Cultural Studies
College of Humanities and Social Sciences

CSC: Interview with Andrew Ross

Cultural Studies Colloquium 2016-2017 Interview with Andrew Ross.

Interview conducted by Christina Riley, Doctoral Candidate

The Cultural Studies PhD program’s student/faculty Colloquium series features regular presentations by prominent interdisciplinary scholars. Cultural Studies PhD candidate Christina Riley interviewed Andrew Ross of New York University, who is a well-known scholar and academic activist. His publications range from early and influential interventions on the nature of academic interest in popular culture (No Respect, Routledge, 1989); to living in a Disney-developed community (The Celebration Chronicles, Ballantine 2000); and, with increasing emphasis on economic matters, to job insecurity and precarity (Nice Work If You Can Get It, NYU Press, 2010); and understanding and resisting the debt economy (Creditocracy and the Case for Debt Refusal, OR Books, 2014). Among his most recent books is an edited collection on behalf of the group Gulf Labor examining “growth markets” in art museums and higher education in illiberal states, The Gulf: High Culture/Hard Labor (OR Books, 2015).

The interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

CR: Some of your recent work focuses on the repercussions of US academic institutions moving to authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and East Asia. What are the chief effects of this shift on implicated academic laborers as well as the effects on knowledge production in the greater academe?

AR: Well, I got involved in that business involuntarily, because I happened to be the NYU president of the NYU chapter of the AAUP at the time that NYU was entering into contractual arrangements with Abu Dhabi authorities and Shanghai municipal authorities regarding new branch campuses overseas. So, ex officio, I had to be active because there were a lot of concerns on campus about possible breaches of academic freedom on these campuses being set up by illiberal governments in authoritarian societies. Faculty and students also had concerns about violations of personal rights and human rights in these countries. I was serving the national AAUP at the time on its policy-making arm, Committee A, and we formulated a new recommendation extending the purview of the association for the first time, to protection of rights of employees overseas. In another first, we also extended protections to non-instructional employees at those campuses, including the construction and maintenance workforce. We were guided by the principle that students and faculty shouldn’t be asked to study or teach in classrooms built on the backs of abused workers.

It so happened that, at NYU Abu Dhabi, we had the opportunity to monitor some of those conditions ‘on the ground,’ as it were. We set up a faculty-student Coalition for Fair Labor which took on the task of pushing our own administration to adopt fair labor standards. We worked with the Human Rights Watch very closely on that front, and the NYU administration eventually did adopt a set of standards which included provisions that were superior to anything else in the region. But that was just on paper, because we knew that, unless these provisions were properly enforced and monitored, they would be useless. The latter is where we fell down, since we were unable to pressure the authorities to contract an adequate labor monitor. And so NYU’s name was tarnished as a result of the exposure of labor abuses, and we are still trying to get workers compensated for underpayment and deportation (for striking).

At the same time, I helped start another campaign, the Gulf Labor Coalition…. That was focused on museums being built alongside NYU Abu Dhabi on Saadiyat Island- the Louvre, the Guggenheim and the British Museum (whose curators were playing a large role in the new national UAE museum). We used a similar campaign tactic, which was to try to put pressure on the brand name of those institutions in order to raise the labor standards. It was a fairly well-known formula applied from the earlier anti-sweatshop movement, but using it on cultural institutions was a whole other ball game. It was very effective in some regards, because these are institutions whose moral value cannot withstand a lot of internal critique. Unlike corporations, they have internal communities of conscience, and, physically, they cannot they be moved overnight as garment factories can. We did some field research in Abu Dhabi labor camps and published reports and occupied the Guggenheim Museum several times before several members of the group, including myself, were barred from entry into the UAE. That generated a bit of a scandal over the violations of academic and artistic freedom, and the publicity helped to shine a spotlight on abusive labor practices which are formally institutionalized in the region as a whole- not just in Abu Dhabi, but in all of the Gulf countries, where so many Anglophone universities have set up shop in the Gulf as part of the offshore boom.

The NYU Abu Dhabi experience is not generalizable, but certainly there are lessons to be learned from it. Typically, when you go offshore to an illiberal society, the campus is set up as a extra-territorial free speech bubble- albeit one that is still rife with self-censorship. And outside of that bubble, the basic protections for free speech are virtually nonexistent. In effect, faculty and students are enjoying freedoms that no one else in that society can access. So, on many levels, it’s almost impossible, despite all the promotional rhetoric, to sustain the American liberal arts ethos when it is exported to these kinds of locations.

CR: What is the current state of the campus in Abu Dhabi or similar institutions that you were observing during this period… because this happened over the last decade or so?

AR: Yes, during the offshore boom, as I call it, which peaked recently, because Anglophone institutions are not moving offshore at the same speed as they once were. And the boom was of course over-hyped by particular figures who have a vested interest in the global higher-ed market. I can’t speak about current conditions in Abu Dhabi because I have no access, though I will say that there has been very little change in the labor regime, either in the UAE or in any of the Gulf states which rely on the kafala system of bonded labor.

CR: You’ve discussed how NYU and its satellite campus in UAE represent a growing trend in academic institutions as products of a neoliberalized education economy... and I know you’re aware of GMU’s history of financial support from Koch brothers (and the renaming

of the law school for Antonin Scalia) which undoubtedly bears weight on the academic management and policies GMU generates. How might we as students and faculty (particularly in a “right to work” state such as Virginia) become more vocal participants in the ways our schools are run?

AR: Well, there are always the existing senatorial channels of student and faculty governance --some of which are set up or are used to absorb collective dissent and challenges to administrative fiats. Many campuses have faculty senates which were evolved to forestall unionization efforts or were granted as compensatory provisions in place of unionization. And on those campuses which have faculty unions and senates, there’s often an uneasy coexistence—some things get lost in-between the cracks. Some senates are very powerful, but most campuses are staffed by people who like to rub shoulders with top administrators, so they tend to be company men and women who don’t necessarily see their role as strengthening governance or over-hauling it in more radical ways. But overall and nationally, we’ve seen a steady erosion of faculty and student roles in governance. Shared governance is supposed to be a tripartite system where the trustees, administration, and faculty each have a role, but what we’re seeing increasingly is an increasingly powerful administrator class which is nonetheless very vulnerable to outside donor pressure. And this class is exercising executive power to run the show, while faculty are being reduced to an advisory body with little effective input in decision-making, even over academic affairs. Some colleagues like to talk about this as the rise of the corporate university. To my mind, this is a rather lazy phrase that is popular around the academic water cooler, but it’s not a very accurate description. I think there are just as many differences between universities and corporations as there are similarities. For one thing, corporations have been downsizing their middle managerial ranks for at least a couple of decades now and horizontalizing the hierarchical ladder. Whereas what we’ve seen in universities is exactly the opposite--there’s been a massing of administrative ranks. So, in that respect, in terms of the organizational structure, they are moving in quite different directions.

CR: So what do we do regarding how these higher-ed administrative efforts occlude any kind of genuine potential for representation for students and faculty?

AR: Well, to begin with, that kind of broader analysis is helpful to understand the type of beast you’re dealing with. It’s a different beast than what we saw thirty, forty years ago, since universities are always evolving in their function and structure, and the points of leverage shift in tandem with the evolution of the structure. For example, we’ve seen a lot of campus activism since the 1990s which is focused on targeting the brand name of universities along the lines that I mentioned earlier. The student-led anti-sweatshop movement did precisely that by putting pressure on the varsity name, threatening to tarnish or sully it by association with human rights abuses. The goal was to secure sweat-free licensing for varsity clothing on college campuses-- a small but significant part of the garment sector. We’ve also seen divestment campaigns morph over the years from the anti-apartheid era to current divestment campaigns for Palestine to efforts working towards a carbon-free environment among others.

CR: Also, you see these divestment campaigns forming against various clothing corporations like Under Armour because of their CEO’s support for Trump during his presidential run.

AR: That’s promising too. And oftentimes these campaigns really have to involve the targeting of trustees because of their fiduciary oversight over fiscal affairs. Administrators cannot be allowed to deflect protest by passing the buck on to the trustees. Most students and faculty know very little about trustees, but that has to change.

CR: I’m very interested in your work with the Occupy movement, particularly your involvement in the Occupy Student Debt Campaign. This campaign against the indentured servitude of millions of citizens by accumulation of mass private debt produced collective efforts for debt refusal as well as the Rolling Jubilee debt payoff program, and Strike Debt. Do you mind talking a little bit about the history of these efforts and their ensuing offshoots?

AR: There’s a small group of comrades that have stuck with these various efforts over the years. It’s a group that mutates from one formation to another. The Occupy Student Debt Campaign was the first in 2011, and then Strike Debt, which was focused on many different forms of household debt, that formed in the summer of 2012. We wrote the Debt Resistors Operations Manual that summer which is still being widely used, and in the fall [of 2012], we launched the Debt Jubilee campaign for debt abolition. It was supposed to be a very small-scale, one-off operation whereby we would raise $50,000 to buy some debt on the secondary debt market- but in a very high profile way- and then just abolish it. With that sum, we figured we could abolish one million dollars of debt, and promote it as an act of public education because we wanted to publicize how the debt system actually works. You can buy debt very, very cheaply, for pennies on the dollar, on the secondary debt market as collection agencies do. Then they call you up to try to extract the full amount of the debt. So the idea was that once folks knew how cheaply the debt had been acquired they would have a different conversation when the collector called them up. Well, we ended up receiving about $750,000 worth of donations over the course of a year, and with that we wiped out $32 million of debt, which was much more ambitious than we imagined.

But it was very labor-intensive, and it wasn’t intended to be a long-term operation, so we terminated that program. Strike Debt wound down after that, and a remnant broke off to go back to student debt and work toward our goal of forming a debtors union. Unlike the original Occupy campaign which aimed at getting a million student debtors to collectively default, we decided to start small and build from the ground up. So we formed the Debt Collective which is still in existence, and it still does a lot of good work. Initially, we found a group of students who had been scammed by for-profit Everest College (part of the Corinthian network), and they were livid but they didn’t know how to organize. So, operating like a union, we provided legal assistance, publicity, and helped them launch a debt strike against the Department of Education in 2015. We also found a loophole in the Higher Education Act which obliges the government to discharge any debt that’s been incurred under fraudulent circumstances. Subsequently, we helped thousands of students from the for-profit sector to file Defense-to-Repayment claims against the Department of Education. The department officials realized they were on the hook legally, but they were cautious about opening that door because it’s a huge liability.

CR:… is there a concrete definition for what fraudulent means in this instance?

AR: Good question, and it was debated at some length by officials, but by the time of the election in the fall, they had agreed to discharge more than 200 million dollars of student debt—which is still only the tip of the potential iceberg. Then Trump arrived, along with Betsy DeVos, and everything was up in the air. Earlier this week, she announced that the Department of Education would honor those promises to provide debt relief. We’ll see if that actually happens, though it’s not clear whether any new claims will be accepted. Anyway, long story short, each of these activist initiatives has been driven by the perception that collective action can produce results on debt relief.

ME: On different scales too?

AR: Yes, on different scales. I mean 32 million dollars, 200 million dollars, they’re just drops in the ocean of debt, but they’re proof of concept that collective action or mutual aid actually do work. The status quo right now is the individual default, which a million student debtors do every year.

CR: -which is very risky-

AR: -yes, and there’s no political impact… But if you could mobilize those million defaults in the form of a collective demand--which is a big no-no in debt collection--then you have some real leverage and you can get real results. I think we’ve proved it can be done at a micro level. The big challenge is how to scale up.

CR: The recent election has seemingly engendered a renewed vigor to grassroots movements across the country... what activist efforts are you most intrigued by currently and why?

AR: Oh, there are so many. On the one hand, it’s wonderful to see so many people involved, especially the kind of liberal who is not ordinarily very active. This has become very much an ACLU moment because liberals feel the legitimacy of the state and government are being threatened and violated by Trump in some fundamental way. That said, it’s a little bizarre to see the State department and the FBI being held up as paragons of truth and integrity. In terms of movement politics, I think that a lot of the scrutiny which is being focused on governance had neglected the lessons of Occupy which was primarily focused on Wall Street and finance as well as the Black Lives Matter focus on police brutality and state violence. Those targets haven’t exactly been swept aside, but they are being relatively neglected in the current ACLU moment, and I think that’s unfortunate. On the other hand, there’s obviously potential for all sorts of resistance, and it’s happening. Whether it has legs depends, as always, on the hard work of organizing. You yourself have been analyzing why big marches don’t turn into movement forms, and that’s certainly something that’s worth understanding. Personally, a lot of my energies of late have gone into the movement for Palestinian rights, and a lot of my work is being done over there. Not directly connected to Trump, but Trump and Congress certainly have a decisive impact on regional geopolitics.

CR: Would you talk a little bit about this work that you’re doing right now?

AR: That is mostly field work that I’ve been doing in Palestine, labor research primarily, focused on the West Bank stone industry. I’ve spend a lot of time with Palestinian stonemasons and workers involved in construction, tracking the supply line that runs from the quarries to the construction sites in Israel and the settlements. The stone and marble industry is the biggest private employer on the West Bank and Palestinians have some lovely limestone. It’s the only natural resource they have, and it’s something that the Israelis need really badly. In fact, it’s the one thing besides cheap labor that the Israelis really need. As for the labor, in the aggregate, and over the decades, Palestinians have physically built the state of Israel with their sweat and their stone. They have had a decisive hand in all the assets that sit on the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Does all that sweat translate into rights? If not, perhaps it should.

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