Lean Semesters: How Higher Education Reproduces Inequity – Q&A with author Sekile M. Nzinga

Why did you write Lean Semesters: How Higher Education Reproduces Inequity?

I wrote this book to map neoliberalism in action and to expose the opaque market practices of contemporary higher education institutions that are compounding inequality for Black women in the twenty-first century. In addition, Lean Semesters maps insidious ways in which Black women’s motivations toward achievement have often been packaged to figure centrally in higher education institutions' marketing campaigns, which target them with false promises that colleges provide opportunity and access to all, regardless of their social and economic position.

The market logic and exploitive practices of the university have long been exposed, yet universities have often positioned themselves as passive victims, who are simply responding to the massive defunding of higher education. Yet the rise of the managerial class in academia is a key indicator that the university is no longer centrally committed to educating students and employing intellectual workers but instead is concerned with managing bodies and profiting from a corporatized knowledge economy (Ross 2012). Lean Semesters provides living examples of how these decisions at the top land on those at the bottom and how Black women, who are often on the impact end of institutional decision making, are navigating those decisions made against their and many others’ best interests.

What was the most surprising thing you learned through your writing or research?

I learned that many of the banks and financial institutions that were bailed out from the inflated housing market in 2008 after the economic collapse are also the ones supplying high-interest rate student loans. Many Americans, particularly people of color and those from working-class backgrounds attend college at lower rates but my research documented how these groups are also more likely to require student loans to attend college, especially at the graduate school level—a much smaller group that holds 40% of student loan debt that begins accruing interest the day they begin classes.

I also learned that first-generation students, students from working-class backgrounds, and students of color are also more likely to be subject to subprime and predatory student loans that offer higher interest “cohort default” rates to those attending colleges and universities with higher borrower default rates. It was surprising that the synergy between the cancel/forgive student loan debt campaigns and other anti-racist and social justice campaigns are not more publicly known. Forgiving student loan debt would have a significant positive economic and material impact on Black women, particularly Black mothers and caregivers. My highly educated participants, who were all Black women and mothers, faced food and housing insecurity and often did not qualify for state support.

It was also quite surprising that there is a lack of understanding and empathy from the general public about the web of people who are connected to students impacted by student loan debt. In addition to the college student, supportive parents, members of families, and spouses – who may have served as loan co-signers but may have never even attended college – are also economically impacted by student loan debt. If the student cannot repay their loans, their family members become the next target of financial institutions. Dependents of people with student loan debt are also at risk for a lower quality of life since a family’s financial and material resources are often lowered due to garnisheed checks, reduced wages, loss of federal income tax refunds, negative credit ratings, and no federal debt protection through bankruptcy. I learned that multiple generations are impacted by the inflated costs of college education and the high burden of student loan debt, both of which contribute to the suppression of economic opportunity and the reproduction of inequality for many.  

What is new about this book that sets it apart from other books in the field?

Lean Semesters is a mapping, a witnessing, and a solidarity project that incorporates life narratives, national data, and autobiography. It contributes to both feminist and critical university studies perspectives by addressing the economic and material conditions of Black academic women, which are compounded by the corporatized and privatized business practices of the university. It extends the long-standing body of critical literature of Black feminists and other feminists of color, and contributes to the growing critical discourse on the neo-liberalization and corporatization of higher education and its crippling impact on the university, its cultural productions, and its citizenry within and beyond its boundaries. Lean Semesters considers how the compounding hierarchies of gender and race are fortified by the market forces that are currently restructuring U.S. universities. By foregrounding the racialized and gendered practices of the university, Lean Semesters also offers a sustained woman of color feminist intervention into the singularity of class-based analyses focused on the negative effects of neoliberal policies and practices, but inattentive to their unequal distribution. Ultimately, Lean Semesters illuminates the ways past liberal feminist “victories” within academia have yet to become accessible to all women, and urgently invites the public to respond.

What is the most important fact that Lean Semesters helps to reveal?

Black academic women, a historically underrepresented group within the academy, are extremely vulnerable to hyper-exploitation and inequities within the neoliberal university. Subsequently, highly educated black women, who are also mothers and caregivers attempting to “do what they love,” often find themselves with more education, which has historically been touted as a buffer against poverty, but with less income, greater debt, no health care, less child care, and food insecurity.

How do you envision the lasting impact of Lean Semesters?

This book serves as a call to action by amplifying the voices of promising and prophetic Black academic women and by mapping the impact of higher education on their lives. Their collective testimonies demand that we place value on their intellectual labor and humanity, and offer us a counterexample against the dominant narratives on diversity and inclusion. It is time that we take political institutional ownership in order to stabilize the hemorrhaging of Black academic women students and faculty. In doing so we may be able to address some of the greatest challenges of the contemporary academy in the early twenty-first century.

What do you hope people will take away from your work?

Lean Semesters questions the notion of progress without diminishing the documented achievements that Black women academics have contributed to the world. I found it important to nuance how corporatized academic institutions have been largely successful in marketing themselves as sites of equal opportunity and as benevolent social institutions, yet such targeted messaging says little about said institutions’ actual capacity or willingness to support the diverse students, educators, and scholars that they attract. Pre-COVID-19, I hoped that people would be able to bear witness to the documented success of Black women in higher education, but also be concerned with the erosion of their opportunities given the current status of higher education. Since COVID-19, that hope and my call for our collective action have intensified.

Order Lean Semesters: How Higher Education Reproduces Inequity – published on October 13, 2020 – at the following link: https://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/title/lean-semesters

Sekile M. Nzinga is the director of the Women's Center and a lecturer in gender and sexuality studies at Northwestern University. She is the author of Lean Semesters: How Higher Education Reproduces Inequity and the editor of Laboring Positions: Black Women, Mothering and the Academy.