Wednesday, October 12, 2011


The word “occupation” has been getting a workout lately.

The Occupy Wall Street movement, which seems to have gone viral around the country, is emerging as a welcome and badly-needed counterweight to the Tea Party. It has given rise to an Occupy College movement, in which students protest excessive tuition increases, student loan burdens, and, implicitly, the lack of well-paying jobs available upon graduation.

And then there are occupations, as in jobs. The lack of occupations is causing occupations.

“Occupations” in the former sense are usually considered intrusions. An interloper refuses to leave; the area is under occupation. An occupying power is present after an invasion. In the case of Wall Street, the idea is that people outside the financial elite are daring to tread on the elites’ turf. In the Occupy College movement, which, paradoxically enough, demonstrated itself through vacating classrooms, the idea is that the students who are just passing through are stopping to stay a while, presumably because there’s nowhere else for them to go.

Working at a community college, I find the latter harder to stomach than the former. Certainly any sentient observer of American politics would have to concede that the plutocratic bias of the system is both catastrophic and self-reinforcing. Taking public exception to plutocracy strikes me as reasonable, if not required. Coming up with a reasonable and realistic alternative is somewhat harder, but the movement is welcome in at least making it clear that there’s real objection to the incessant rightward drift of our politics.

Whether the occupation will actually accomplish that is another question. After all, “Wall Street” is a literary device. The folks with real money don’t actually live there. Much of what “Wall Street” does is actually done online from wherever. The street itself is mostly unoccupied. The Occupy Wall Streeters are bemusingly tolerated mostly because they’re harmless. They’re occupying a space where people don’t live.

The issue they’re trying to address is only partly solvable by isolating a few villains (even conceding that those few are really awful). It’s mostly systemic. The cockpit is mostly unoccupied.

That’s even more true in higher education. Yes, it’s easy to point out a few celebrity presidents who make asses of themselves with ridiculous salaries and tone-deaf pronouncements in the press. (Mark Yudof, I’m looking at youuuuu...) But they’re ultimately beside the point. The real drivers behind cost escalation are structural: Baumol’s cost disease, a labor-intensive artisinal production model, health insurance, unfunded mandates, the constant demand for new technology...

That’s why the blogosphere’s knee-jerk “if the administrators would just wake up and/or go away” meme is so pointless. In the desperate search for villains, it misses the real story. The real story is that thousands of people have cycled through academic administration for the past few decades. These people have had different backgrounds, politics, personalities, demographics, and inclinations. And yet despite trying all of those different people -- most of whom were intelligent and at least partly well-meaning -- the cost trend has been inexorable in every sector of higher ed, in every region, for decades. The issue is systemic.

Occupying the dean’s office won’t make Baumol’s cost disease go away. Replacing this president with that one won’t stop the unfunded mandates. Decrying the adjunct trend won’t make health insurance any cheaper to provide.

And attacking the one remaining institution in American life that actually serves upward social mobility is not going to create the jobs its graduates want.

I wish the OWS people well. They’re exerting political counterpressure that desperately needs to be exerted. But with a few exceptions, the issues they’re concerned about won’t be solved by seizing the enemy’s turf, because there is no enemy. The issues are structural and impersonal, which is why they can seem inexorable. They’re complicated. They require changing the rules of the game.

Trying to figure that out, at least in higher ed, is occupying my time. I invite others to join me here. The ground may be virtual, but the issues are real. In the meantime, I’ll tip my cap to the folks working the other way ‘round, for opening the political space to start.