COVID-19 is a global crisis, but make no mistake: despite what government officials, business leaders, and University administrators would like you to believe, we are not “all in this together.” Instead, these powerful groups have aligned themselves against working people, students, and minorities by forcing them to bear the combined weight of a pandemic, mass unemployment, and racist violence at the hands of the police.
Congress has handed trillions of public dollars to corporations and private universities without providing the massive and long-term extensions to healthcare and unemployment benefits that are needed to weather this storm. The institutional priorities that protect and grow private wealth while stifling the lives of working people, minorities, and the young have a name — austerity. With its cuts in spending and its decision to shift the burden of the pandemic onto the shoulders of staff, faculty, and students, Princeton University contributes to this grim picture. The University Board of Trustees and top administrators call this “budget neutrality.” We call it COVID-19 austerity.
Who we are:
The Princeton Anti-Austerity Coalition (PAAC) campaigns with graduate and undergraduate students, tenured and untenured faculty, instructors, non-union staff, and unionized workers to fight against wage and benefit cuts, layoffs, degraded conditions of work and study, and reductions to departmental programs. We demand a university that is accountable to its constituents — students, faculty, and workers. The fight for racial justice on campus and beyond is ours, too; austerity makes it impossible to effectively implement anti-racist programs or diversify hiring and admissions procedures.
Why we need to organize and fight back:
This is not the first time top administrators have imposed austerity on our University. Remember 2008, when the government bailed out the banks that were responsible for the financial crisis, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill? Politicians and the ultra-rich put profits before people, with predictably catastrophic consequences for workers, homeowners, and others who were directly affected by the collapse.
Princeton’s administrators responded in exactly the same way, imposing wage freezes, restrictions on new hires, and other cost-cutting measures, all without consulting the affected constituencies. Since 2008, the endowment has doubled, but the University has not shared this wealth with the workers it sacrificed in the wake of the crisis. Instead, departments continue to deal with the repercussions of budget cuts, and wages for staff and faculty have stagnated relative to the cost of living. This is how austerity works: what employers and institutions take, they never give back without a struggle.
In response to COVID-19 and the unfolding economic crisis, Princeton University’s decision-makers are once again imposing “salary freezes, tighter vacancy management, and reduction to non-essential expenditures,” as stated in a May 4 email from President Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83 to the University community. They say that the endowment is not a “rainy day fun[d]” and that spending more than 6 percent of the $26 billion the institution commands is not sustainable. Why not? Did they ask you, office staff and lab technicians? Or you, the student body? Or you, a laid-off worker? The University administration has frozen our wages, refused to grant extensions, and shifted pandemic-related expenses to departments.
Our workloads have increased as faculty and staff are working uncompensated overtime to move courses and research services online. Graduate cohort sizes have been reduced to support current students, threatening the long-term health of academic programs. Workers without permanent contracts have lost their jobs, and this at one of the richest universities in the world. In the face of a crisis that is crushing working families, especially racial minorities and undocumented workers without access to social benefits, they ask us to tighten our belts so that the University does not have to spend a penny more than the sacrosanct 6 percent.
President Eisgruber and the Trustees say they have a duty to preserve the endowment in perpetuity. But there is nothing sacred about endowments — nothing noble in their origins, how they reproduce, or their role in society. They originate in fortunes amassed through the dispossession and exploitation of slaves, indigenous populations, and working people the world over. They reproduce by investing anywhere that is deemed profitable, including companies that are complicit in the violation of labor and human rights and the theft of natural resources. Endowments are largely tax exempt, leaving the public to foot the bill for the infrastructure that universities tap into, while maintaining legacy admissions for their wealthiest students and remaining inaccessible to the vast majority of local working-class and minority youth. In effect, private university endowments generally maintain class- and race-based inequalities while delivering a massive public subsidy to powerful elites.
No amount of charitable gestures by the administration could compensate for these harsh realities. Conceding to the cuts and the impositions will impoverish the conditions under which we fulfill our commitments to our students, our research, our studies, and our communities. We say NO to Princeton’s austerity and demand that the administration meets its obligations to us all.
1. Open the books. Financial transparency for an accountable university.
Administrators claim that raising expenditures during this double crisis of pandemic and mass unemployment would hobble the University. There is no way to verify this claim if we are kept in the dark about the University’s assets, income, expenses, and financial strategy. So far, decisions about the University’s budget and endowment have been made by unelected officials, meeting behind closed doors. With our livelihoods threatened by austerity, we demand the right to independently assess the University’s finances. Full transparency is the only way to hold accountable an administration that fails to meet its obligations to employees and students in the middle of a pandemic.
2. Unfreeze all freezes. Uncut all cuts. Restore all benefits, compensation, and hiring guidelines to Mar. 1, 2020 (pre-pandemic) levels.
Restore all wage and salary increase policies, benefits, and workloads to where they were pre-COVID; rehire laid-off workers who were on the payroll before the pandemic reductions, including temporary ones, all at least at former pay and benefits levels. Many academic departments and programs were forced to cut admissions to support their current graduate students. Immediately compensate departments for the cost of extensions and allow them to reinstate pre-pandemic admissions goals.
Princeton cannot by itself undo the structural conditions that led to current levels of unemployment and a nationwide hiring freeze in higher education, but it can help mitigate their impact by redoubling faculty, post-doc, and employee hiring efforts. We support calls for anti-racist hiring, financing, program expansion, and admissions articulated in several petitions and the July 4 faculty letter to “bring about real and lasting institutional change.” Diversifying the University requires more spending, not less, and austerity makes it impossible to reverse systemic racism if hiring, admissions, and funding aimed at increased minority representation are curtailed.
All the benefits the University has extended or initiated in this emergency must remain in effect after the crisis has elapsed. Any COVID-related pay supplements, healthcare coverage improvements, sick leave policies, and other benefits must be made permanent. Any tenure clock extensions, adjustments to graduate and undergraduate financial and medical benefits, and work and progress standards offered during this crisis must become the minimum standard for future crisis responses. Staff who have been asked to work from home must be allowed to continue to work remotely, at the discretion of the employee.
3. More pay for more work. One-year extensions for all graduate students.
The additional time and effort that staff, instructors, and faculty expend to adapt to remote working and teaching conditions, the wear-and-tear that all this creates on personal equipment, and the increased household expenses related to remote work — all must be compensated. We demand hazard pay for staff, service and infrastructure workers, instructors, faculty, and graduate students who are required to return to campus.
Graduate students have faced significant disruptions in their ability to advance in their studies and research. This is especially the case for foreign students and those whose work requires travel abroad or laboratory access. Instead of granting an across-the-board extension to graduate student funding and benefits, the administration has instead forced departments to cut admissions to partially support existing students with the savings, subject to convoluted application procedures. We oppose such cuts, which pit us against each other: those that are in against those that want in.
4. Lower tuition and fees for diminished educational benefits. Reduce or suspend rent for the duration of the crisis.
Princeton’s current offer of a ten percent discount in tuition is not enough for a disrupted education, whether remote or on-campus. Undergraduate student families currently or newly qualifying for financial aid should receive a steep discount or a full remission of tuition and fees. With remote teaching, the University must offer to cover the full cost of computers and internet connections for students on financial aid. All these accommodations must be extended to master’s students, who are currently excluded from the University’s plan to reduce tuition and fees for the 2020 academic year.
Princeton is not only our employer, but also acts as landlord for a large number of fellows, faculty, and graduate students. By offering an across-the-board reduction of rents, the University can ease the financial burden of the COVID-19 crisis for students and faculty. Rents must be suspended for tenants who are absent from Princeton due to COVID-related travel and safety restrictions and chose to retain their housing.
5. Reinstate the right to protest and free speech. Defend undocumented workers and foreign students. Meet unions’ demands and recognize newly unionizing constituencies.
Student groups such as the Black Justice League have made major contributions to the current introspection surrounding Princeton’s complicity in systemic racism and racial violence, and their activism has led to real concessions from the University both in terms of policies and budgetary redistributions. Because the right to protest is fundamental to academic freedom and freedom of speech, we demand the elimination of punitive rules limiting its exercise that were created after the 2015 BJL sit-ins in the President’s office. Protests should neither need pre-approval from the University nor have limits on location or time.
International students and undocumented workers are especially vulnerable in a climate of xenophobia. The University must commit to the legal defense of international students and adopt policies that protect undocumented members of the campus community.
We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with union and non-union workers who seek pandemic-related working conditions improvements, and with employee and student campaigns to unionize on campus in order to gain a voice in University affairs and to secure contractual improvements in working conditions.
Organizing to fight for these demands will make us stronger in the long term. The only way to prevent austerity is by building a coalition of students, faculty, and staff that is strong enough to challenge the administration and demand democratic reforms. A democratic University government would be elected to be representative of students, faculty, and staff and have the sole power to make decisions on hiring, firing, the budget, and the curriculum.
The University will not respond to petitions, calls, and letters. Only united organization and mobilization can accomplish these goals. We encourage you to join us at our next meeting on Sept. 25 at 4 p.m. Email us at PAACoalition@gmail.com to RSVP and receive a link.
Marc Schorin ’22 submitted this piece on behalf of and with PAAC. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.