partners’ jobs and their children’s schooling too. They detailed the toll on their bodies—throbbing heads and aching backs.

Women faculty especially expressed exhaustion: “kids at home who need me more than ever since they were infants”; “holding attentive space for students’ emotional experience, grief, and confusion”; “no start or end to the day, just one continuous response to ‘this is needed now.’” From one survey response to the next, colleagues of all genders described how pandemic demands for their teaching and care-taking labor had broken any boundaries around the workday and workweek. Usurped was the time needed for a body to recreate, rest, recharge. Denied too: any time to replenish one’s self as a scholar, researcher, or artist—necessary time to invigorate university teaching; required for continued employment; and, for female and other underrepresented academics, utterly devoured by the crisis’s intensified care-taking conditions. In a case study of women’s potential academic advancement lost to coronavirus care-work, Alessandra Minello wrote in Nature, “I feel as if I am my own subject.” “Oh my god, there is no downtime,” gasped a female respondent to my union’s pandemic survey.

In any war, it helps to name what you are fighting so you can figure out who are your friends and who are your foes. In this case, I understand the larger war to be over social reproduction.

Yet also voiced across these late April survey responses was a collective pride in a mission almost accomplished. We were doing it: shepherding thousands of students through trauma and disorientation, devising Zoom send-offs for those graduating. In this brief moment, we might even have agreed that we were UVM Strong, rallying together. Then came the rapid succession of administrative decrees through the post-semester weeks of May and June:

  • terminating part-time faculty and more than 400 “temporary” staff
  • cutting by 25 percent the positions and pay of the lecturers who had carried the campus through the spring semester
  • postponing previously approved research leaves and also expanding teaching loads for tenure-line faculty to make up the difference
  • closing permanently campus childcare, laying off more than a dozen early childhood teachers and leaving parents stranded even as they are called back to campus
  • pay cuts, and threat of furloughs, for the hundreds of UVM staff who are not unionized

Reports from campuses across the country read much the same: closed childcare centers, cancelled university retirement contributions, regressive pay cuts and furloughs. At UVM, the twenty-five-percent cut for seventy-two lecturers, whose average pay is just under $45,000 year, will put many below the state’s livable wage threshold. In what should make the Guinness Book of World Records for empty gestures, UVM’s top seventy-two execs will also reduce their salaries next year—by five percent, which means they will have to make do on an average annual salary (“deferred compensation” and other perks not included) of a quarter million. Observed a colleague on our union list: “Forget the “smarmy ‘we are all in this together’… We are at war.”

In any war, it helps to name what you are fighting so you can figure out who are your friends and who are your foes. In this case, although the college campus is where some of us experience the blows and must determine how to fight, I understand the larger war to be over social reproduction. Explains Tithi Bhattacharya in “Social Reproduction Theory and Why We Need It to Make Sense of the Coronavirus Crisis,” social reproduction refers to the constellation of care-taking and life-making means on which capitalism depends—no labor power, no profit—but is also loathe to provide. Especially under the terms of do-it-yourself, you’re-on-your-own neoliberalism, capitalist accumulation is assisted by commodifying education, childcare, eldercare, transportation, and the like where possible while offloading the bulk of these needs onto families and women in particular within them. Yes, there are limits to how completely a society can disinvest from its own social reproduction. And coronavirus crisis has brought us to those limits: capital accumulation driven to overcome persistent and worsening economic crises by any means—including by exhausting labor power while also destroying the institutions and supports needed to replenish workers’ capacities and capabilities. “Destroying its own conditions of possibility,” writes Nancy Fraser for the volume Social Reproduction Theory, capitalism “effectively eats its own tail.”

A social reproductive lens—and the necroeconomics of who is afforded and who is denied conditions of care—brings sharply into view that this pandemic is no equalizer. We are not in this, threatened and vulnerable, together. True, the virus landed Boris Johnson in the ICU (and into the capable NHS-caretaking hands he’d been keen to destroy). True, among Vermont’s first deaths was a UVM trustee who, along with a score of others, contracted the virus at a basketball playoff. Well documented, however, is how the virus has disproportionately ravaged communities of color, healthcare workers, and the imprisoned and detained. Reports the New York Times, nearly half of U.S. COVID deaths to date are nursing home residents and their low-wage caregivers. On these populations whose life-making conditions were already decimated by lack of health insurance, pensions, livable-wage jobs, and toxin-free environments, the virus has moved in for the kill.

Rather than be held hostage to such a threat, we should demand publicly provisioned, tuition-free higher education.

The destruction of education’s conditions of possibility is what many of us in U.S. universities have witnessed over the course of our careers: the shift from public provision to student-debt financing and the adjunctification of the faculty coupled with deep cuts to healthcare, retirement, and other essential supports. Enter COVID and we find administrators simultaneously gutting their faculty while ordering bodies back into classrooms. The University of Iowa’s president, for example, fired fifteen instructors and told those left to standing to gird themselves for in-person instruction. When a faculty member of color expressed concern, reported the (Cedar Rapids) Gazette, her dean urged her to see herself as a “role model” and suggested she seek therapy. Tweeted sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom, “It’s a hat trick: 1. Reduce person of color to a body. 2. Deny the body what it needs to survive. 3. Transmogrify death into personal responsibility.”

In such a death-courting cult, university executives are not our allies because, as François Furstenberg explains in the Chronicle of Higher Education, central administrations look like the “C-suite at a public corporation” while governing boards have become a “funhouse mirror of corporate America.” They are the snake gorging on its own tail. And they are no more likely to stop doing so—not even to tap into much-fetishized university endowments (at UVM, more than half a billion dollars) for some sustenance instead—than Jeff Bezos is likely to part with a fraction of the $25 billion the pandemic has added to his net worth to provide warehouse workers with PPE and hazard pay. Unless, of course, we make them.

So who is the “we” that can ally for this fight? On college campuses, it is everyone on the front lines of teaching, research, and the means for maintaining campus life—all university workers from custodians to faculty to staff—plus the students in whose names we would be sacrificed. To be sure, campus solidarity isn’t automatic. At UVM there are already signs that at least some with tenure will receive remote-teaching dispensation while those without will face risking their lives to prove their value. One lecturer suggested posting over restroom sinks poems that take 20 seconds of handwashing to read—magical thinking that is the inverse of the administration’s Green and Gold Pledge, borne of a desperate communalism rather than cynical abandonment. Fearing that arguments to keep campuses closed abandon staff to mass layoffs, a campus custodian (and top English major) lamented “faculty locking themselves away like precious Prince Prosperos, the rest of us be damned.”

That’s why I find a social reproductive approach to this crisis so necessary. It makes visible that full constellation of care-taking and provisioning labor on a college campus, including the “part-time” lecturer who, with no university-provided health benefits, moved three classes online last March; including the custodial and food service workers providing for the nearly 900 students who returned to the dorms and a shut-down campus after Spring Break because they had nowhere else to go. Here is the material basis for higher ed workers to indeed rally together—against their princely administrations. Like the point-of-production slogan We Produce, We Demand, our cry (not only across campus but across all of education, healthcare, and services beyond) is We Provide, We Require ….

Our administrations’ claim that they can’t afford to meet the requirements of campus workers rings hollow given their outsized numbers and undiminished expense and given their historic willingness to find piles of money, including by increasing endowment draws, for buildings and sports. My university (so reports my dean) expects to spend more than $10 million just in the fall semester and just for virus testing to accompany a full reopening of classrooms, offices, and dorms. That money would be better spent to retain the full force of custodial staff who will be needed in pandemic conditions for the minority of students and faculty whose research, reliance on dorm housing, and degree programs—in nursing, for example—will put them on campus even while the majority can and should work, teach, and learn online.

Such is the argument—for limited, strictly essential, and fully provisioned and safeguarded on-campus operations—faculty were making when the vice provost warned that if public health comes first, the university may not survive. It’s a serious threat: education is chief among the social goods that equip students and workers not only to fit into existing society but to rebel against and to change it. Rather than be held hostage to such a threat, we should demand publicly provisioned, tuition-free higher education. To do so, faculty in particular have to overcome their own neoliberal training that would have us see declining tuition as a greater existential threat than this virulent virus. This is the moment to insist #ChopFromTheTop,  #TaxTheRich, #DefundThePolice, and more—with pandemic crisis, the near-collapse of essential social reproductive institutions, as justification.

Or think of it this way: The pandemic has thrown administrators into such a panicked tailspin over lost dorm, dining service, and sports revenues that they would gamble faculty, staff, and student lives to save those revenues and their own lavish livelihoods. The White House threat to refuse visas to international students is further—and particularly cruel—“reopen or else” blackmail. When my vice provost says we may not “survive as an institution if we do what is best for everyone,” this is what she is talking about: an edifice that gorges on students’ capacity for debt, that wrings productivity from ever-more exhausted workers, and does so for continued reproduction of a bloated administrative class. The end of that institution is one I hope we will indeed come together to hasten.

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