On November 20, 2008, Graduate Students United (GSU) released the results of its first ever membership referendum. Chief among the issues on the referendum was a series of questions regarding whether or not GSU should take a position on the university’s allocation of $200 million to the creation of a Milton Friedman Institute (MFI). As referenda allow GSU to make substantive decisions on issues that concretely affect GSU members, the text of the referendum explained that
Critics have argued that [the MFI] was instituted without enough campus input and that it endorses Friedman-style free-market politics. Some GSU organizers feel that we should take a position on it, since it has many implications for campus politics, governance and resource distribution. Others argue that we should stick to our regular organizing campaign, and should be wary of potentially aligning ourselves with a particular ideology.
The vast majority of those who participated in the referendum (73%) supported GSU taking a stance on the MFI, with even more (90%) indicating their personal opposition to this campus institute, a joint project of the Department of Economics, the Law School, and the Graduate School of Business. This broad-based opposition to the MFI reflects the convergence of many issues — from inequitable resource allocation to the corporatization of university governance to the free market policies endorsed and inspired by Friedman. For those of us who spend our graduate careers as lecturers, research assistants, or writing interns, it is an unambiguous slap in the face to see influential sectors of the university successfully lobby administrators to commit at least a hundred million dollars to the MFI, while we remain underfunded, underpaid, and uninsured.
But the sting of this affront is not simply rooted in the ambitions of the university administrators and faculty who sought to cash in on Friedman’s reputation, but also in a set of fundamental principles that Friedman himself helped to instill. Over the past four decades, the management of U.S. higher education has changed considerably, with administrators at both public and private universities openly embracing the values and practices of business management, guided by Friedman’s famous dictum that the sole responsibility of corporations, provided they stay within the law, is to make as much money as possible. University education has accordingly sacrificed internal democracy in favor of profits.
While this shift in management has seen prestigious institutions like the University of Chicago orient themselves increasingly towards serving the needs of the wealthy, it has also meant that campus life across the board, from the lunchroom to the dorm room to the classroom, has come to rely on cheap, casual, and unorganized labor. Just as this shift is reflected in the reliance on subcontracted dining hall staff and immigrant custodial workers here at the University of Chicago, it is also evident in the prevalence of cheap graduate student labor. The U of C has been able to make its administrators and star faculty some of the best compensated in the country in part by keeping graduate student employees among the worst compensated — even though we teach nearly a third of undergraduate courses (and assist in teaching many more). Underfunding — and at times no funding — combines with stagnant wages, leaving us to compete with each other for limited teaching positions, research assistantships, and fellowship awards, in spite of the fact that these positions lack health care and other basic benefits.
GSU’s opposition to the MFI does not stem from a single political ideology; it is not a bold stand on principle. Rather, it is an opportunity for graduate students to stand up for our own interests. Although the MFI has now been made over in the image of a traditional academic institute, with overt ideological orientation removed from its website, it still embodies much of what is wrong with higher education today. Instead of the life of the mind, the love of knowledge, or the good of society, higher education remains driven by the interests of those with deep pockets. This basic fact of campus life will remain until those of us with shallower pockets come together, organize ourselves, and change it.