Alternate explanation

I just re-read Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation. You should, too, though you should be prepared for a deeply inside-language analysis that privileges critical theory over looking around. But one of the things that I’m still puzzled by is a question that isn’t discussed at all. Who, exactly, benefits from low-wage faculty, and in what ways do they benefit?

I mean, it’s fine to go on about Fordist and post-Fordist and neoliberal strategies (and in response, strategies of labor resistance), all of which are analyses drawn from profit-based industrial economics. It makes sense for Walmart to hire people at minimum wage, and hold them to thirty hours a week to avoid vacations and benefits, because every dollar that isn’t spent on an “associate” just goes into the funnel to the corporate masters in Bentonville. I get that. It’s ruthless power dynamics, but it’s simple.

But what’s the motive in a not-for-profit environment? Sure, college presidents make a ton of money, but in real capitalism terms, it isn’t much. There aren’t any eight-figure and nine-figure salaries for college leaders, as there are in venture capital; there aren’t any higher ed leaders on the Forbes list of billionaires. So we have to subtract that motive, that every dime saved on the worker goes to the CEO and the shareholders. The numbers just don’t add up that way.

We have to think closely about motive before we presume ill motive. As Hanlon’s Razor has it, “Never attribute to malice what could be attributed to neglect and misunderstanding.” So if we dispel the avarice narrative, a version of the “great man” version of history in which the tycoon voluntarily abets suffering of customer and worker alike, then we’re left with a much more systemic and cultural story to tell, and one that we’ll have to think together to adapt.