​Co-opting the University: Can the Cooperative Model Bring Economic Justice to the Ivory Tower?

Trebor Scholz: Julie, you just graduated from The New School. What was your experience?

Julie Broad: I transferred to The New School from McGill, a large research university. The New School is, of course, really different: small classes with engaged, dedicated professors who show care for the students.

Before I graduated in May, I started to get involved with the campaign to unionize our student academic workers, a fight that has been ongoing since 2014. I was working as a research assistant at the time for a really wonderful art history professor at Parsons. I started getting to know our graduate students — some of whom had been my instructors — and the kinds of issues they were facing as workers. I had often thought of The New School as really supportive and intimate compared to McGill’s kind of bureaucratic machinations, but then you start chatting to people about pay disparities, being overworked — and that image falls apart.

The movement for student worker unionization is challenging the way we think about the university. Research and teaching assistants are reasserting themselves — and, in some cases like ours, finally being recognized by the National Labor Relations Board — as workers with the right to have a say in the terms and conditions of their work. But you can only get so far when you don’t own the organization you work in. A cooperatively owned college could go a step further in the public conversation about economic equity. In collaboration with unions, a cooperative college could reshuffle how learning takes place in a way that makes it more affordable and fair to everyone involved.

Indigo Olivier: When I applied to The New School, my father was unemployed, my mother was supporting a family of four on a public school teacher’s salary, and I had a twin brother going to school at the same time as me. The New School did not give me nearly enough financial aid and campus jobs didn’t pay enough to support the cost of living in New York.

I was self-supported throughout my time as a student and set a strict schedule for myself to graduate in three years instead of four to minimize the amount of loans that I had to take out (about $32,000). Rushing through my college experience didn’t allow me to explore all the things that I wanted to explore and working a lot didn’t leave me any time to take up an internship or volunteer my time to social movements if they were off campus.

Going to the financial aid office, I very much got the feeling of being treated like a customer, not a student that’s part of a larger academic community. A co-op college could turn this understanding of what it means to be a student on its head.

TS: In 2012, I proposed a cooperatively operated college that would offer substantive education at drastically lower tuition fees, taught not at the university but in cafes, public libraries, museums, and parks. Do you think that a college operated based on co-op principles could work? What would your ideal college look like?

JB: Sure, I think that if we consider some of the problems with the educational system, cooperatives could be a radical alternative. There’s plenty to change. The magnitude of the student debt crisis alone is overwhelming. Students regularly tell themselves and each other that they just can’t conceptualize what it means to owe $37,000 (national average) by the time they’re twenty-one. Strike Debt and other movements working within the system are creative ways to alleviate a lot of people from crushing debt, but they don’t challenge the system. Students are stressed about their job prospects; educators are stressed about their job security, a lack of meaningful co-governance, and increasing administrative work. Who is this system working for?

An ideal university would be a lot of things, but firstly, I think it’d be a commitment to supporting students financially, so they’re working on research and projects instead of juggling four jobs. I remember a petition, I think spearheaded by students working with Get Artists Paid, going around at the beginning of the summer, asking folks to pressure the board of trustees to stop holding the transcripts of students (primarily students of color) who had unpaid balances. Like Indigo said, there are national and international movements for racial and economic justice that we need to support; addressing the extreme economic disparity happening within the walls of our university is where we should start.

IO: For one thing, in my ideal college, there would be no Board of Trustees. University-wide decisions should be made through collective councils of students, faculty, staff, and members of our communities; Finances should be determined through participatory budgeting processes. A co-op college would center supporting students, faculty, and community leaders with the understanding that once they’re taken care of, incredible, creative projects and research will flourish.

My ideal college would make servicing the wider community its ultimate concern. This means prioritizing research that confronts mass incarceration, climate change, the war in the Middle East, and the erosion of the middle class in a very practical way.

The university president would be elected for a limited number of years. For this position, students and faculty should be able to vote for a social justice leader, labor organizer, or artist; their vision for the university would, therefore, go beyond mere branding and new facilities.

TS: Indigo and Julie, thank you for sharing your experiences so openly. You are not alone. A few years ago, CUNY Professor Cathy Davidson, summed it up: “There is not a person -­‐ students, teachers, administrators -­‐ who believes that the current education system is working.” You’re right: How could students and all people working in universities: from janitors and cashiers to cooks, staff, adjuncts and all faculty be better served?

It’s not like people did not try before. Just think of the student occupations a few years ago, and the many do-it-yourself universities that emerged on the heels of the student protests of 1968. Remember the Free University Movement in Berkeley, Berlin, and many other cities or Mount Holyoke College launched as an experiment of a small consortium of colleges in Massachusetts. Today, there are countless non-accredited learning groups that capitalize on the possibilities that 21st-century networked technologies. There are many examples: Peer to Peer University, Florida Universitaria in Spain, University of the People, Edu Factory, Occupy University, The School for Poetic Computing (founded by a former Parsons professor), and the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. While these learning collectives are very different in their approaches, most of them do not offer accreditation, and it really is that accreditation that matters to many prospective students.

In the midst of this watershed moment in higher education, what is necessary for positive institutional change is for administrators to provide incentives for innovation and experimentation of programming efforts. A cooperative college would have to be more than an engine of speculative idealism. While cooperatives have always been about bottom-up self-help and autonomy, it’d be important to consider if and how a cooperative college could function within a university that is not a co-op.

JB: I think the broader issue, which a co-op model might be able to address, is economic uncertainty. Who knows how our degrees will hold up when we graduate. A model that allows for more democratic, participatory structuring could free up students and educators to have not only more economic equity, but also take a larger part in controlling what we want to do with the university. A cooperative college could put more control into the hands of people whose futures are largely contingent upon their successes in academia. Such democratic control is the promise of any co-op: respect in and democratic control of the workplace. As the academic worker movement has brought renewed focus to the university as a site of worker exploitation, there’s a lot of room for dialogue about what democratic control could look like.

Giving students a literal stake in the university as owners could, I think, completely change the dynamics of on-campus organizing, whether labor or otherwise. Historically, there are many examples where the labor movement and cooperativism have gone hand-in-hand. Of course, Trebor, you know that these kind of alliances are already being made in the world of platform co-ops, with workers co-ops like Green Taxi in Denver being hugely supported by Communication Workers of America.

IO: We first have to recognize that schools are communities because I think most administration have all but forgotten this fact. The New School is there rhetorically, but in practice it’s an entirely different story. Since the recession, tuition at Eugene Lang The New School for Liberal Arts has gone up 47.6% while the endowment went up by 85.1% from 2010-2015 alone (New School Almanac, pg.140).

The current model of higher education is in crisis but we cannot separate this from the larger crisis of capitalism that has brought about the environmental crisis, the refugee crisis, a crisis of democracy, etc. The role of a cooperative college should be to provide the resources to make sense of these different intersecting crises and then act on them cooperatively with labor, environmental organizers, prison abolitionists, and urban communities outside of the university.

There is absolutely a better way to operate a university, and I don’t think there is any lack of imagination there: CUNY has been working on transforming the student senate to a participatory budgeting model, the Edu-factory collective reimagined the university as the 21st century “factory” where connecting the university to the city could create a new understanding of “the commons” (see: Towards a Global Autonomous University), and groups like the Debt Collective have created new networks that bridge student debtors with mortgage, auto, medical, and credit card debtors.

What is needed to sustain these organizations and projects is a vision that sees the transformation of the economy at large as its ultimate goal. To “fix” the “broken model” of our universities we need to “fix the economy” and vice versa. That means we need to take a global perspective when thinking about co-ops that doesn’t just include our students, faculty, and immediate communities, but also the communities across the world that are, for instance, on the receiving side of the research that our university has been conducting for the Department of Defense since 2002.

TS: I learned from my work with the economical and political movement around platform co-ops how important it is to collaborate with other social movements.

It is peculiar that while democracy has been propagated in many countries throughout the 20th century, it has largely skipped the workplace. Workplace democracy is hard to come by, also in universities. It’s worth exploring the question if the one-worker, one-vote model of co-ops would make sense for institutions of higher education. As you so convincingly point out, the current educational system in the United States does not work. It’s worth exploring if the cooperative model could work for higher learning. For one, co-ops could contribute their core intellectual commitments, anchored in the ICA’s seven co-op principles: 1. Voluntary and Open Membership 2. Democratic Member Control 3. Member Economic Participation 4. Autonomy and Independence 5. Education, Training and Information 6. Cooperation among Co-operatives 7. Concern for Community. What would it mean to apply these principles to a cooperative division of The New School? One place to start could be adult education, returning to the legacy of the 1940s when The New School was a center of continuing education in New York City.

IO: We can agree on certain principles, and I do believe democratic participation is fundamental to both sustaining a co-op university and preparing students for civic engagement after college. Additionally, there have been some interesting ideas proposed that need to be experimented with further: open source unionism, reinvesting endowments, participatory budgeting, and academic councils.

The Women’s Strike this past March was a great example of movements coming into the classroom and the classroom moving out onto the streets. We saw activists, artists, community organizers, and students interacting in ways that probably wouldn’t have occurred if we didn’t all feel this moment of panic with Trump’s election. What we need to do is follow through with “movement moments” and turn them into resilient networks.

TS: It takes practical utopians to imagine a cooperatively operated ‘Ivy League community college.’ What, for example, would be the key tenets of a manifesto of such a cooperatively operated college? It could, for example, be completely learner-administered with all expenses only focusing directly on learning. All members of the university could participate in its day-to-day operation, which would help to keep the costs down. Instructors would function as “learning sommeliers,” or learning coaches. Following Ranciere, professors would not only be in the classroom to impose what they know but rather, to bring out the knowledge that’s already there. Beyond that, the college could heavily rely on open educational resources and all research would be published freely accessible online.

Students could be socialized into non-extractive platforms; they could learn to use social.coop or instead of Twitter and Diaspora instead of Facebook.

Instead of the semester-structure, we could use flexible units that would last, depending on need, any time time from three days to two years. Each group of learners could have an intergenerational mix: pre-­college learners, middle- and high-schoolers, traditionally university-aged students, and retired professionals. There should also be a mix of online and in-person learning to create a continuous, learner-­centered experience that is not restricted to the classroom.

Such co-op college could also be a place to experiment with new models of accreditation such as Mozilla’s Open Badges.

IO: We do need to experiment with models of accreditation. However, without some push from labor in the workplace, I think it’s very likely that alternative forms of accreditation would be discriminated against. This goes back to the need for some larger cultural shift in how we think about learning versus schooling and which one holds more weight in the job market.

I think there is a danger of getting trapped in the “small is beautiful” mentality when we talk about cooperatives. A manifesto would have to take a national and international perspective to be truly transformative. It would have to simultaneously address the labor grievances of academic workers and the future conditions of students who will graduate and be “competing” for jobs with a global workforce that’s predicated on “free trade.”

The student movement of the 1960s understood this pretty well and tried to lay out an analysis of society at large, with “student power” as a means to a larger end. The goal of a co-op university should be replacing competition with cooperation as the ultimate virtue, and then eventually linking up with a larger socialist movement. With student debt fast approaching $1.5 trillion, universities will only help push students further down this path.

JB: This November, a working group of educators, students, and activists is convening in Manchester to parse out what a co-op university would actually look like. Creating a working theoretical model is important, sure, but they’re really after creating something which in practice can challenge the reigning, corporate model of higher ed, at least in the UK. Co-ops can grow and develop within capitalism — that’s the point. We can’t wait for a socialist revolution to get to a decent educational system. A cooperative university — or, to start even smaller, a co-op college within a university — which is academically rigorous, accredited, and democratically owned and governed, needs to prove itself. Let’s grab the market share, as it were, of equitable higher ed so that when socialist reform really starts making waves, we’re already there showing that alternatives are possible.

Julie Broad is a recent graduate from The New School, a writer, and an organizer with United Auto Workers, working on the campaign to unionize academic student workers on campus. | @thatbr0ad

Indigo Olivier is a recent graduate from The New School’s Global Studies program and a freelance journalist. | @IndigoOlivier

Trebor Scholz is a scholar-activist and Associate Professor for Culture & Media at The New School. | @trebors