Monsters of the University

by Kyle Kern

University, Inc.

In his regular bi-monthly opinion column in the Washington Post, president of Purdue University and former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels defended his decision to re-open the university’s campus this fall, stating that failing to do so “would be not only anti-scientific but also an unacceptable breach of duty.” Daniels, a former executive with pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly (perhaps best known for their  1.4 billion dollar settlement with the federal government for falsely marketing a drug as anti-psychotic without FDA approval) and director of the Office of Management and Budget under George W. Bush, made note of record-breaking tuition deposits from the incoming freshman class while insisting that young adults are at “near-zero risk” of death. 

In spite of the potential risks — asymptomatic carriers spreading the virus to more vulnerable populations, potential exposure to university workers tasked with maintaining facilities,  anda correlation between increases in strokes among younger patients infected with COVID-19 —Mitch Daniels has resolved to move forward with his plans for reopening. When asked to address concerns regarding this, Daniels told a Purdue student newspaper that he intends to “spare no effort and no expense” without sacrificing the over $900,000 in compensation he receives every year from the university. While Daniels seems publicly optimistic about reopening, it is difficult to imagine a post-COVID budget that fairly compensates and retains contingent faculty and campus wage workers. It is made all the more monstrous when said budgets are dictated by the whims of ex-pharmaceutical executives and the former CEOs of JCPenny and McDonalds.

Across the country, university administrators have scrambled to mitigate the enormous risks of reopening campuses as COVID-19 diagnoses in the United States trend sharply upward. While a small number of schools have declared their intent to move entirely online, others have claimed that a return to regular campus life (either completely or in hybrid in-person/online forms) is both safe and necessary. Administrators, with little to no input from students and campus workers, outline plans for testing while unsure of how many tests will be available, laud comprehensive plans for campus sanitation without acknowledging the risks posed to those performing these duties, and emphasize their flexibility and at-the-ready attitude while failing to share what happens if campuses are forced to close after students have already signed lease agreements and found local work. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention project as many as 11,000 daily deaths from COVID-19 in late August, university executives declare that ‘we are all in this together’ despite requesting legal protections from Vice President Mike Pence when students inevitably fall ill.

The pressure to either partially or fully reopen campuses this fall stems largely and unsurprisingly from financial necessity: increased reliance on high tuition and student housing costs; low-wage non-unionized contingent/part-time faculty and graduate student workers; and revenue from college athletes who receive next to none of the profits they generate has seen US higher education turn sharply toward corporatized and profit-incentivized models for higher education. The neoliberal university follows the patterns of boom and bust that characterize capitalist economies, imposing harsh and immediate austerity in anticipation of economic recession while neglecting to apply these measures to executive salaries that can reach seven figures. Those who have proposed cuts to administrative salaries issue press releases in celebration of their bravery for sacrificing ten percent of their high six-figures. For those familiar with cuts made after the 2008 financial crisis, as well as with the promise of a return to normal levels of spending that never came, this likely reads as insulting and needlessly cruel — par for the course in a country that has a revolving door between government, big business, and the university.

Administrators and governing boards’ justification for their hypocrisy relies on capitalism’s established and accepted cultural norms to eschew culpability and protect the interests of the elites helming higher education in the United States. Governing boards, college presidents, and athletic directors defend millions of dollars in salaries, bonuses, and various perks with sharp corporate marketing while tuition prices skyrocket and wages for contingent faculty and staff sag. University presidents wax poetically about the moral obligation to provide students an education during the worst global health crisis of the 21st century  while passing the burden of minimizing on-campus COVID-19 infections to low-wage campus workers. Neoliberal university education offers an exchange of alumni status and institutional affiliation for the labor of those they claim as their own with little regard for how these actions affect the futures of their students and workers. Immaterial, abstract gains are packaged as authentic, necessary college “experiences” and inextricably linked to the material, exploitative impulses of neoliberal universities, the equivalent of giant student loan bills and criminally small paychecks printed in school colors.

This behavior is not only normal, but essential to the current state of higher education in the United States; the gaping maw between the compensation of administrators, executives, and athletic coaches  and the labor they exploit, fundamental to capitalism, accepted as unavoidable and necessary to the continued functioning of these universities. 

The significant problems faced by students and workers in neoliberal higher education can be found both with the individual capitalists performing their role in the extraction of surplus capital, as well as with the social conditions that produced these individuals and institutions in the first place, conditions that have forced us to accept our current condition and shitty future as inevitabilities. In such a society where —to borrow from Georg Lukacs — freedom is necessitated by the un-freedom of others, we must mark and identify the monstrosities lurking in the halls of universities, concealing themselves behind discourses of family and culture. Perhaps then the opponents of students and workers are best described by the stuff of fiction: as monsters of the contemporary, neoliberal university. 

Resident Assistant: The Umbrella Chronicles

When outlining his analysis of the capitalist mode of production, Karl Marx frequently evoked the vampire to describe the process by which capitalism extracts from and exploits workers. According to Marx, the lack of social barriers allows capital to latch onto the working class like a “vampire that will not let go while there remains a single muscle, sinew or drop of blood to be exploited.” (Capital 416) Embedded within Marx’s are evocations of the horrific and the Gothic, enclosed spaces of death and horror where workers and children are reduced and divided through the mutilation of their bodies and transformed into fragmented versions of themselves [481].

Readings of Marx that remark on his use of imagery and metaphor to describe capitalism’s brutal realities are especially useful tools for engaging with the contemporary neoliberal social world. In his 2001 book Monsters of the Market, social theorist David McNally shows how literary depictions of monsters and horror “dramatize the profound sense of corporeal vulnerability that pervade modern society.” Economic exploitation under capitalism is experienced and felt in symbolic spaces; as the domination of liberal ideology attempts to conceal the horrific, the gestures of neoliberal economics continue to manifest themselves in books, films, and television, where vampires and body-snatchers prey on, manipulate, and dissect bodies while workers and colonial subjects become zombified shells of their former, human selves, empty automatons without agency or identities.

McNally also correctly observes how contemporary culture attempts to commodify historical iterations of capitalistic horror and transform them from striking symbolic representations into easily consumable products. In contrast with their folkloric originators in Haiti, where zombification was originally constructed by enslaved Africans and representative of a fear that even after death one may be forced to labor soullessly for eternity, the modern zombies popularized by western pop-culture consume rather than work. The zombie-as-consumer of western films eclipses the discourse of labor and, as McNally observes, finds consumption, rather than capitalism, to be the culprit.

While certainly exemplifying this trope, the zombies of the long-running survival horror video game franchise Resident Evil, as well as the series itself, serve as useful representations of the changes to capitalist exploitation after the neoliberal economic takeover of the late 20th century. The “zombies” of Resident Evil are not the dead returned to life, but the result of attempts to create biological weapons using a series of viruses developed from a flower extracted during the height of European colonialism in Africa. And just as changes in economic production gave way to a new globalized, interconnected capitalism that corporatized university education while professing liberal universal values, the villains of Resident Evil formed into uneasy interconnected alliances that hid megalomaniacal human experimentation behind the accepted aesthetic of the modern mega-corporation.

Similar to the frequent shuffling of university presidents from school to school (often accompanied by hefty severances and golden parachutes), the villains of Resident Evil are not static, but rather a series of recurring characters who compete with one another for power and influence while infected civilians roam in the background as discarded, failed body-experiments. The originators of the first virus that transforms humans into craven flesh-eaters, the leaders of the multinational conglomerate Umbrella Corporation, pursued their individual goals interiorly while producing pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, machinery, and other consumer products.

After the United States government (one of Umbrella’s customers) discovered the midwestern industrial community of Raccoon City filled with flesh-eaters after a virus developed in a nearby research facility contaminated local drinking water. In the chaos of the pandemic,Umbrella collapsed and the US leveled Raccoon City with a thermobaric missile. Other corporate entities rose to take Umbrella’s place, along with a self-described anti-terrorism organization that received the support of both the United Nations and the international consortium of pharmaceutical corporations of which Umbrella was a member. Key players in the development of the aforementioned bioweaponry turn against one another and pass along Umbrella’s research to other individuals to begin developing new, more powerful bioweapons. While collections of private and public actors move in and out of the narrative, the infected bodies of ordinary people remain statically zombified. Humans outside of corporate power and the various flavors of law enforcement that make up the Resident Evil series’ cast of protagonists are always portrayed as newly formed subjects, body-machines that serve only as evidence of the competing corporate, capitalistic interests operating on a higher, untouchable plane.

Like the infected humans of Resident Evil, workers under capitalism and students in neoliberal universities are not welcome on the stage in which these narratives of inter-capitalist competition are performed. Reduced to their value as individualized subjects, students and workers in neoliberal higher education are potential experiments summarily discarded when they are no longer useful or refuse to comply with the aims and goals of those at the levers of modern society. An ever-widening pipeline that shuttles wealthy capitalists between private industry and university administrations can be contrasted with the stasis of student loan debt, lack of upward mobility for working class and minority students, and an academic job market that profits heavily from contingent faculty spread between multiple adjunct teaching positions with no guarantees of full-time work. While individual capitalists determine how best to implement their personal vision for the world, workers must, to paraphrase Marx, bring their own hide to the market (vol. 1, 280).

Keep Calm, Carrion

In July of this year, the Polish indie developer Phobia Game Studio released Carrion, a horror game that casts the player in the role of a crawling red entity — a conscious collection of tendrils captured and imprisoned in a private (seemingly militarized) research facility. The entity moves fluidly through its environment, clinging to ceilings, passing through air ducts and small entries, and solving lock-based puzzles to facilitate its escape. While consuming those who attempt to stop it, the carrion grows in size and strength, gaining access to new environments, abilities, and small cinematics that fill in pieces of the narrative. While the story is sparse (outside of its relatively clear ending cinematic), a clear take away from the gameplay  is that when a series of autonomous individuals are pitted against a multitudinous creature that moves as one, the individuals remain uniquely vulnerable, even on their home turf.

Carrion is easily contrasted with recent big-budget horror titles that cast the player as humans struggling in a post-apocalyptic nightmare, disempowered by their environments and circumstances while they claw and scratch their way toward some semblance of normalcy and security. While the protagonist of Carrion is similarly trapped in dangerous circumstances that alter and change as new abilities and means for survival are gained, the entity is constantly empowered by its environment and increasingly dominates its surroundings, growing larger, more terrifying, and increasingly powerful as the game moves forward.

In their fierce opposition to campus union organizing campaigns from part-time faculty and graduate students, university administrations employ fear tactics that prey on the insecurity, precarity, and isolation experienced by these workers. They cast unions and their organizers in the role of a collective horror villain that disrupts perfectly healthy workplace culture, or as alien entities that interfere with natural workplace relationships those between six-figure salaried university administrators and part-time instructors or tenured faculty and graduate students. The metaphors of horror cut both ways on college campuses and for those in control of schools, unions and collectivity are the red-tendrilled forces by which good bourgeois values and culture are disrupted.

They’re correct in a way. Union organizing disrupts higher education administrations’ ability to isolate workers and form them into exploitable, subjective body-machines. Collective bargaining empowers groups of workers, giving them the ability to do the unthinkable: fight back against the powerful and disrupt the usual order they have imposed. They horrifically make material gains for workers who sleep in their cars due to a lack of housing and grant health insurance to part-time instructors who are forced to teach as cancer ravages their bodies, filling their mouths with tumors, making it difficult for them to speak, and taking their lives. 

When Mitch Daniels told the readers of the Washington Post that “nothing makes a more positive difference than personal behavior and responsibility,” he meant that of individual students and workers, rather than himself and the university board members he appointed as governor (the party responsible for appointing him to the position he currently holds six months before he left the Indiana governor’s mansion). When he gaslights students by challenging them to “refute the cynics” who call young people selfish and self-indulgent, he further individualizes and isolates students away from their true power: collective action. When Daniels de-certified all government employee unions on his first day in office, calling them “privileged elites,” he made clear that which he fears the most: workers who move as a block to challenge his power and wealth.

When the administrators of the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill privileged reopening over the potential infection and death of students — only to move entirely online after a spike in cases from one week of in-person instruction — they did so because they lacked a necessary fear of reprisal. Despite the Daily Tarheel’s best efforts to bring grievances with university administration into the public view, the cluster fuck continues as other schools move forward with the potentially deadly fall semester.

When capitalists are unable to zombify, isolate, and lay claim to the agency of workers, the horrors of their worst nightmares become a terrifying reality, and rightfully so. Just several days ago, when it was reported that the Chicago Teachers Union were going to vote to strike in protest of plans to partially re-open schools, the city announced fall classes would be entirely online several hours later.

If students and workers wish to protect each other from the impending disaster of campus reopening, a transformation into a crawling, tendrilled entity is imminently necessary, before the monsters of the university drag us to the yet-unseen bottom of this crisis.


Kyle Kern is a writer based in Orlando, FL. His work explores the intersections between continental philosophy, Marxism, and video games. He can be found on Twitter and YouTube.