- How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation
The best academic books not only provide new insights into a disciplinary or academic issue, they also create new practices, new avenues for action. Such is the case with Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation. His work will clearly be important to those active in higher education labor politics. I want to argue, however, his work is equally important to those of us active in the numerous university/community partnerships that are becoming a hallmark of higher education. His work provides important insights and strategies for enabling such partnerships to become a key ally in the effort to reform the labor market both within the university and the communities in which it sits. How the University Works, that is, opens up important avenues for new work to occur.
Before developing this point, a brief summary of the book is necessary: Bousquet argues that the dominant image of the university is a myth. Whereas the public perception might be of the university as a place populated with tenured faculty, working within lush research and pedagogical contexts, a place where students’ primary work is studying, this is not the case. Instead, global economic forces have led many students’ primary identification to be as workers, even when their worksite seems to offer them increased access to education—here Bousquet offers a devastating critique of UPS’ “tuition credit” system. Moreover, such undergraduate students are often taught by graduate assistants, whose entry into the “job market” is more often than not the final trick played upon them by the academy. Indeed, Bousquet argues that the very concept of the “job market” works to mask the ways in which the dominant laborers in the university classrooms are underpaid adjunct instructors, whose exploited labor conditions are now too well known and too little addressed.
Undergirding the entire book, then, is the argument that the university, rather than being separate from the global restructuring of the labor market, has been an active participant. Even when traditional strategies against the casualization of labor are discussed, such as faculty unions, Bousquet effectively demonstrates that such strategies are used to perpetuate the privileges [End Page 394] of the few, rather than addressing the needs of the many, maintaining the mask of the university instead of confronting its true corporate nature. Indeed, tenured faculties need (or naïve belief) to imagine the continuation of their privileges as an oppositional strategy to the corporatization of the university stands out as a fundamental flaw in progressive faculty politics. In short, “We have met the enemy and it is us.”
We might also, however, be part of the solution. While not directly commenting on such work, Bousquet’s book also serves as a powerful lens from which to view much of the community partnership work that marks the modern university. For while it has been internalizing a corporate logic of labor exploitation, a key element of the university’s public face has been as a civically engaged institution. As evidence of this civic mission, one only needs to look at the proliferation of “community partnership centers” appearing on campuses across the country. Ironically, it is often the principle work of these centers to have students work with the public schools hurt by the corporate logic reforming education, to aid displaced workers facing extended unemployment as jobs are moved oversees, and to support community centers focused on the consequences of such policies—hunger, poor health care, and crime. Yet in almost none of the literature on community partnerships are connections drawn between the role of the university as corporate entity working within a global market and the local effect of such market policies. The progressive politics of community partnerships, then, might also be read as the ameliorative balm offered by universities for larger global capitalist logic.
It is this point that Bousquet’s work begins to offer a new type of practice for those in community partnership work. Throughout How the University...