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What’s really behind a wave of college strikes | Will Bunch Newsletter

Plus, the true meaning of Tucker Carlson’s bombshell ouster at Fox News

I think I butchered that famous V.I. Lenin quote recently: what the Soviet dictator actually said was, “There are decades when nothing happens, and days when Tucker Carlson and Don Lemon get fired within five minutes of each other.” It was one of those stunning moments when breaking news imitated the “Next week on Succession” trailer. Will anything change at Tucker-less Fox News? Scroll down for some thoughts.

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📮 A number of readers responded to last week’s question about whether the Democrats should stick with President Joe Biden in 2024 — most genuinely liked the incumbent but voiced skepticism about his age or his ability to beat Donald Trump a second time. Wrote Kathleen Schoettler: “I love Joe Biden, his policies, his graciousness, his kindness in this harsh world, and his ability to connect with the rest of the world. He is indeed an honorable politician. That being said, his age is catching up, despite his current good health. I wish there were a strong leader in the Democratic Party that both Biden and the rest of the party could get behind. Maybe Beto [O’Rourke]? Cory Booker? Joe Kennedy?”

This week’s question: Do you like a candidate for Philadelphia mayor, and why? For a chance to be featured in my newsletter, email me your answer.

Academics are walking out across America because the current way of college is unsustainable

On a warm spring day nearly six decades ago, then-President Lyndon Johnson could think of no better place than a booming public university campus — specifically, the University of Michigan and its commencement ceremony at Ann Arbor’s massive “Big House” football stadium — to unveil his blueprint for a better America, the Great Society.

LBJ spoke on May 22, 1964, about the urgent need not only to end poverty and beautify America, but to educate all of its young people. “Our society will not be great until every young mind is set free to scan the farthest reaches of thought and imagination,” the 36th president said, fretting about the quality of education in the United States and access and affordability of college — even in an era when public-university tuition was counted in the hundreds of dollars, not the multiple thousands.

Almost 59 years later, American society is not looking so great, and the Michigan campus has become an increasingly bitter front line in a war for the future of higher education. A strike by more than 1,300 grad students who work for the university as classroom instructors or staff assistants is entering its fourth week, even as the spring semester moves into final exams.

Last week, police in Ann Arbor briefly detained two striking grad students who tried to confront university president Santa Ono at a restaurant and briefly blocked his car. Ono cited the rising tensions for cancelling a planned concert where he was to have played cello with a local orchestra. Much more importantly, the university announced plans to withhold pay from workers on the picket line after a judge ruled the strike violates the current contract. The grad students seek a 60% pay raise, from the current minimum of $24,000 to about $38,500, and other benefits such as transgender health care and an emergency fund for international students.

If you haven’t heard a lot about the labor showdown at UM, maybe that’s because it’s just one whitecap in a strike wave that has been washing across college campuses from Berkeley to the Bronx in 2023. On Monday, grad students at Fordham University in the Bronx became the latest to walk out in a three-day job action to protest what they call lack of respect and low pay in one of America’s most expensive cities.

Two groundbreaking job actions just ended in our area. At Philadelphia’s Temple University, a late-winter strike by teaching grad students there grew so contentious — featuring school efforts to strip the strikers of their health care — that it played a role in the ouster of President Jason Wingard, while the grad-student union scored significant gains. Across the river in New Jersey, at its public flagship, Rutgers University, a powerful labor coalition of more than 9,000 workers — bonding tenured professors with adjunct instructors and grad-student teachers — shut down more than two-thirds of the campus while pressing their demands that centered on higher adjunct pay along with health benefits.

Overall, 2022 was the biggest year for academic strikes in a generation — with 15 job actions — and 2023 may exceed it, especially with grad students forming new unions at a record pace, including an outfit announced Monday at the University of Pennsylvania. Much of the news coverage has centered on the more immediate issues that were exacerbated by the pandemic, which exposed the chaotic working conditions and sometimes shockingly low pay and lack of benefits on the bottom rungs of the teaching ladder — especially for part-time adjuncts who’ve been taking a larger share of college course loads.

There’s been too little conversation about how the 2023 strike wave has become the most potent symbol that the American Way of College has grown increasingly unsustainable in the 21st century. Colleges that have been squeezed by decades of hostile, budget-cutting state legislators while feeling the need for posh amenities to compete with large-endowment elite schools have been steadily jacking up tuition to kids terrified they’ll fail in life without a diploma, even as their classes are taught by part-time academics desperate for any kind of work.

This is the year that the plates are crashing down.

We’ve been on the defensive for 40 years, but now we’ve finally begun turning things around,” Todd Wolfson, a Rutgers journalism professor who’s currently general vice president of the faculty union, Rutgers AAUP-AFT, told me Monday. A key pivot point in the New Jersey dispute — tentatively settled in part with a promise of state dollars from Gov. Phil Murphy — has been the solidarity between full-time faculty and their part-time and grad-student colleagues. Historically, in the balkanized world of college politics, these groups were often pitted as competing factions, not working as allies.

“It’s both a moral understanding and it’s self-interest,” Wolfson explained. Full-time professors have growing concerns about administrative bureaucrats — the ones often pushing a hard line against unions — as a threat to faculty governance, in a time when basic protections such as tenure are under assault. But Wolfson added that faculty see the reliance on low-paid, part-time instructors as harmful to the university and becoming hard to morally justify.

Today, part-time adjunct professors and teaching grad students are often called “the backbone” of the modern university, even as surveys have shown that as many as a quarter or more of adjuncts fall below the poverty line for annual pay and qualify for public assistance — while rents in their college towns skyrocket. If these problems sound familiar, it’s proof positive that the modern university has been corporatized, often with support from trustees who are big-time capitalists. No one should be shocked at their hardline anti-union stance.

One of the many, many problems with running public universities like corporations is that any brand that loses its former main source of revenue in taxpayer revenue (at Temple, state dollars went from 65% of the state budget to just 10% over the 2010s) and can only stay afloat by charging the customer more and more will become the academic version of Bed Bath & Beyond. Astronomical tuition has sent the approval rating for U.S. universities under water. And that was before the workers declared, we’re not gonna take it.

But there is a silver lining, which is that for the first time since the 1960s — when tuition was rock-bottom at most public universities and free at schools like the University of California and City University of New York — some reformers are again dreaming of higher education as a public good. Rutgers’ Wolfson said these new created alliances of faculty, adjuncts, grad students and undergrads striving for their common goals are the only way to attain public universities that “have the best research in the world, where we serve our communities, and where we create deeply engaged, democratic citizens that can build this world up.” But in the strike spring of 2023, that’s not going to happen without a fight.

Yo, do this

  1. Most of my limited free time is watching the Phillies, Union, or Succession, but I’m embarking this week on a new audiobook. I was just 6 years old when Malcolm X was assassinated, but only recently have I been starting to grasp his lasting centrality, over a half century later, to the struggle for Black Power. So I’m belatedly catching up with the 2020 Pulitzer Prize-winning book by my late former Newsday colleague, Les Payne: The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X. Payne spent literally decades getting to the bottom of Malcolm’s story to extract reality from a massive shroud of myth.

  2. Speaking of soccer, Wednesday is a date that Philadelphia fans of the world game have marked on our calendars for a long-time: The rematch of last November’s heartbreaking Union shootout loss in the MLS Cup final to Los Angeles FC. And Wednesday’s 9 p.m. kickoff in Chester is the start of something almost as special: A two-game aggregate semifinal in the CONCACAF Champions League, with a second leg next week at LAFC. Andre Blake and the boys in blue are hungry for revenge, so if you can’t make it to Subaru Park it will be must-see TV on FS1.

Ask me anything

Question: How do you see the Philly mayoral race playing out? Could we finally get a female mayor!?! — Via Keep America Greater, Vote for Progress! (@KeepUsaGreater) on Twitter

Answer: Nothing is a lock in today’s politics, but I think it’s a pretty strong bet that a woman will be the 100th mayor of America’s founding city, in a seriously overdue development. In the first television debate the three leading woman candidates — Helen Gym, Cherelle Parker and Rebecca Rhynhart — truly dominated. (Another streaming showdown is slated for Tuesday at 7 p.m.). The two leading guys in the race — Allan Domb and Jeff Brown — seem to be fighting for and splitting the same underwhelming voting bloc. I’m working on a column that will probably run this week, barring a calamity, on the prospect for a progressive mayor. Stay tuned.

Backstory on the Day of the Long Knives on television cable news

Seconds before everything faded to black, pretty much the last thing that Tony Soprano remembered was the aroma of onion rings, “the best in the state.” The last thing that Tucker Carlson, who has been the top-rated host on cable TV news, will remember before he was whacked by his higher-ups at the Fox News Channel will be the taste of pizza, the slices he wolfed down on camera with a crime-fighting delivery man on Friday night. “We’ll be back on Monday,” Carlson told his viewers — the last, as it turned out, of the countless falsehoods he told America.

Monday instead proved to be the Day of the Long Knives in American media, as Carlson and another high-profile cable anchor, the Philadelphia-launched veteran CNN newsman, Don Lemon, were both unexpectedly fired within an hour of each other. It’s hard to say which is more striking: the sharp contrasts between the two TV bigshots — Carlson rose in tandem with his ally (at least in public) Donald Trump, while Lemon was one of POTUS 45′s harshest media critics — or their similarities. Both evolved over their long careers — Carlson from bow-tied conservative intellectual to purveyor of crude populist conspiracy theory, Lemon from conservative critic of low-pants wearing Black teens to fighter against social injustice — in ways that made it hard to tell what was sincere and what was ego-driven pursuit of ratings. But while Lemon could be a cultural flashpoint at times, it was Carlson — with his efforts to legitimize the worst of authoritarian right-wing populism like the hateful and xenophobic “Great Replacement Theory” or denialism around the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection — who wielded more influence and posed a real risk to democracy.

Now what? There was a Super Bowl-level celebration among liberals on social media Monday, even as some on the right speculated about a Trump-Carlson presidential ticket in 2024. I think history has shown that Carlson will fade in prominence — when is the last time you thought about Glenn Beck or Bill O’Reilly? — but that the desire for a demagogic voice for populist white supremacism will live on, with Fox News still eager to provide a national platform, despite its massive legal woes. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow did a brilliant job on Monday night tracing the continuum all the way back to the mass following for antisemitic radio rabble-rouser Father Charles Coughlin in the 1930s. You can fire Carlson but you can’t fire his audience, flipping the channels until they find someone else who gives voice to their rage and resentments. The next Tucker Carlson/Rush Limbaugh/Father Coughlin is currently sitting on the end of the Fox News bench, putting on his shoulder pads and getting ready to run onto the field.

What I wrote on this date in 2016

Maybe it was the bad grades he got at Wharton, but Donald Trump has had a real aversion to setting foot in the mostly hostile territory of Philadelphia and its suburbs during his political years. A rare exception came on April 25, 2016, when the then-White House hopeful took his political crusade to the edge of the region, for a rally at West Chester University. I was there in the streets as a gaggle of student protesters clashed verbally with the masses of Trump supporters, separated by riot cops. A 76-year-old Gladwyne matron in a Martha’s Vineyard T-shirt told me she was there because “I want to hear him tell people, ‘Get out of here!’” It was an afternoon I will never forget, when you could really tell that America was never going to be the same.

Recommended Inquirer reading

  1. Every so often comes a moment that seems to crystalize the worst pathologies of 21st century America. In April 2023, that has been the sudden rash of what the media is calling “wrong place shootings” — dangerous and sometimes fatal encounters between strangers at a doorbell, in a driveway, or a parking lot. For my Sunday column, I looked at how the mixture of loose gun laws and media and political fearmongering around crime has created this toxic situation, and how fear of strangers causes other social problems besides gunplay. Over the weekend, on the eve of President Biden’s reelection announcement, I looked at his unserious Democratic challengers — Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Marianne Williamson — and whether their critiques could make Biden stronger.

  2. I tend to use this space to highlight some of the “sexier” things that Inquirer journalists are writing, like investigative takedowns of corrupt politicians or the police union. But some of the most essential work around here is more down-to-earth, like helping Philadelphia voters navigate the political minefield that is the May 16 primary. Political fanatics probably know all the candidates for mayor, but who can make sense of the dozens of candidates for the city’s seven at-large council seats, who will determine the balance of power on the 17-member panel? That’s why The Inquirer is out with its 2023 Voter’s Guide, to help you get a handle on all the races, including the more obscure ones like register of wills. This work is the real backbone of civic journalism, which remains a vital tool for a working democracy. You can both support and take part in this most essential conversation when you subscribe to The Inquirer this election season.