Is Higher Education Working Class?
The Politics of Labor in Neoliberal Academe

Jeffrey R. Di Leo

[1] It is difficult to imagine academe without politics—let alone working-class politics. Parties or factions seem to naturally coalesce around common interests or concerns. These interests are more often than not professional though can also be personal. Some like to believe that all professional interests are personal interests in academe—a position that often leads to fighting—and faction-building. So and so disagrees with my position on Milton becomes so and so does not like me. This behavior is not unique to academe though its vicious practice within our profession today is dangerous and as common as concussions in football.

[2] The layers of complexity regarding academic politics are perhaps more involved than the casual observer might expect—even when one tries to determine something as basic as party lines. Just within an average department, there are a plentitude of options for political differentiation: senior faculty versus junior faculty; contingent faculty versus non-contingent; staff versus faculty; students versus faculty; and so on. Add race, class, gender and sexuality to the mix and you get a boiling cauldron of political difference.

[3] Moreover, each discipline has a way of creating its own unique scholarly political lines. For example, just within a large English department, you may find that the linguists disagree with the historians; the theorists with the creative writers; the phenomenologists with the feminists; and so on. Through the lens of party lines and academic affiliations, discussions about everything from curricular matters and new positions to tenure decisions and teaching assignments can get complicated and ugly very fast, particularly when university resources are limited—and coveted. [1]

[4] Add to this mix majority and minority interests between and among students, departments, schools, colleges, administrators, and trustees—and you have a political world that makes our red-blue governmental politics seem simplistic. In the black and blue world of academic politics, there is no hiding behind or taking cover under a pre-established two-party system. But even if this were the case, what would those parties be? Democratic and Republican? Conservative and progressive? Humanist and posthumanist? State university and private university? Liberal and neoliberal? Union and non-union? "Yes" people and "No" people? Working class and bourgeois?

[5] From the vantage point of the differences that constitute academe's polis, the notion of academe without politics seems impossible to even imagine. Disagreement is the fuel of university politics—and democratic education. Take it away and you kill the spirit of higher education. We argue with each other and form factions around positions so that differing visions of the good and the right—the just and the true—may compete against each other for institutional dominancy and practice. [2] At the very heart of the notion of faculty governance, there is the assumption that there is no "right" or "wrong" way to run a university, rather there are competing visions that create difference and variation from department to department—and university to university.

[6] The warp and woof of academe is politics—and professors are political animals. The better able one is to navigate the political waters of academe, the better chance one has for success—and happiness—in academic life. Over the past twenty-five years or so, academics have done a remarkable job in not just engaging in academic politics, but making academic politics its own academic genre. Arguably, more books, articles and conference presentations concerning the politics of higher education have appeared in the past twenty-five years than in any other similar period in the history of higher education. [3]

[7] Nevertheless, I would like to propose that on the way to making academic politics more transparent—and demystifying some of its mystery—we inadvertently short-circuited academe's political agency such that the academy of the present is effectively one without politics—or at least politics in any significant sense. Namely, politics that both determines how we run the university and that motivates a working-class/bourgeois distinction. This, in turn, has created the perception that the university today is more like a factory with workers or a worker-training center than an oasis from the working-class world. The difference between an ivory tower and a Ford factory is the difference between pursuing knowledge for its own sake and acquiring it to become a better worker. [4]

[8] From the perspective of a working-class student entering the brave new academic world of the knowledge-factory, this will be disappointing. For the working-class student, higher education was supposed to be everything that the working-class world was not even if the image of the ivory tower and the promise of release from the working-class life has never been realized or fulfilled. Demystifying the university has had the unintended effect of killing the working-class dream of going to college as an escape from a way of life that our parents and their parents hoped their children could avoid. Working-class college-graduates today are still part of the working class in spite of allegedly having fulfilled one of the sufficient conditions for exit from the working class, namely, receiving a college degree. [5] So, how did this happen?

The Double-Bind

[9] We have been so focused on laying bare the conditions of power, the effects of prestige, the nature of academic identity, and the limits of academe itself that we failed to realize that someone might actually be listening to us—and use these things against us.

[10] Take for example the long battle to get the public to understand the notion of academic "labor" or "work"; to view the academy as a "workplace" where working conditions are often felt to be unfair; to recognize that some academics, particularly, adjunct faculty, are "exploited"; to see that many people who work in the academy are "contingent"; or even to recognize that some regard academe merely as a "business." [6]

[11] To their credit, many of those who introduced politics to the academy in the 90s and beyond were very effective. By taking discussions of the political dimensions of the academy from the faculty lounge all the way to the statehouse, we accomplished our goal of getting the public, that is, those who do not earn their living directly through higher education, to not just hear our story—but to accept it.

[12] Academe is a workplace; professors do work; many faculty do more work for less pay than others; some professors are guaranteed a job for life, whereas others can barely have a life with their job; and so on. Moreover, we have convinced them that the work conditions of academe are—by and large—dismal.

[13] Find me a student or a parent or a legislator that has not heard about the dismal state of the academic condition today—and I will show you someone who more than likely either has zero interest in education of any form or lives in a cave—or both. From the abysmal salaries of public secondary school teachers and the horrors of "teaching to the test" to the rising cost of higher education and its perceived lower value, we live in a media world saturated by vignettes from the politics of academe—many of them negative.

[14] If the challenge of the past twenty-five years was to make people more fully aware of the political dimensions of academe in the hopes of creating a more just, fair, and equitable academic workplace, then we have met the challenge (political awareness) but have not achieved the end (justice, fairness, and equity). In fact, if anything, political understanding of the academy has only coincided with a less just, more unfair, and decreasingly equitable workplace.

[15] The best term for the academy that arose amidst the nascent political efforts of the 90s is the "neoliberal academy." [7] Its politics are allegedly not red or blue; conservative or liberal; working-class or bourgeois; but rather engaged at a level "without politics." In the academy of the present, politics has been usurped by economics. Decision-making is based on getting the maximum amount of "labor" from the academic working-class—with the lowest level of cost and risk. Teaching has truly become labor—and its going rate is whatever the market will bear. The pursuit of knowledge means depositing in the workforce of the future the requisite skills to be productive workers. There are no competing visions of the university from the vantage point of neoliberalism—only better ways to capture the education market and train workers.

[16] The politics of race, class, gender, and sexuality in the neoliberal university matter only if they become impediments to the maximization of the financial capital of the university. In other words, if students—who are regarded as "consumers" in the neoliberal university—desire to buy the products of race, class, gender, and sexuality studies, then the neoliberal university will provide them. But the market for these products is diminished by conservative voices from the statehouse who are fixated on the notion that higher education in its most productive form is about "workforce" training—and standardized testing to ensure that academe is adequately training its workers. In this context, the politics of race, class, gender, and sexuality are only relevant if they become impediments to market maximization—or public approval, the left hand of market maximization.

[17] In a way, I cannot help but think that we are victims of our own success at uncovering the political economy of the university. It is now commonplace to regard faculty as a form of labor that fundamentally works to serve the interests of students—and the general economy. We have been successful in making others see what we do as "work" and regarding the general outlines of it as "workload," but it has not resulted in a greater appreciation of the "work" we do, nor has it brought about a general reduction in "workload." In fact, it has brought about quite the opposite.

[18] Now that many within academe and outside of it regard us as "education workers," we no longer are protected by or enshrouded within the mystical distinction between academe and the workplace. To members of the "ivory tower," terms like "professor" and "student" betrayed a qualitative difference between the kind of things that were done within the university tower—and the kinds of things that were done in the factory "workplace." In the pre-neoliberal university, professors taught students, pursued their scholarly passions, and shared in the stewardship of the university albeit with a low level of cognizance or care of the time and effort spent on each task.

[19] However, when we introduced the notion of "academic work" and reimagined the university as a "workplace," we also introduced to it the "timeclock." You know, the thing Fred Flintstone punches when the whistle blows at the end of his day in the stone quarry—the kind of thing that is an anathema to those seeking respite from the working-class life. Through our own efforts to make others value more what we do in the university, we inadvertently destroyed the very thing that made it valuable: namely, the timelessness of our activities and their almost mystical economy.

[20] On the idealistic side, it meant that professors did whatever they needed to meet the educational ends that they set for their students. The clock had two zones: one attuned to that of undergraduate and graduate studies; and the other attuned to a life of mind. Tenure meant that we had demonstrated that we were committed to serving the educational needs of our students, our scholarly passions, and the university at which we were tenured. Seven years, though a random number, was one that those in the academy had come to feel was a long enough period of time to make a fair judgment as to whether a professor should be granted a "timeless" appointment (viz., tenure) or not.

[21] But the segmentation of academe into work and workdays brought with it a high level of questioning as to exactly how we spent our time—and whether it was worth it to invest in these uses of time. Just as most successful "workplaces" with "time-clocks" have a good sense of the time it takes to produce things, so too would academe. Workload became the excuse to separate productive academic work from unproductive academic work; furthermore, it came with the desire to look more closely into this work and determine its quality. And the need for academic quality control brought with it one of the new banes of contemporary academic existence: assessment.

[22] But workplaces are generally not places for politics because the workers generally have little or no say as to how to run the workplace. One has their role in the workplace, and as long as one fulfills it with a sufficient level of quality and consistency, then their continued role is assured. Workers are judged by how they work, not why they work; by what they produce, not by what they think about it. The politics of "widgets" is not their concern; their only concern is getting better at producing them.

[23] As workers within the neoliberal academy, we are expected to produce academic widgets that meet a market demand. Once the demand is gone, so too is the need for widgets and their makers. And unless the widget-maker can also make something else that meets the demands of the market, then the worker is no longer needed by the manufacturer. In the face of this neoliberal approach to education, the notion of hiring a widget-maker for life, makes no sense; neither does it make sense to train people to be widget-makers, if there is no need for widgets. Substitute "make" for "teach"—and "widget" for "humanities"—to get some sense of the crisis now facing those who now manufacture for the humanities industry.

[24] These decisions regarding widgets and widget-makers are not "political" decisions, but rather "economic" ones. They are based on the demands of the market—and nothing else. Race, class, gender, and sexual identity as well as all other affiliations are virtually meaningless—or depoliticized—within the widget-making industry. Life in the neoliberal university is without politics. Argue if you will whether it is apolitical, non-political, or post-political, the result is still the same. Our efforts to politicize the academy have put us in a double-bind: if we consider ourselves "workers," then we become indistinguishable from all of the other workers in neoliberal industry; if we don't, then we are renouncing the political heritage established through the academic labor struggles of 90s and after. In other words, we are damned if we do—and damned if we don't. What then to do? Construct another "Tower" out of a new material, perhaps "silicon" as an escape from neoliberal academe? Or just suck it up and get used to the idea that faculty are labor and students consumers in the dystopic world of neoliberal academe?

Paint by Numbers

[25] Like most, my view of university politics is distinctively tempered by my own personal history. My father worked in the same factory most of his life; and when the product he produced was no longer needed, neither was he. Neither of my parents—or their parents—went to college. Growing up, I was always told that college was a way out of the kind of work my father did—and for me it has been true.

[26] I spent time as a grossly underpaid graduate assistant instructor and a contingent faculty member for many years, but I never regretted the path I took. Compared with the various non-academic jobs I held during my life, college was not "work"—it was (and still is) more akin to pleasure—even now as I complete nearly a decade as a Dean—and over two decades as an editor. Academic days are long and the tasks endless—but there is always time to do something one enjoys.

[27] I have participated through editing, presentation, and publication in the politicization of higher ed since the early 90s. And though my material conditions have changed greatly over the years as has my position in the academy, I still believe that what we do in higher ed is much different than the "work" my father—and his father—did.

[28] One of the many sad consequences of the neoliberal university is that it has stripped higher ed of the need for politics with its overemphasis on the market as the determinant of academic value and the shape of the university. It encourages "paint by number" administration where each color is determined by market studies of consumer behavior. As such, the painting is always the same—even if color variation presents the illusion of difference.

[29] Within the neoliberal university, there is little or no place for alternate visions or narratives of the academy; docile academic subjects are privileged [8]—and political ones cast out. Stripping higher ed of its politics and turning its aspirations to understand more completely its conditions of possibility against it is reprehensible.

[30] My feeling is that one of the ways out of the neoliberal condition of higher ed is to support educational leaders—if not be one yourself—who don't merely paint by neoliberal numbers; who can appreciate both the economics and the politics of higher education without letting one get the better of the other. Perhaps under such conditions it would be healthy to be considered an "academic worker"—but anything short of this is a recipe for misery—and more academic factory work.

[31] University politics with a small "p" goes on whether the university is run by faculty or Ford. However, university politics with a big "P" is a much different beast from the standpoint of neoliberalism than it was when the university was a much less clearly and substantially understood institution. There may be no going back to the naiveté and myth of the "ivory tower," but neither can we endure much longer neoliberalism's "academe without politics." One of our major tasks today is to find university people who are willing to help higher ed rid itself of neoliberalism's paint by numbers approach—and bring some balance and vision to higher ed today. But, even so, this will not solve the social problem presented by the neoliberal university to those who self-identify as or with the working class. Namely, the problem that a university degree is not an automatic ticket out of the working class. In fact, a college degree has arguably become nothing more or less than a ticket into the working class. So what now?

Two Tickets to Paradise

[32] The relationship of the working class to education changed greatly over the course of the twentieth century—and probably made another major change with the advent of the new millennium. When my grandparents were growing up, education was regarded by the working-class of America as a luxury for the bourgeois. Completing high school for their generation was a major accomplishment—and they vigorously made sure that their children accomplished this educational feat.

[33] Both of my grandmothers worked in sewing factories when I was young, and I can still remember visiting them at work. There was no sense in my family that this was "sweat-shop" work, rather quite the contrary. As women who could sew well, they were using their skill to earn money to help provide for their family—and they were proud of their work. And, as an added bonus, whenever there was a rip or tear in our clothing, there was never thought of throwing it away with two grandmothers adroit at cross-stitching.

[34] My grandfathers, on the other hand, were much more entrepreneurial than my grandmothers. Though both had worked for others earlier in their lives, they both aspired to be self-employed and both accomplished this. One, who had worked earlier in his life in the shipyards, came to run his own poultry farm. He literally was "the eggman." By the time I was young, the chickens were gone replaced by a cornucopia of produce, which fed our entire family. He grew everything from tomatoes and potatoes to peanuts and pumpkins. I can't remember my mother every buying a vegetable at the supermarket and swear that growing up we had sweet potatoes with every meal.

[35] My other grandfather held many jobs working for others and himself over the course of his life. For others, among other things, he drove a bus and worked as a watch-repairman in a department store, but it was for himself that he strove to work—and with this he achieved varying degrees of success. He was a taxidermist, bred and sold tropical fish, and, finally, ran his own watch- and jewelry-repair shop all out of his small house.

[36] All of this work done by my grandparents was accomplished with very little formal education. We never asked them about their educational background nor did they volunteer it very often. Rather, their goal in life was to put food on the table, have a roof over their head, and see that their children graduated from high school. And at this, they were quite successful.

[37] My parents both graduated from high school and both took up jobs immediately thereafter. My mother worked for a while as a secretary, and then became a stay at home mom. After I received my undergraduate degree, she went back to work. Today, with my father retired, she works twice as much as back then, with two jobs, one in a bank and one in a department store.

[38] Aside from a few short-lived jobs, my father worked his entire career in the same factory. While I knew many of his co-workers as they were the folks with which our family primarily socialized, I never set foot in his place of employment. It was enough for him to tell me that it was hot and dangerous work, and that there was really nothing to see. My parent's goal in life was much like the goal of their parents but with one major difference: in addition to putting food on the table, having a roof over their head, and seeing that their son graduated from high school, they also wanted him to go to college. And at this, they too were quite successful.

[39] My take-away from my working-class background and my experience with higher education is that my upbringing, while unique, is far from atypical. There are many first-generation college students whose family educational values are similar to mine. For my parents' generation, a high school education was a ticket to a better life than their parents. While that life would always involve work, it would be steady work and enough eventually to provide, in turn, a better educational path for their children. In other words, if the educational attainment of their parents for their children was high school, then theirs was and would be college.

[40] But the key difference between my parent's parents and my parents was that the expectation of educational attainment of my parents was not entry into the working-class for their son, but rather entry into the "middle class." What this was and how it worked was and is still fuzzy to them, but it definitely did not involve "factory work" (academic or otherwise) nor did it involve merely putting food on the table and a roof over ones head. [9] The knowledge that many of those who have college degrees today struggle to put food on the table and maintain a roof over their heads because of poor-paying employment, unemployment, and/or massive debt, educational or otherwise, is simply incomprehensible to my parents' generation. Moreover, that many of us who work at universities feel that they are like factories seems to our parents more like paradise lost—than paradise found.

[41] As I think about the students who are pursuing undergraduate degrees today, I cannot help but come to the conclusion that an undergraduate degree will not be enough. They will need a master's degree to provide them with the best opportunity to keep food on the table and a roof over their head in addition to providing their children with a shot at higher education. In other words, even with a college degree, the working-class values of my parents (and their parents) continue to persist albeit with less chance of success. The generational difference though is apparent: while working-class parents in the last quarter of the twentieth century believed that an undergraduate degree for their children was a ticket to paradise, working-class parents at the dawn of then new millennium are finding out that both an undergraduate degree and a post-graduate degree or certificate may now be necessary though not sufficient. In other words, it takes two tickets now, rather than one. So, in the words of the immortal Eddie Money, "Pack your bags and leave tonight" ... for grad school, undergrads.

What is not Working Class?

[42] If we have learned anything from the working-class experiences with higher education since the 1950s, it is that higher education is not necessarily the road out of the working class. The ivory tower image of higher education over the second half of the twentieth century provided working-class parents and their children the belief that a college education was less about preserving ones place within the working class than about leaving it for some other social class. Call this other class the "middle class," the "upper class," the "bourgeois," or whatever, the notion of working-class students remaining in the working class after college was not the regulative ideal of working-class parents who encourage their children to attend college. Rather, they aspired for more upward class mobility for their children. But today, the situation seems much different than the one confronted by our parents (and their parents).

[43] There seems little hope today that a college degree—or two or even three—will transport its bearer out of the working class. Not only does the neoliberal university configure itself as a place of work (akin to a factory) but it also markets and measures itself on its ability to train students for swift and painless entry into the workforce. No more images of students meandering in grassy college courtyards waiting for inspiration and creativity to find them. Those images today are replaced by ones of the successful knowledge industry consumer, that is say, college student, who has seamlessly moved from higher education into the workplace.

[44] What needs to be recalled in this context is that the neoliberal university not only transforms its faculty into "workers," but it also regards its students, that is, its "consumers," as "workers-in-training." Thus, if the faculty and staff of the neoliberal university are workers, and its students are workers-in-training, then why should we not regard the university itself as a working-class institution? Not only does the erasure of politics in neoliberal higher education afford us the opportunity to see it more like a factory or place of work than an oasis from these two things, but so too do the specific profiles of those whom are its primary residents, namely, faculty and students.

[45] The world of the new millennium is indeed a new working-class world. Gone are the illusions of escaping from the working class through higher education. They are replaced by the notion that there is a 1% population who own and control the means of production in society and there is a wide-array of workers who are the labor force for them. Working-class academics are thus lumped into the ever-expanding world of the working class—a world that is arguably as wide everyone who subsists and makes their living through work. Now that the university too is a working-class environment aimed through its neoliberal configuration toward the training of workers, gone is one of the last oases from the working-class world. To be sure, the world is flat when it comes to work.


[46] As a working-class student who has gone through most of the various levels of academic training and employment to become a working-class academic in the age of neoliberalism, it is disappointing to see both the erasure of politics in neoliberal academe and the disappearance of the ivory tower. As a first-generation working-class student, I found the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake afforded to me by the pre-neoliberal university a privilege and an opportunity. The notion that academe was an ivory tower of sorts set apart from the world of work offered me the prospect that there was a future way of life for me, if I studied hard enough and applied myself, that would be significantly different from my parents' working-class life.

[47] For my part, this belief lasted both through undergraduate and graduate school. It was only when I entered professional academic life that I began to realize that though things might appear different in academe, they were for many quite the same as working-class life. As such, being a working-class academic meant both that I was one by upbringing and by professional vocation. For me, the final barrier between my two working-class selves was broken down when neoliberal academe began to significantly erase the political agency of faculty in the governance and operation of the university, viz., when faculty lost control of the means of knowledge production.

[48] Consequently, I believe that my desire to release the university from the chains of neoliberalism stems in part from the way it has destroyed the dreams of the current generation of working-class students to aspire to something without a vocational telos. Until academe restores political agency to its constituency, it will be locked with an operational logic that is blind to any aim other than more efficient and well-managed entry into the working class for its consumers. This is not why I got into higher education or why my parents saved and sacrificed so that I could become a first-generation college student. I entered the university not to re-enter the working class of my parents' generation, but to escape from it. However, midway through life's journey, I cannot help but feel that I and others of my generation have failed miserably in this journey. It is time now to move beyond the neoliberal university and its workforce ideals—and to bring back some of its mystery and impracticality.


[1] For a comprehensive introduction to the politics of affiliation in academe, see Jeffrey R. Di Leo, ed., Affiliations: Identity in Academic Culture (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2003).

[2] For a defense of the notion that argument and disagreement is central to the healthy university and democratic education, see Jeffrey Di Leo, Corporate Humanities in Higher Education: Moving Beyond the Neoliberal Academy (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013), pp. 27-44.

[3] My term for this type of scholarship is "meta-professional studies." For an account of their rise, see, Jeffrey R. Di Leo, Academe Degree Zero: Reconsidering the Politics of Higher Education (Boulder: Paradigm, 2012). However, the work that Jeffrey J. Williams has recently coined "critical university studies," also covers much of the work in this area. See, Jeffrey J. Williams, "Deconstucting Academe: The Birth of Critical University Studies," Chronicle of Higher Education (19 February 2012). «»

[4] For an excellent, albeit controversial, account of the rise of vocationalism in higher education, see Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, Higher Education? How College are Wasting our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What we can Do about It (New York: Times Books/Henry Holt, 2010).

[5] The notion of the working class as those without a college degree is a popular notion. See, for example, its use in Thomas B. Edsall's recent article for The New York Times, "Canaries in the Coal Mine" (17 June 2012) in relation to voter demographics. «»

[6] The best account to date of the university as a workplace is Marc Bousquet, How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation (New York: New York University Press, 2008). For an excellent overview of the history of the university with regard to its business interests, see Frank Donohue, The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008).

[7] The best general account of neoliberalism is still David Harvey's A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005). For recent accounts of the neoliberal university, see Henry A. Giroux, Neoliberalism's War on Higher Education (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014) and Jeffrey R. Di Leo, Corporate Humanities in Higher Education: Moving Beyond the Neoliberal Academy (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013).

[8] The phrase "docile neoliberal subject" comes from Bronwyn Davies, Michael Gottsche, and Peter Bansel, "The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal University," European Journal of Education 41.2 (2006), p. 307. See Jeffrey Di Leo, Corporate Humanities in Higher Education: Moving Beyond the Neoliberal Academy (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013), pp. xvii-xix, for a defense of their presence in the neoliberal academy and its harmful effect.

[9] The difference here between the "working class" and the "middle class" is one of greater economic and educational resources. One way to distinguish one from the other is that the former live paycheck to paycheck whereas the latter have greater disposable or discretionary income. However, where and how to draw these lines is fuzzy and debatable, and not relevant for our purposes.