Rutgers AAUP-AFT members marching during their most recent contract dispute. In the foreground, a sign reads “Equal Pay For Equal Work.” (Photo courtesy of Rutgers AAUP-AFT)
A recent Nature editorial¹ highlighting student mental health struggles across graduate programs in the United States failed to address the crisis for what it is: a symptom of a greater issue. Understanding of this greater issue has been systematically suppressed from academic discourse through a variety of historical processes ranging from the privatization of education to the socio-political culture of neoliberalism. Policies designed to alleviate the mental health crisis at a surface level continue to fail so it is of great urgency that we understand and combat the root causes. We cannot allow this crisis to worsen.
To form a critical understanding of this problem, I begin by outlining a political-economic history of academia in the United States to put the current moment into context. Next, I define neoliberalism and its negative cultural effects to conceptualize the development of the greater issue. Finally, I point to the labor exploitation of graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, research assistants, and other research staff as a major driver of our mental health crisis. Undoing the dismantling of labor organizing is the only way to effectively challenge the crisis we face.
A Crisis of Privatization
Radical simply means grasping things at the roots.—Dr. Angela Davis
Over the past 70 years, the public university has transformed from an institution of a social market economy to a semi-, and sometimes fully-, privatized entity that mimics the modern corporation. Following World War II, there were multiple conditions that contributed to a rich and well-funded academic environment. In the 1950s, the GI Bill provided education benefits for the white working-class men to attend university. Beginning in the 1960s, the women’s and civil rights movements opened doors for a wider range of students to enter academia, especially Black and Native American peoples and women in general. In the 1970s and onward, anti-communist sentiments created a boom in science and art funding to compete with the impressive gains of the Soviet Union.²
However, during the 1980s, the federal government began to cut their grants to public universities and colleges. Graduation rates began to stagnate due to increasing tuition costs surging faster than the overall rate of inflation. The effect of these cuts on working-class students was further amplified by the Reagan and Bush, Sr. administrations’ efforts to cut public goods in other sectors and to promote privatization across the country. The government also redirected money away from education and towards Medicaid and furthering mass incarceration. To keep up with decreasing budgets, universities adopted a more corporate model. Institutions began prioritizing revenue over affordability and accessibility, minimizing costs wherever possible in order to maintain financial solvency. These series of events ultimately gave rise to the current crisis of student debt2, totaling $1.6 trillion, or 8% of the nation’s income, as of 2019.3
The shift to privatization from a more socialized education system benefited capitalists “because it lowered tax rates and enabled the financial sector to profit from the rapid rise in student debt.”2 Now, higher education is championed as a personal investment which improves the student’s post-graduate labor position, leading to a strong focus on individual sacrifice and distortion of higher education from a place of research to a tool for career advancement. Many students enter higher education already in debt and quickly discover that graduate degrees will not so easily advance their labor position.
A Crisis of Individualism
We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.— Dr. Albert Einstein
Given the socio-political climate of neoliberalism, the concept of personal responsibility is popularly understood as the underlying factor which determines one’s social conditions. For example, it is a common argument that those living in poverty do so because of their own laziness and failures. White supremacists have further enforced this notion with tired narratives of intelligence and genetics even though studies of poverty link to material conditions of racism, sexism, and classism, etc. — not personal responsibility. Ideas such as these, which benefit those in power, become embedded in the general population through a process known as cultural hegemony.
In other words, the ideology of the ruling class, in this case, the idea of achieving status through personal hard work, becomes common sense. This myth of meritocracy not only veils the violence of a class-based system, but it also creates the conditions that lead people to internalize their failures as personal deficits. It should go without saying that most people in power have not achieved their status through hard work, but rather through having access to capital and advantages through privilege. Graduate students work very hard, but we are all aware that most of us will not make it up the career ladder. However, students continue to bear the burden of these systemic barriers as their own shortcomings.
A Crisis of Labor
The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress.—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Graduate students are workers. Just as a barista is paid a wage to produce drinks, just as a flight attendant is paid a wage to produce service, just as a factory worker is paid a wage to repeat manufacturing tasks, graduate students and postdocs are paid a wage (deceitfully called a stipend or fellowship) to produce intellectual capital in the form of publications, patents, and ideas for start-ups, among other things. Most importantly, they produce a name (a brand) for the institution. An institution’s value in the private market derives from their academic status and their research prestige.2 This status is defined by the research graduate students produce through their expert labor and hard work. They don’t receive the fruits of these profits but one can argue that they receive a degree in exchange. The value of this degree in the current job market is another debate to be had.
The refusal to describe graduate students as workers set the stage for the greater issue. In 2004, the National Labor Relations Board deemed graduate students as non-employees, effectively barring them from official labor organizing. Graduate students in some institutions have managed to leverage their role as teaching assistants, or adjunct professors, to find a way to organize themselves into unions. Recently, Rutgers University faculty and graduate and teaching assistants won graduate workers a stipend increase, stronger healthcare coverage for non-tenured faculty, and guaranteed equal pay for female faculty and faculty across all three Camden, Newark, and New Brunswick campuses; all this gained through collective bargaining, powered by a unified student and faculty front.7 This is one of many examples of gains that can be won through a united group of students and allies, possibly resulting in easing primary stresses on graduate and postgraduate workers.
Many institutions focus on investing capital into student life organizations. They are well-intentioned and comprised of administrators who care for students and the research they produce. However, they function as a bureaucracy that effectively puts bandages over symptoms such as poor mental health, burnout, and abusive faculty and labor conditions. This administration works hard to produce resources such as hiring in-house therapists, providing venting time, planning student life events, and helping students manage abusive working conditions that consistently arise across academia. These administrators, however, have little power to sanction and de-platform abusive professors and principal investigators. Abuse can range from expecting students to be overworking (without overtime pay) to fostering hostile work environments.
I argue that there is a higher rate of abusive research environments than we think, which possibly obscures the source of mental health issues in the eyes of most observers. Students have a tough time telling their stories. What will be the repercussions if their advisor finds out? The #MeToo movement brought to light systemic examples of workplace abuses, particularly towards women. This highlights an existing structure of patriarchy that seeps into all aspects of life and work environments. Similar to how many people don’t consider passive actions just as teasing, remarks about women’s bodies, or persistent flirting on the job as sexual harassment8, many labor exploitations also go by as normal. Students should have the means to not only understand but also, confront all types of workplace acts of violence.
It’s time students understand that they are workers. As workers, they deserve rights like any other worker. The more control workers have over pay, insurance, housing, and academic decision-making, the better their quality of life. Student life administrators won’t give us these rights, even if they may want to. We cannot rely on representatives of the institution which extract our labor to produce a profit. It’s time we rely on ourselves and begin to seriously think about using collective bargaining powers to give us the rights which will directly improve our mental health.
For historical reasons, the approach of most Americans […] has always been a pragmatic or problem-solving approach which is essentially anti-intellectual. In what has been described as the “headache syndrome,” they react to and try to resolve each problem as it arises, as if each were a sporadic, isolated or accidental problem in a system that is fundamentally sound, and therefore capable of quick and easy solutions.— Grace Lee Boggs
- The mental health of PhD researchers demands urgent attention. (2019, November 13). Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03489-1
- Schwartz, J. M. (2014). Resisting the exploitation of contingent faculty labor in the neoliberal university: the challenge of building solidarity between tenured and non-tenured faculty. New Political Science, 36(4), 504-522.
- Kantor, A. (2019, December 27). The $1.6tn US student debt nightmare. Retrieved from https://www.ft.com/content/0af6a04c-1881-4969-93d0-a943673ac4f2
- Darder, Antonia. “Neoliberalism in the academic borderlands: An on-going struggle for equality and human rights.” Educational Studies 48.5 (2012): 412-426.
- Lawless, B., & Chen, Y. W. (2017). Multicultural neoliberalism and academic labor: Experiences of female immigrant faculty in the US academy. Cultural Studies↔ Critical Methodologies, 17(3), 236-243.
- Harvey, D. (2007). A brief history of neoliberalism. Oxford University Press, USA.
- Carrera, C. (2019, April 17). Rutgers reaches contract agreement with faculty to avoid disruptive strike. Retrieved from https://www.northjersey.com/story/news/2019/04/16/no-strike-rutgers-university-faculty-claims-win-contract-negotiations/3492244002/
- Infographic: The Iceberg of Sexual Harassment. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nap.edu/visualizations/sexual-harassment-iceberg/