Since the formal end of the faculty unionization drive early this year, some of us decided we would continue to fight for changes we had sought through unionization. We organized ourselves into a collective called the Minnesota Higher Education Worker Center. Others have joined us, attracted to this independent, open-ended formation. We are not many, but we have been busy. In February, we found ourselves standing alongside some of the bravest and, not surprisingly, most criminalized, students at the university, openly confronting the President and Regents of the University over their attempt to subvert the democratic processes of our institution and its norms of free speech. We took on the issue of contingent faculty access to email and the library. We are now in the midst of working on fundamental issues that highlight the differences between how the University of Minnesota’s power-holders like to portray the U and what the U actually is — the image we see on admissions brochures of shiny new buildings and diverse, smiling students versus the truth of a largely unaccountable, inaccessible, and unaffordable corporation-in-disguise.

One aspect of the student code of conduct issue draws out this tension between image and reality: Regent Darrin Rosha has been active in the attempt to change the Student Code of Conduct to address sexual misconduct, which somehow turned into an attempt to criminalize student protest (see  “Criminalization of Student Activism and “How the University Works”). It turns out that Regent Rosha was under investigation for allegations of sexual misconduct at the McNally Smith College of Music, an investigation that cost the University of Minnesota $34,000. How is it that someone who was under investigation for sexual misconduct at one university should be deeply involved in attempts to address that very issue at another university? Where were the President and other Regents, some of whom were required to know about this investigation? This incompetence and lack of probity of the Board of Regents and President boggle the mind and reveal the fundamental problem in the way power works at the U. We have somehow come to accept this model, which presents the university as an institution run benevolently and paternalistically by its Board and President. Isn’t there enough evidence now to call this undemocratic and top-down model into question?

Making our institution truly democratic, transparent, and accountable — not an autocracy utilizing democratic organs to legitimize its moves — is fundamentally necessary to the future of higher education.  This is one of the core principles of our group. We will be going into much more depth about this in future newsletters.

We see these newsletters as both a record of our activities, and a developing vision of why we are working outside of the institutional structures of the university. Most of us have been very active in university governance. Some of us worked towards unionization precisely because we witnessed firsthand how weak governance actually has been — and how the U’s power-holders use governance merely to give the impression that they have engaged in consultation and democracy. While not discounting the important and often thankless work that we and our colleagues are doing in governance, which sometimes of course does have meaningful victories, we must acknowledge the current state of both our university and higher education more generally. Faculty governance did not save the University of Wisconsin. In fact, it was a distraction for so many until it was too late and they finally realized that a faculty union with legal powers would have been much more effective at protecting the university. University governance, including largely defanged student governance, has had little to no effect on the spiraling tuition and debt of our students. It has done nothing to stop our institutions from being turned into real estate development corporations. It has had barely any effect in non-unionized institutions on the increasing number of contingent faculty and precariousness of their positions.

We believe that the only way to reverse these trends is through an independent organization that is structured so as not to be co-opted and used as a rubber stamp by university power-holders. Even from the experience of only a few months, we are coming to see that such an organization must include and work closely with students, staff, and other workers. It also should be in more meaningful relationship with our surrounding community, who have direct experience of the U becoming inaccessible, unaffordable, and in many ways harmful to them.

If you would like to get involved, whether you are a student, faculty, staff, or community member, please contact us at mnhigheredworkercenter@gmail.com.