An Open Letter to the University of Illinois in a Time of Greed
Dear UIUC Provost and Vice Chancellor, Dr. Andreas Cangellaris:
I knew I would be in the State of Illinois at some point soon, but I had not imagined that I would join picket lines for weeks after I had arrived. At National Intervention, we treat corporate power and money in politics as addictive substances, and some Illinois candidates appear poised to pass our “Official Sobriety Test” before your upcoming primary election on March 20th. That means there’s a chance that the addiction we call “greed” may not have an inevitable grip on Illinois politics moving forward. That’s the good news.
The bad news, is that the blind pursuit of profit at any cost appears to have infected this state’s flagship university, and right now no one seems more in need of recovery from the addiction to corporate power and money in politics than you.
That's partly because some things should go without saying. Students are not products. Teachers are not tools. The university is not a factory. You know better than to behave otherwise; when we encounter people who know better, but just cannot stop themselves, it's a strong indication of denial about their service to a master addiction. In some cases it's more about their role as an enabler in a toxic, abusive, codependent relationship controlled by addiction. Either way, of all the lessons your striking graduate teachers have taught, the most important one for you may be found in their courage to know how to draw strong boundaries and walk away when the alternative is degrading.
Astoundingly, it has been more than 200 days without a contract for your graduate student workers. As evidenced by the nearly 700 classes cancelled in their absence to-date, clearly, the university truly does work because they do. Nonetheless, even under their previous contract, you were already underpaying them up to 25 percent less than a living wage, according to Champaign County’s wage figures. You know better than to operate on exploitation. Yet, somehow, you are now also threatening the very tuition waivers on which future graduate students would obviously depend? This is your "offer" for those who might join the ranks of hardworking graduate labor, and at their own public school, nonetheless? You already know that public education is not a privilege, but a right. You know all this. You know better.
So, why make such drastic proposals? Why have you forced this crisis? Why?
As a spokesperson for the University administration, you offered your simple explanation to the press, stating that this was all necessary because, well, this is just the "direction the world is going.”
True enough. It was just a blink ago that the corporate agenda in congress so transparently sought to tax graduate compensation packages to pay for the massive tax cuts for even more massive corporations. Graduate students organized and intervened and, soon, overdosing politicians and lobbyist pushers turned, instead, to the states, like Illinois, where they could get their hand in workers’ pockets some other way. The Koch brothers have even drooled, out in the open, over the many spoils coming their way, thanks to the payoff from their multi-billion dollar investments in congressional, statewide, and university buyouts. You are not incorrect; like our government, our society has been going in the direction of selling off and selling out our universities to the highest bidders. But, you know better.
Moreover, not unlike other addicts and enablers stuck in this addiction system, high-priced union-busting lawyers and PR firms often train clients like you to misdirect any discussion away from the use and abuse needed to feed the insatiable appetite of greed. So, perhaps it is not all that shocking to have heard your bold shrug from the predictable play books of corporate lawyers, ringing out across the land:
“This is just the direction the world is going!”
Still, one does not need to complete a dissertation to know that, when power corrupts this world, the public and the knowledge we create, are the last lines of defense, and this university is at the intersection of both. You know there are a lot of trends in the world that have needed to be reversed. Imagine if this were the prevailing leadership in charge of reversing the international slave trade created by Columbus when the world was going in that direction. Imagine if the “Cangellaris Doctrine” prevailed when women fought to be voters instead of property, or when working families fought to abolish child labor rather than expand it. Imagine if, during the struggles after the Great Depression, or the coal wars, or the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, you emerged from the halls of public higher education and so unceremoniously blurted out, “Hey, this is just the direction the world is going.” While the battlefronts were being organized for the basic human dignity in social contracts during the New Deal Era or the Civil Rights Era, imagine the outcome if those workers subscribed to your ethos, put down their picket signs, and got swept-up in the direction the world was going. If you'd been around just a few generations earlier and just a few hours north when four workers were hanged in Chicago’s Haymarket Square, would you have turned to those demanding the 8-hour day and shouted, “This is just the direction the world is going!”?
Yes, Vice Chancellor Cangellaris, like every generation, we understand two things:
- The world is often going in a direction that must be reversed, and
- With or without you, we are the ones who will have to fight to reverse it.
Strikes are the interventions that draw the strong boundaries necessary when access to profits wins out over access for people. From time to time, those in this world can be too blinded by a system of greed to stop themselves from being a threat to themselves and to others. It was never fair of you to force your student workers to become the example for a nation needlessly famished just to feed corporate greed, more and more, for less and less. You know better. Yet, today’s lesson from the G.E.O., and those thousands here in solidarity with them, once again teaching all of us, everywhere, is loud and clear:
We all can overcome whatever fears keep us from choosing a better direction for the world.
In the first few days, you stated that this strike would go away soon. The end is near, you said. Now that this is the longest strike in your University's history, it is up to your administration to decide whether and when it will end. It’s never too late, for anyone to choose a healthier path, including provosts, chancellors, presidents, and trustees. It turns out a picket line is the perfect place to take your first step out of denial and into recovery. I hope you do. In the meantime, Dr. Cangellaris, it would seem the beginning is near, and thankfully, these students and workers have decided for themselves the direction in which their world will be going.
One day longer, one day stronger, one day at a time.
For a society and future worth inheriting,
Yours for true recovery,
Scott C. Silber
Scott Silber serves as Executive Director at National Intervention, which treats corporate power and money in politics as addictive substances. Previously he has also served as lead faculty at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Constitutional Studies and Democratic Development's Youth Organizing Institute, in dozens of labor, human rights, and environmental justice projects in the US and internationally, and as former director of Colorado's public workers union. Silber is also the author of the upcoming Twelve Step Guide to Recovery from Addiction to Money in Politics.
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