Organizing from the Belly of the Academic-Industrial Complex
By Pedro Reynolds-Cuéllar, Ruth Hanna, and Ki-Jana Carter
We write from a recent hard-won collective organizing campaign, the MIT Graduate Student Union–United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (MIT GSU–UE), to offer a partial reflection of what it entails to organize from within the academic-industrial complex.
In the United States, the growth of higher education institutions, much like the growth of Big Tech companies, seems to be limitless. During the COVID-19 pandemic, two of the most prestigious universities in the country, MIT and Harvard, grew their endowments by 49 and 27 percent, respectively1—a staggering $80.6 billion combined. Ironically, this money often comes with little to no benefit to one of the fundamental pillars that make these very universities the profit machines they are: student workers like us. During the same pandemic when these institutions saw their pockets grow, student workers were being denied the stipend support they needed to overcome the many financial hurdles presented by the pandemic.2 This is only one of many examples of the detrimental effects on and power dynamics wielded against student workers as part of this capital-hungry, higher education reality.
The “Big Ed” Problem
Higher education institutions are turning to a funding, operating, and managing model that resembles the pervasive capitalistic environment surrounding them. Universities employ several tactics to create prestige, leverage resources, and cultivate a veneer of “cool” to attract large numbers of student workers to their campuses. These include building enormous endowments, amassing and developing real estate, acting as landlords to student workers who seek housing, capturing public funds through grants, jacking up tuitions, offering campus space to commercial entities, and selling technical knowledge to the highest bidder. Once at these institutions, student workers find themselves at a power disadvantage, often encountering the dark side of a sprawling university: unsupportive or abusive advisors, unaffordable housing, insufficient health benefits, and inadequate resources to perform their research.3 This academic-industrial coalescence is not new. It has been four decades since the influence of corporate interests within academia began raising eyebrows, particularly within prestigious institutions such as MIT and Harvard.4 The past twenty years, however, have seen a more insidious influence of external forces on academia, with larger and stronger connections to the corporate world and the addition of money coming from philanthropy. In the last few years, we have seen some of the negative effects of these multiple forms of influence expressed through a variety of dubious ties and unethical compromises made by these institutions in order to maintain their status quo.5 This arrangement of ever-growing capital within certain higher education institutions is what we refer to as “Big Ed”: a co-opting of oppressive business models built on the labor of student workers who make the gears of academia turn.
Student workers are put under enormous pressure to produce first-class research while at the same time being financially, mentally, and emotionally burdened by the exploitative nature of the systems in place, creating a clear need for us to oppose the unchecked power that these institutions wield. Across the United States, similar challenges in a variety of other industries and workplaces are being met with collective organizing, even against the backdrop of a pandemic.6 MIT is no exception. What is unusual are the advantages and challenges that come with fighting for labor justice and building collective power at one of the most preeminent STEM-focused academic institutions in the United States.
Inside MIT’s Academic-Industrial Complex
Private universities in the United States, despite their legal status as nonprofit entities, operate like businesses. They are governed by and accountable to something akin to a board of directors, often called the “board of trustees,” or, in MIT’s case, the MIT Corporation. Although these universities profess lofty educational goals, their ultimate aim is to enlarge the university’s endowment through revenues and donations. MIT, like all universities, sells education as one of its primary commodities. Graduate workers are essential to the educational process—alongside all other university workers, including administrative staff, dining workers, facilities workers, and faculty. Graduate teaching assistants contribute to the education of students by teaching recitations, writing and grading problem sets, proctoring exams, and holding office hours. Without this work, MIT would be totally unable to educate its students (read: sell commodities).
MIT is not only a university, but a research university. This means it produces an additional commodity: knowledge. MIT produces an enormous quantity of new scientific knowledge every year. A portion of this knowledge is typically published in renowned academic journals such as Nature, Science, Cell, and Physical Review, which elevates MIT’s prestige and allows the university to attract more charitable donations and highly skilled academic workers. Knowledge produced in MIT often becomes intellectual property that is sold to other companies or licensed to affiliated startups for a fee.7 Again, graduate workers are an essential part of this process. At MIT, graduate research assistants (RAs) make up 57 percent of the research workforce.8 Through our labor, graduate workers generate immense value for MIT by obtaining research funding (either through public grants or from private companies that typically retain the right to use the resulting intellectual property), designing and performing experiments, building and maintaining equipment, and writing papers for publication.
Despite our central role in making MIT a top-tier institution, we are consistently overworked and woefully undercompensated. It is not uncommon for graduate workers to work more than sixty hours a week, late at night, and on weekends. Although MIT offers higher stipends than many of its competitors, this says far more about the general undercompensation of graduate workers than it does about the university’s generosity, especially in the context of the astronomically high cost of living in Boston and Cambridge.9 Furthermore, MIT exerts outsized control in the lives of graduate student workers. Not only do we study and work at MIT, many of us also rely on the campus medical center for our medical care and reside in on-campus housing. The arrangement resembles a “company town,” wherein MIT functions as educator, employer, medical provider, and landlord.
The principal draw for prospective graduate workers to do their research at MIT is not pay or benefits, but prestige. MIT is a world-renowned institution, and this renown attracts aspiring researchers who are passionate about their work. Moreover, in the oversaturated and highly competitive labor markets of Big Ed, churning out high-quality publications is the best hope that many graduate workers have to ensure career prospects and secure a decent living. But the logic of the private university system creates a contradiction: the prestige MIT uses to attract highly skilled workers is built by exploiting those same workers to ever greater degrees.
Commonly made claims to discourage STEM workers from organizing are that they are apolitical or have too much earning potential, tactics similar to those used against steel workers in the early twentieth century.10 This is particularly true of MIT, as a result of the university’s reputation of being a freewheeling, technical-minded space. But our experience has shown that the contradiction between the needs and desires of graduate workers and MIT’s science-for-profit operating model creates important opportunities for effective organizing. While many aspects of the workplace has presented challenges to building unity and effective organization, these challenges are ultimately surmountable and can be used as a window into organizing a strong union.
Contradictions, Challenges, and Opportunities in Collective Organizing
Graduate student workers at MIT work in forty-eight different programs, each with unique expectations, working conditions, and program milestones. For example, some programs require graduate workers to work as teaching assistants for a specified period of time, while others expect graduate workers to find an alternate source of pay during the summer months. Some programs, such as Physics and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, are further subdivided into more or less distinct specialties. Since organizing is fundamentally based on personal connections and genuine relationships, this extremely segmented and heterogeneous work environment inside a massive university means that these relationships are typically built within, rather than across, programs. At the same time, our strength as workers comes from our unity and our numbers, so an important element of our organizing has been to bring together graduate workers from across the Institute.
It has been common for graduate workers from different programs to meet through organizing and be shocked to discover that one makes $5,000 less per year than another, or that others have been expected to secure funding and join a lab in their first semester or else be fired. This speaks to a critical task in organizing at a large lab-based workplace where many workers are naturally isolated from one another: building relationships not only to understand the grievances of our coworkers, but also uniting our various grievances around a common program of empowerment to tackle these issues together.
In many conversations with graduate workers, the lack of affordable housing—both on and off-campus—emerged as a key issue. Although MIT advertises on-campus housing as an economical option, the rent is market-rate and often far from affordable on a graduate stipend. At the recently-constructed “Site 4” dorm, which replaced relatively more affordable housing for graduate families, a studio apartment costs $2,337 per month, which is 62 percent of the minimum PhD student stipend, before tax!11 This financial pressure is compounded for graduate student families, who face the additional financial strain of finding childcare, and for international students, who face legal limits to their ability to work additional jobs for extra income.12
This tight control over on-campus housing by MIT’s administration manifests as both an opportunity and a challenge to our organizing. MIT’s choice to build luxury, unaffordable, on-campus housing highlights the disconnect between university administration and graduate workers. A key organizing strategy, therefore, has been building community around the issue of affordable housing in dorms through door knocking. However, MIT’s sway over on-campus housing spaces has challenged this strategy, as MIT has attempted to intimidate dorm residents from organizing. After organizers went door-to-door in one dorm to talk with their coworkers, residents received an email threatening them with eviction for “solicitation of any type,” a clear attempt to intimidate graduate workers from organizing in on-campus housing.
Another central focus of our campaign was on the particular precarities faced by international student workers, who constitute 41 percent of MIT’s graduate workforce13 and whose immigration status is under the control of the university. For example, during the pandemic, MIT demanded that international student workers return to campus or else lose their funding—even when they had permission from their advisors to work remotely.14 Critical to our success in building unity across borders was strong leadership from international organizers, who leveraged social networks as well as multilingual phone banks to engage international coworkers. Our focus on dorm-based organizing was also key, as international student workers are more likely than domestic workers to live in on-campus housing. These approaches enabled our campaign to forge multinational solidarity through workers from many backgrounds struggling for a common cause.
At every workplace, employers have ways to discourage workers from challenging the status quo, typically leveraging anxieties and cultural fictions perpetuated by capitalism. The fiction of academia as “not work,” for example, was often exploited by the MIT administration in their aggressive anti-union campaign, which constantly referred to student workers as “students” and minimized the contribution of our labor to the university. MIT administrators doubled down on this framing when they egregiously sought to exclude graduate student workers funded by internal fellowships from our union, claiming they were “students only,” despite fellows often being required to work as teaching assistants (purportedly as an educational experience). The central challenge of organizing is to break through these anxieties and empower workers to fight for change by drawing out the need for change in the first place.
At MIT, graduate student workers are told that we are lucky to be at such a top–tier university and that “grad school is supposed to be hard.” To counter this narrative, before going public with our union, we organized several issue-based campaigns focused on specific, urgent needs in our workplace. These campaigns were an important tool for showing our coworkers that we did have issues worth fighting for and that we were not alone in experiencing them. An additional function of our issue-based campaigns was to demonstrate the power of on-campus collective action, dispelling the fictional counternarratives that organizing and opposing the status quo is not in graduate workers’ best interest, maybe not even imaginable. For example, our campaign around the appalling state of mental health at MIT demanded and won access to free weekly therapy on the student worker health insurance plan, while our campaign around harassment and discrimination secured institute-wide transitional funding to ensure that student workers who switch labs due to abusive advisors do not face a pay gap.
Our wins served as tangible proof that collective action worked, which proved valuable when organizing our data-oriented coworkers. These campaigns also allowed us to build a deep committee of organizers across departments and labs with a wide network of personal relationships. That is not to say that issue-based campaigns can shield collective action from attacks. The closing round of MIT’s anti-union campaign framed unionization as a transactional policy subject to cost-benefit analysis, rather than a vehicle for collective power opposed to the privatized economic power of the university. The MIT administration plastered the campus with posters that encouraged this transactional mindset: “Has the UE provided sufficient, rigorous evidence to support its claims? Does the UE share your values? Has the UE made the case?” What our issue-based campaigns offered in response was the necessary education and cohesion to withstand these narratives.
Contrary to the narrative that STEM workers are particularly difficult to organize, we found that MIT’s science-for-profit operating model was actually conducive for collective action among STEM workers. Although MIT promises a culture of free-wheeling academic exploration and exceptional mentorship when recruiting graduate student workers, the reality is often quite different. It is not uncommon for student workers to be assigned to non-research tasks like equipment maintenance, work under the supervision of absentee advisors, and work on projects for donors or industry that require us to surrender the intellectual product of our labor in order to enrich MIT.15 Adding to this is the fact that student workers are severely underpaid compared to STEM workers doing similar work at companies just blocks away in Kendall Square., Therefore, the thinly-veiled exploitation at MIT actually facilitates organizing in STEM. Student workers often already feel disappointed at the disconnect between their expectation of an intellectually rewarding graduate school experience and the challenging and precarious reality of labor in the university, thus laying the groundwork for a strong organizing committee to turn that disappointment into collective action.
Towards a New Form of Education at MIT
As large, prestigious universities in the academic-industrial complex continue to double down on their capitalistic funding and operating models, the student workers who constitute the engine of success at these institutions are at the center of the maelstrom. Resources are stretched thin to meet a wide range of basic needs such as healthcare, housing, student-advisor relationships, and stipends, in order for these institutions to accumulate massive profits. These power dynamics are papered over with the promise of prestige and the technocratic fiction that science and technology workers should be apolitical. Although these fictions can hinder the political consciousness of student workers, MIT’s science-for-profit operating model is so thinly veiled that an effective organizing committee can readily expose the underlying hypocrisy, which one student worker astutely described as the university resembling “a hedge fund with an identity crisis.”
The growth of collective organizing in higher education, be that MIT and at other institutions, demonstrates that organizing STEM workers is not just possible—it is overdue. The growth of organized science workers is an important step in rebuilding the working-class movement and training workers for future struggles, both within and beyond academia. Through our union, a new generation of graduate workers at MIT will not only have the opportunity to obtain an education in science, but are also acquiring an education in the power and promise of collective action.
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- This massive growth in endowments surpasses historical efforts at both universities and contrasts with the narrative of austerity that these institutions have engaged in throughout the pandemic. For Harvard, see John S. Rosenberg, “Harvard Endowment Increases 11.3 Billion to 53.2 Billion, and University Operations Yield $283-Million Surplus Despite Pandemic,” Harvard Magazine, October 14, 2021, https://www.harvardmagazine.com/2021/10/harvard-endowment-surges-11-3-billion-university-surplus; for MIT, see Shelley Choi, “MIT’s Investments Return at 55 Percent, Highest in More than 20 Years,” The Tech, October 21, 2021, https://thetech.com/2021/10/21/mit-endowment-fy-2021.
- Katie Langin, “Amid Pandemic Disruptions, Grad Students Push to Unionize,” Science, August 26, 2021, https://www.science.org/content/article/amid-pandemic-disruptions-grad-students-push-unionize.
- The Reject Injustice through Student Empowerment (RISE) Campaign, “Our Strategic Plan for the Strategic Plan,” The Tech, July 30, 2020, https://thetech.com/2020/07/30/rise-strategic-plan.
- Barbara J. Culliton, “The Academic-Industrial Complex,” Science 216, no. 4549 (May 28, 1982): 960–62, https://doi.org/10.1126/science.11643748.
- MIT, for example, is currently facing a legal complaint claiming its investments in fossil fuels might be in violation of its “fiduciary obligations as a nonprofit organization.” These investments are a direct result of the university’s relationship with entities like Shell, ExxonMobil, and Eni S.p.A, who, ironically, are founding members of MIT’s Energy Initiative. At the same time, in 2019 MIT and Harvard’s ties with a convicted sex offender came into the public eye. See Owen Leddy and Ellie Rabenold, “MIT’s Investment in Fossil Fuels Is Wrong. We Also Think It’s Illegal,” WBUR, February 22, 2022, https://www.wbur.org/cognoscenti/2022/02/22/mit-climate-protest-divest-fossil-fuels-owen-leddy-ellie-rabenold; Ronan Farrow, “How an Élite University Research Center Concealed Its Relationship with Jeffrey Epstein,” The New Yorker, September 6, 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/how-an-elite-university-research-center-concealed-its-relationship-with-jeffrey-epstein.
- MIT COVID Relief, “MIT Should Guarantee Funding for Graduate Students amid the Pandemic,” The Tech, March 18, 2021, https://thetech.com/2021/03/18/covid-graduate-relief-op-ed.
- MIT centralizes these processes through a dedicated licensing office. See “Technology Transfer Process,” MIT Technology Licensing Office, accessed April 25, 2022, https://tlo.mit.edu/learn-about-intellectual-property/technology-transfer-process; “Ownership,” MIT Technology Licensing Office, accessed April 25, 2022, https://tlo.mit.edu/learn-about-intellectual-property/ownership.
- MIT’s total research unit was calculated using MIT’s appointment definitions and statistics provided by the university. See “Appointments,” MIT Policies, accessed June 20, 2022, https://policies.mit.edu/policy-topics/appointments; “Faculty and Staff Statistics,” Institutional Research Office of the Provost, accessed June 20, 2022, https://ir.mit.edu/faculty-and-staff-research; “Graduate Education,” MIT Course Catalog Bulletin 2021-2022, accessed June 20, 2022, http://catalog.mit.edu/mit/graduate-education/financial-aid/#fellowshipstraineeshipsscholarshipstext. This results in a total number of research staff of roughly 6,623 workers, including faculty (1,069), graduate students (~3,800) and research staff (1,754).
- Using the living wage ratio (LW ratio) metric that “”normalizes each gross pay entry to the local living wage,”” MIT’s Computer Science department, for example, places at the top 5 overall pay. See “PhD Stipend Survery Results,” PhD Stipends, accessed June 20, 2022, https://www.phdstipends.com/results. During MIT’s anti-union campaign, the institute reported having the highest stipend among any other private university with a union. See “Graduate Student Unionization,” MIT, accessed June 20, 2022,https://grad-union.mit.edu/how-current-student-administration-collaboration-and-successes-compare-institutions-graduate. MIT’s recent stipend rates can be found here https://ovc.mit.edu/ay22-grad-faq/
- Chris Painter, “Organizing Isn’t Reading Das Kapital,” Reboot (blog), March 11, 2022, https://reboothq.substack.com/p/kinema-interview?s=r.
- Ethan Baker, Oceane Boulais, and Will Kimball, “MIT: World Renowned Research Institute or Luxury Developer?,” The Tech, February 20, 2022, https://thetech.com/2020/02/20/eastgate-rising-cost; “Graduate Housing Rates,” MIT Division of Student Life, accessed April 25, 2022, https://studentlife.mit.edu/grad-housing-rates.
- B. Mano, “MIT’s Policies Force Many Graduate Students to Live in Poverty,” The Tech, October 31, 2019, https://thetech.com/2019/10/31/mit-grad-students-poverty.
- “Graduate Education Statistics,” MIT Institutional Research Office of the Provost, accessed April 25, 2022, https://ir.mit.edu/graduate-education-statistics.
- Junyi Chu and Yanwei Wang, “International Student Workers Deserve Fair Treatment.” The Tech, November 18, 2021, https://thetech.com/2021/11/18/international-students-gsu.
- Lucy Hu et al., “Empowering Ourselves to Be Better Researchers through Unionization,” The Tech, January 12, 2022, https://thetech.com/2022/01/12/empowering-research-through-unionization.