A panel of activists and organizers gathered in front of roughly 30 students Monday to discuss the increasing presence of private entities and funds at Rutgers.
Called “Know Where Your Money Goes: Neoliberalization and Corporatization of the University,” the panel touched on a broad range of issues facing the University, including changing graduate positions, corporate influence in classrooms and business-like management that prioritizes profit over education.
Katherine Gray, president of the Graduate Student Association and a student in the Rutgers Graduate School—New Brunswick, said the University had been phasing out teaching and graduate assistant positions and replacing them with fellowships.
“What happens when graduate students are no longer (teaching assistants) but become fellows is that they are thrust into a circumstance in which they have more precarious health benefits,” Gray said. “They are receiving a substantially lower salary, and they are thrust into the position of being part time lecturers.”
Both fellowships and teaching positions have always existed at Rutgers, said University spokesman E.J. Miranda in an email. Many graduate students move between these two types of posts during their graduate studies.
Differences in the pay and benefits these positions offer are a result of the work required, he said.
“While there are differences in compensation between a graduate fellow and a teaching assistant, there are also different responsibilities and expectations,” he said. “Teaching assistants are expected to work a set number of hours per week while fellows are able to completely focus on their studies.”
Deepa Kumar, the vice president of the faculty union, the American Association of University Professors—American Federation of Teachers, said rising tuition costs and increasing student debt figures were evidence of corporate interests taking control of the University.
“Today the average student debt is huge. People in this country who are your age owe 1.2 trillion dollars,” Kumar said to the crowd of college students arrayed in front of her. “That shouldn't be the case. If we had our priorities straight and we didn't live in a neoliberal society which values profit over everything else, education would be free.”
The rise in tuition is largely a result of falling state subsidies. According to Rutgers' budget documents, Rutgers students paid 67.8 percent of their education costs through their tuition and associated fees. In 1990, students paid only 32.9 percent.
Private investments help offset the strain caused by plummeting state appropriations, which according to the Rutgers budget, now account for 18.6 percent of the University’s $2 billion education and general revenues.
Public funding is now so low that Sherry Wolf, one of the event’s panelists and lead organizer of AAUP-AFT, said public universities, like Rutgers, are “almost public in name only.”
“In an era of diminishing public investments, the need for private support for higher education has never been greater,” Miranda said. “Rutgers will continue to explore and seize opportunities to use existing resources, solicit private gifts, form public-private partnerships and seek foundation and government grants to carry forward our mission of teaching, research and public service”
But Kumar’s concern lay not in the presence of private money, but in the control over the University’s “agenda” the investments could offer corporations and the “economic elite.”
“No corporation is going to give you money and say ‘great, (teach) the next generation of citizens who have critical thinking skills and will challenge anything we make them do in our workplaces,’” she said.
Liberal arts programs, academic freedom and research unlikely to be profitable would see the brunt of the harm, she said.
Recently, the University’s “Our Rutgers, Our Future” campaign raised more than $1 billion with through donations from “tens of thousands of alumni and friends of Rutgers,” Miranda said. The contributions will be used to fund, among other things, scholarships, fellowships, faculty research and University development projects.
But private sources have done little to slow the growth of tuition prices, which saw a 2.3 percent increase last year.
“The faculty union, for example, here at rutgers very much stands full square with the students in a fight to at the very least freeze tuition, and frankly it's time for a rollback,” Wolf said. “This place calls itself revolutionary? Do something revolutionary.”
Nikita Biryukov is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in journalism and media studies. He is an associate news editor for The Daily Targum. Follow him on Twitter @nikitabiryukov_ for more.