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Davis, California

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Guest: Capitalist deception and corporate universities


The UC system must be democratized for students and workers to obtain power over their everyday lives

It’s well known that those with power and influence disproportionately craft the narratives that we’re exposed to (because access to prominent platforms isn’t equally distributed) and will generally do so in ways that benefit them. For instance, when companies, even large ones, increase prices, they often try to blame low-wage workers — with the most infamous examples of this corresponding to increases in the minimum wage. However, these companies are still making significant profits, and some of their employees, such as executives, receive compensation packages that are hundreds of times greater than those of the company’s lowest paid, or even average, employees.

With few exceptions — especially when it comes to larger companies — this framing, as well as the low compensation that certain workers receive, is the result of choices. Despite claims to the contrary, there are plenty of situations in which companies aren’t forced to profit maximize and could easily survive with slightly lower profits. Furthermore, their highest paid employees could accept lower compensation packages yet rarely choose to do so.

Now, some may argue that high compensation is necessary to attract the best candidates for these positions. But leaving aside the fact that this argument would apply to other employees as well (there’s that biased narrative again), what exactly is meant by this? What constitutes “best” in this context?

Usually this means people whose decisions will effectively maximize profits, but the question then becomes, “Is this even desirable?” As mentioned earlier, many companies could survive with slightly lower profits, and higher profits often come at the expense of the most vulnerable employees — and customers, for that matter. On top of this, do we even want a few unaccountable individuals to be making decisions that affect everyone? Instead of such authoritarian control, perhaps we the people should collectively make these decisions for ourselves.

A similar situation exists within the UC system, along with plenty of other universities, whereby top administrators claim that increases in tuition and fees are necessary because of wage increases for their lowest paid employees, while continuing to get highly compensated. This too is a choice and a matter of framing. Low wage workers are considered expendable, while those making the decisions and crafting the narrative would never even consider the impact of their own salaries and benefits on budgetary concerns (at least not publicly). Such high compensation levels are again said to be required in order to attract the best administrators. But an almost-identical critique can be made against this assertion, as was made against the analogous one involving corporate executives. Despite supposedly being a public good, the UC system acts like a corporation in a lot of ways.

Going beyond administrative bloat, there are larger issues surrounding the university’s priorities — budgetary and otherwise. Because of the university’s undemocratic nature, its resources are often used in ways that don’t really benefit and sometimes even directly harm — intentionally or not — students and workers, including such things as a recently renovated chancellor residence, armed police and groups designed to stifle student activism and resistance, in addition to administrative bloat. Rather than devoting our limited funding to these and related projects, it should be going toward student needs like truly affordable on-campus housing, community centers and improved physical and mental health care. Note that, of these, the latter two are actually having their funding reduced and misused, respectively.

Luckily, there are several groups at UC Davis (and elsewhere, but here the focus will be on UCD) attempting to counter these violent structures and the narratives created by administrators in an attempt to justify them. These range from Students and Workers Ending Racial Violence (SWERV), to Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), to all of the community centers mentioned previously (and there are probably other groups doing related work that I’m unaware of, as well).

And then there are the numerous campus unions that fight to protect the rights of both workers and students. This is not only because some students are workers and some of them are part of the UC Student-Workers Union (UAW 2865), nor is it just because our working conditions as campus employees are also students’ learning conditions. Another major reason for this is because campus workers care about student concerns, and solidarity is important. This is why students should support AFSCME Local 3299, which represents, among others, service workers and has a history of actively helping students organize around Regents meetings; the California Nurses Association; and UPTE-CWA 9119, which represents professional and technical employees, in their ongoing contract negotiations, as well as all campus unions (and unions and workers more generally) in theirs. When we recognize that students’ struggles and power are intrinsically connected to those of workers and exercise this collective power to push back against oppressive institutions, we all win.

The UC system needs to be democratized by giving students and workers real power (as opposed to non-binding input) over the decisions that affect their everyday lives. This has been the goal of organizers and movements for decades, with the most recent iterations at UC Davis being #FireKatehi (which was about far more than just Katehi as an individual) and the Mrak sit-in a few weeks ago, for which several students are now facing charges with Student Judicial Affairs, and it will continue to be an important goal on the path to full democracy for society as a whole. One concrete starting point can and should involve students and workers having the ability to determine current Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Adela de la Torre’s replacements, along with having more power over the allocation of mental health resources and decisions — since the unelected and unaccountable administration clearly can’t be trusted to make the best decisions for students and workers on their own.


Connor Gorman is a fifth-year physics graduate student at UC Davis and a trustee on the statewide executive board of the UC Student-Workers Union (UAW 2865), the union that represents Academic Student Employees across the UC system. He is also active in SWERV and SDS.


Written by: Connor Gorman

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.


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