My mother once opined that working in higher education appears no less abusive than what my father experienced as an ironworker. I am not sure if this is true, especially for a tenured professor like me. But colleagues in the exploited “adjunct underclass” might well agree with my mother, and for good reason.
Inhabiting the space of higher education can extremely draining and debilitating for anyone. Jonathan Malesic, a former tenured professor and author of The End of Burnout: Why Work Drains Us and How to Build Better Lives, has shared his own story of burnout. Malesic has provided much needed truth telling about the phenomenon. The pandemic has exacerbated the stress, strain, and fatigue among faculty and staff, with “pandemic burnout becoming rampant” in academe, as the journal Nature has lucidly described.
For me, staring closely at the injustices that students, faculty, staff, and some administrators face on our campuses for almost ten years prior to the pandemic while writing Just Universities was mentally and physically exhausting. The continual contemplation of the emotional and physical suffering of many colleagues and students on our campuses was heart wrenching. It was difficult to acknowledge my own privilege as a white, straight, cisgender, male tenured professor in a place that sometimes felt oppressive to me yet systematically marginalizes and mistreats people of color, women and LGBTQ persons as scholars from those groups have written.
Upon completing the book, I wanted to turn my attention to my other scholarly interests. I wanted to look away. However, the book, despite whatever shortcomings it has, seems to have struck a chord. Reading groups have used it on several campuses. I have given more talks already since its 2021 publication than about any other topic over the course of my career. Students, faculty, staff, and even some university presidents have generously taken time to dialogue about the issues treated in Just Universities.
I believe this interest has much more to do with the neuralgic nature of the questions raised than anything to do with me. In a certain sense – and I have been told this – I am stating what has been on many people’s minds in academe for a long time, particularly in Catholic higher education. This symposium, in which several accomplished (and very busy!) colleagues have engaged and gone beyond the book’s subject matter, occasions gratitude in me, the will to press forward, and hope.
I had hoped this book would be a conversation starter, as I said in its introduction. I am therefore delighted to comment on the fine essays in this symposium, though I will not be able to do them justice in this short essay. Each of the authors have made their own important contributions to furthering justice in the academy, and I will continue to ponder their thinking in the future. I hope that readers of the symposium will do the same.
Michael McLaughlin correctly draws our attention to how the “dynamics of race, class, and gender” determine who gets admitted to our universities, the materialistic culture that pervades them, and the kind of education that they provide. I share his concern about the infiltration of homo economicus into decision-making our universities. However, as I have written elsewhere, I believe that homo economicus is an equal-opportunity distortion of perception. As subjects in the neoliberal world order we all have “encounters” with homo economicus and we are all deformed by its “seductive ethos” to varying degrees (162). I am not convinced that “Paul Ryan Republicans,” as McLaughlin calls them, are the only groups that ignore the unjust power dynamics in the neoliberal corporatized university. Some of my most progressive colleagues have equally shown a remarkable ability to ignore the problems in higher education that McLaughlin describes, while ploughing ahead with their academic careers. Nonethless, I affirm his contention that we need to understand how “class power” shapes higher education (e.g. “working poor students taught by working poor adjuncts.” I too lament the unfortunate phenomenon of prejudice against manual labor in the United States and elsewhere. Here I find resonances of the arguments articulated by Michael Sandel in The Tyranny of Merit, where he denounces an “insidious prejudice against those who have not been to college” (89).
In a remarkable jeremiad against “the corporate takeover of Catholic higher education” Rubén Rosario Rodríguez evinces that he is not one of the “gated intellectuals” (critical pedagogy expert Henry Giroux’s term) content to remain siloed in their offices while ignoring the larger forces at work around them. If there is any hope for saving higher education from the maelstrom of corporatization, it resides in the willingness of voices like Rodríguez to critique their own institutions and call them to greater fidelity to their mission.
This undeniably involves risk. For example, minoritized faculty members have repeatedly experienced retribution and “racial battle fatigue” for challenging the white supremacist structures at their institutions. Others such as Donna Freitas have lamented facing harsh blowback for writing about the problem of sexual violence on campuses. Prophets often get punished, and the corporatized university has mechanisms resembling the panopticon.
Rodríguez intrepidly describes what can be seen as a case study of many of the problems treated in Just Universities: academic retrenchment and downsizing eschewing the university mission in favor of “financial performance,” evisceration of humanities requirements such as foreign languages, and a top-heavy and opaque process that precludes widespread participation. This bespeaks an approach that eschews Catholic social teaching in favor of processes imported from the business world and an underlying solipsistic and hypercompetitive anthropology.
As I have argued in Just Universities and elsewhere, the right to participation in CST entitles professors, including contingent faculty, to participate in real shared governance, not to be treated like pawns. I could not agree more with Rodríguez’s claim that universities need more diverse and “genuine representation” at all levels. Faculty, staff, and students from racially minoritized groups must have a voice and agency when key university decisions are made (see chs. 6 and7). Whites occupy 83% of college presidencies and about the same percentage of board seats. Women hold only 27% of presidencies and about 36% of board memberships.
An understanding of higher education that respects the common good would not adopt the model described by Rodríguez, which prioritizes customer satisfaction above important elements of the mission of a Catholic university. In this vein, David Kirp contends that corporatized universities are marked by a tension between those “whose chief mission is to maximize profits and those committed to…a community in which ‘gift’ relationships are the norm.” It should be obvious that Catholic colleges and universities should be characterized by the latter. However, as Rodríguez demonstrates, this is clearly not always the case.
In a sense, Rodríguez’ argument about the “demographic drop” overlaps with other scholars’ admonition to be wary of “artificial scarcity.” Talk of a demographic drop obscures the fact that universities are not directing enough resources to recruiting, admitting, and retaining students from the fastest-growing populations (Asian American, Latinx, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, and African-American students). In other words, when we hear demographic drop think “white students able to pay full tuition.”
I would add that many Catholic colleges and universities, with notable exceptions, do not excel in providing access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. For example, to my knowledge, not a single Catholic institution has eliminated loans from their financial aid packages, a slowly growing practice that attracts students from racially diverse and economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Moreover, many of the wealthiest Catholic institutions have among the lowest proportion of racially minoritized students, economically disadvantaged students, and the highest net cost for low to moderate income families. College admissions and financial aid policies need a massive infusion of CST, including at many Catholic institutions (Just Universities devoted an entire chapter to this).
Rohnn Sandersen provides a welcome intervention from an economist. There is a danger that theologians like me ignore the economic complexities of higher education. Economists and finance experts need to be a part of this conversation. Here I can only address a few of Sandersen’s salient arguments.
While I disagree with Sandersen on several points, we agree on this: in every organization there are “trade-offs.” The economist of higher education Steven Shulman has highlighted the trade-offs that are often made in corporatized universities. When universities decide to pay contingent faculty poverty wages, they are choosing one set of expenditures over another. As he puts it, “the problem is not their overall financial capacity so much as it is their priorities” (5). In this vein, political scientist Stephen Mockabee has shown that justice for adjunct faculty may not nearly cost as much as some maintain.
Of course, there are instances where institutions genuinely struggle to keep their doors open. But often enough it is the case that colleges and universities simply prioritize certain expenditures over others, often to the detriment of those without power. Sanderson rightly raises the question of whether higher education is worth it, noting that the price of college tuition has risen at nearly twice the rate of the base consumer price index. Yet, there is little discussion of what has driven those costs other than his assertion that “subsidies and regulation” are the main factor.
Higher education is bound by an elaborate set of laws and regulations that invariably inflates costs. This is why most colleges and universities employ a cadre of lawyers, which in the current legal landscape of higher education is necessary in my view. So here Sanderson and I agree. However, studies indicate the picture is much more complex, with a host of factors contributing to skyrocketing costs. Some of these issues cannot be influenced by board and administrators’ decisions (e.g. regulatory costs) while others can be (luxury campus amenities, growing numbers of C-suite salaries for top administrators and coaches, etc.).
I argued in Just Universities that Catholic social teaching provides the norms and values that should guide these complex and difficult conversations about budgetary trade-offs. For as I noted, the modern popes (e.g. John XXIII, Mater et magistra, no. 71) have repeatedly stated that the market alone should not decide how resources are allocated.
From a purely economic standpoint, one might argue that paying contingent faculty paltry wages that they accept, albeit begrudgingly, is rational and justifiable as it helps to keep costs down for students. Yet, this logic is impermissible from the standpoint of Catholic social teaching, which demands a just and living wage for all workers (see chapter 2 of Just Universities). Thus, while I agree that we should not “proceed down the same path” that has caused higher education to cost too much, I contend that at Catholic institutions a particular set of values must illuminate the path forward.
Trade-offs will be necessary, but those that do serious harm to workers (e.g. adjunct compensation that precludes necessary medical treatments or decent housing) or students (e.g. taking on crushing debt) at Catholic institutions cannot be accepted. Sandersen’s claim that everything responds to economic forces, which is undoubtedly true, cannot mean that the further erosion of the dignity and rights of all at Catholic universities goes unchecked.
In the final essay, Linda Mercadante makes an invaluable contribution by underscoring how forced termination – and the hypocrisy it reveals at Protestant seminaries and Catholic universities – can lead to spiritual crises, abandonment of the church, and rejection of the Christian faith. Every seminary and university administrator should read Mercadante’s article before they make decisions about hiring, retention, and termination.
The pained and disillusioned voices featured by Mercadante echo the warning I offered in Just Universities regarding the faith of our students. They encounter our behavior and explicitly or implicitly subscribe to Jesus’ maxim: “Beware of false prophets…You will know them by their fruits” (MT 7: 15-16). We risk providing an “anti-witness” to the Gospel when we embrace market fundamentalism and treat people like cogs in a machine.
Mercadante’s essay reveals a stunning embrace of neoliberalism. Weaponizing an institution’s “religious freedom” and the “ministerial exception” enshrined in the Hosanna Tabor decision” in order to circumvent the basic worker protections of U.S. labor law is deplorable. When “seminaries with stellar progressive reputations” (Mercadante) grossly mistreat their employees by effectively ending their career and potentially destroying their faith, we should question whether these “Corinthian” institutions should continue to exist (see Just Universities, 80). Perhaps eliminating their “ethical deficits” is the key to revitalizing these institutions.
I want to conclude on a personal note. One statement quoted by Mercadante particularly struck me: “You perform Ignatian, but I don’t believe you anymore.” I attended Jesuit schools almost my entire life. Like this individual, I felt betrayed when I witnessed colleagues and students being treated contrary to Ignatian and Catholic ideals. Yet, I still love Jesuit education and Ignatian spirituality. I have come to realize that every institution, regardless of its claims of rootedness in Christ and his teachings, is sinful. For too long I searched for the communion of saints in the wrong places. Once we accept the sinfulness of our institutions, we can get on with improving them in solidarity with others. As Walter Wink reminded us, “The Powers are good. The Powers are fallen. The Powers must be redeemed” (31).