Faculty Spotlight: Prof. Chrystin Ondersma on Debt and Survival

The economic crisis occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the nation's existing consumer debt crisis. This crisis, which ensnares tens of millions of adults in the country, shows no signs of abating. In this week's #FacultySpotlight, we are featuring the work of Prof. Chrystin Ondersma, Professor at Rutgers Law School, whose scholarship proposes innovating pathways to large-scale debt relief.

Ondersma argues for an abolitionist approach to what she calls "survival debt"—debt incurred for the purpose of meeting basic needs. In a response to Abbye Atkinson’s crucial article Borrowing Equality, in which Atkinson identifies the ways in which existing credit policies entrench the very systems of marginalization and hierarchies such policies are purportedly designed to alleviate, Ondersma brings insights from Jackie Wang’s Carceral Capitalism to propose a new approach to consumer borrowing that seeks to put an end to the reliance on consumer credit to achieve basic needs such as medical care, housing, and education sufficient to achieve a standard of living consistent with human dignity. Read her article in Columbia Law Review here.

How does your research inform your teaching and service at the university?

The key question that drives my scholarship, teaching, and service is this: how can we shift power and resources from where it currently lies (large corporations and institutions & predominantly cis white men) to those who have been excluded and dispossessed through systems of discrimination and oppression (e.g., white supremacy; cis-hetero-patriarchy)? In addition to my work in conversation with Professor Atkinson, I am working with my co-author Prof. Matteo Gatti in the corporate law field, exploring mechanisms for shifting power and resources to workers and other weaker constituencies. I bring these priorities to my teaching and service as well; discussing these issues with my students and often learning from my students, as many of them have experienced dispossession, exclusion, and discrimination as both workers and borrowers. With respect to institutional service, I am always looking for ways to work to make Rutgers more equitable and just, and to do my best to push Rutgers to better served those students, faculty, instructors, and administrators who are most marginalized. I know there’s a lot more I must do and a lot more I have to learn.

How does this work advance the university's mission as a publicly-engaged anchor institution?

I try very hard to make sure the work I do as a scholar and teacher can translate into some meaningful improvement in the lives of others. In my scholarship, this means including policy proposals that I think have a reasonable chance of shaping law or regulation in some way. For example, I have worked on a variety of proposals with respect to student debt, and one of my co-authors recently testified before the Senate about our proposal for a no-contest discharge for certain categories of student loans. I’ve also written some pieces for the Justice Collaborative, a non-profit that seeks to move justice-oriented policy proposals forward with a combination of polling work, advocacy work, and reports from legal academics; those pieces focused on the need to extend COVID bailout relief to immigrants and the need to stop student loan debt collection. There is always more I can do to push for change, and my goal for the coming years is to get more involved in helping to shape the laws affecting borrowers here in New Jersey.