Monday, October 05, 2009

More Annals of the Great Depression: Why We Are All Californians

Non-academics probably don't know that this article by Judith Butler about the September 24 protests at UC-Berkeley (thanks to Facebook, Twitter and a cross-post at Bully Bloggers) is starting to go viral. If you haven't read Butler's piece because you dread academic writing, have no fear. It is a lucid and forceful explication, by a faculty leader in this movement, about what is at stake when public education becomes a privilege, not a right.

One item of significance, in my view, is that this article was published in a British newspaper, not in the New York Times or the Washington Post. On the one hand, I want to say, what is that about? On the other hand, sadly, I know what that is about. For Americans, education is every man or woman for his or herself. Americans say they value education, but they don't seem to value the thought, planning or expenditures necessary to sustain and fight for the institutions that make an educated society possible. Nor, and I would say the elitism of many academics is partly to blame here, do they care much about extending educational opportunities in the most inclusive way possible.

Hence, it no longer common sense that public universities actually be accessible to the public, nor is there much conversation about what private institutions have at stake in returning to some semblance of accessibility and service to a larger public good. This moment, when our way of life at elite institutions has finally become unsustainable, is a critical time to rethink that and we need to look to what is going on in public colleges and universities to see where common interests lie and common action might be taken. What is occurring in California is drastic. As Butler notes, one component of the budget shortfall forced on the UC systems has been cutting programs, courses and faculty (East Asian languages and Arabic have been part of the damage -- now that's a good response to our changing world!) Another has been cutting lecturers and replacing faculty who have left the university. A third has been tuition hikes of 40%.

But some version of this scenario is occurring everywhere.

As culprits, Butler specifically cites a bloated administration, huge budgets for intercollegiate athletics, and, most importantly, a dysfunctional state government in Sacramento. Building on Butler's analysis, however, I would add that there is something else at stake too. This crisis has been a long time coming, since the 1980s at least, when federal and state governments began to pull public resources from educational institutions, attack academia as a bastion of out-of-touch left wingery. Policies like tenure, which were designed to stabilize faculty and nurture research, were condemned as economically inflexible, and colleges and universities of all kinds began to run curricula on adjunct labor as a matter of de facto policy. Defunding of higher education -- based on conservative ideologies designed to starve the state and re-shape public institutions on a free market model -- resulted in steadily raised tuition and the expectation that students and their families would bear the burden of those tuition increases by taking out loans. In many cases, we now discover, that money came out of refinancing homes in an inflated real estate market, something parents were required to do as a condition for grants and financial aid. I have recently heard from several faculty in the first decade of their careers that they expect to be paying back loans taken out for college as well a for graduate school: hence, the salary freezes and furloughs that are being imposed at campuses across the nation, public and private, are having a disproportionate effect on a generation of scholars who have the least influence on policy and the leanest household budgets already.

And of course, there have been much broader effects of shifting the burden of paying for higher education onto students. Many years ago, I recall sitting in a meeting with an administrator responsible for setting fiscal policy who argued that asking students to take out tens of thousands of dollars for a Zenith education was not wrong because it was "an investment." He compared that investment to a mortgage, good debt as opposed to bad debt.

Well it's certainly a better debt than spending $30,000 on shoes. But young people paying back such loans are not buying houses either -- oops! I forgot! They were buying houses, with no money down and interest only payments on a thirty- year ARM.

But I digress. I have a much larger point to make here, which is that academics need to start paying attention to the whole picture. I would like to hear that happy "pop" all over the country, as we pull our heads out of where they have been and realize that this isn't just about the library cuts, it isn't just about the salaries, it isn't just about the standards movement and the demise of anything that might look like progressive education, it isn't about the job market. It's about the whole system and how it works. Here, from my point of view, are four basic issues:

The fate of each form of education is inextricably linked to the fate of its apparent opposite: public schools are linked to private schools, religious schools to secular ones; four-years to community colleges; elite to non-elite. Faculty and administrators need to start responding to that reality and acting collectively with their regional counterparts to make demands on state and local governments to restore cuts in higher education that have been made over the course of decades. Why are we having such trouble staunching the bleeding in the current economic crisis? In part it is because we have hit the limits of what privatization of education, and funding institutions on the backs of private debt rather than public appropriations, can accomplish. A fundamental reorganization of fiscal priorities at the level of government must ensue: defunding of war, of prison, and the elimination of tax incentives for corporations is a place to begin. Faculty and administrations everywhere are currently engaged in a contest as to which stone they are going to try to squeeze blood from next, and that isn't how this problem will be fixed. We need a fresh infusion of cash that takes us back to pre-1980 levels, adjusted for inflation.

Faculty and administrators need to stop arguing with each other and begin fighting the state for the quality education Americans deserve. If there is any lesson to the current crisis it is this: funding higher ed on the backs of students and through private endowments is unstable and unsupportable over the long term. Imagine if a fraction of the funds that have been made available to the military, to the financial industry and to the auto industry were made regularly available to education. And yet, where exactly do we think our next generation of military officers, government workers and foreign policy planners; our bankers and finance executives; our tech workers, teachers, mortgage brokers and businessmen are supposed to come from?

Faculty and administrators need to organize themselves, not just for collective self-interest, but for the no-interest student loans and federal programs that offer tuition in exchange for public service; they need to fight against budget-sucking, government-mandated evaluation instruments that pour education dollars into the pockets of private consultants and contractors; they need to fight for government subsidies for full employment in higher ed that can given the current army of adjunct faculty full salaries and job security (and give us all small classes and manageable course loads.) In other words, when we fight for ourselves we need to do so in ways that are in solidarity with the interests of our students. We need to fight for increased funding for the most accessible form of higher education there is, community colleges, and we need to fight for government programs that help students who have achieved an Associates Degree go on to the most competitive four-year school they can get into. We need to talk to students about why our struggles are their struggles, and vice versa, we need to enlist students in our struggles, and we need to organize. Now.

College and university presidents need to make some kind of collective statement as to what constitutes reasonable expenditures, and the first thing to go should be expenditures aimed at marketing the university. Educational institutions should stand or fall on the quality of the education they offer, period: not the beauty of their dorms, not the national standing of their athletic teams or the latest redesign of their Helly Hanson college gear. As academic programs go under the knife and loan burdens escalate, we are told that vast expenditures on D-I sports are necessary. And yet a fraction of the athletes who play any college sport will become professionals in any capacity, while the expectation is that virtually all science majors will go on to have a science related job. Most scholar-athletes would benefit just as much from a less professionally packaged program: one proof of this is that two Zenith alumni are current NFL coaches. Athletic programs should stand or fall on the quality of the scholar-athlete they produce, not television contracts, Bowl appearances or the glitter of the new stadiums they can persuade politicians and alumni to build. And the burden should not just be on athletics: every time a new student center or dormitory is built, an institution automatically increases its maintenance budget. Often this budget is met by forcing students to live and eat on campus, when historically students have devoted what dollars they had to tuition and books by living collectively off campus.

We need to take an honest look at what gives us prestige and why, and stop devoting dollars to glitzy budget items that make schools into pop cultural phenomena. If alumni and politicians don't understand why a new football stadium has nothing to do with education, we need to stop being such snobs and take it upon ourselves to explain to them why that is.

Colleges and universities must stop competing with each other and begin coordinating themselves by region, and in some cases, nationally. I can't think of a single reason why the private and religious institutions in the state of Connecticut do not band together to form a regional health care cooperative that could bargain more effectively with our insurance companies. If there is a law against it, we should work to change it. Speaking to a recent budget dilemma showcased on Tenured Radical, I cannot think why there should not be a national tuition exchange which every institution can join. This cooperative venture would ensure that all their employees, from janitorial staff to occupants of distinguished chairs, can educate their families at a reasonable fee adjusted to their salary level and at the best and most appropriate school for each prospective student.

Most important, and this will be the hardest thing for some of us to abandon, we must all give up the notion that the prestige attached to some of us entitles us to greater consideration. This is perhaps the greatest lesson of the protests in the California system which, a system that for almost a century has dedicated itself to lifting up every citizen who was willing to study hard and dedicate him or herself to learning.

That is the mission, my friends: that is what we are here for. When we organize only on behalf of our own salary, benefits and research accounts, institution by lonely institution, we are missing the big picture. But if we get the big picture, and are willing to work across the class and interest lines that currently divide us, the rest will come.

We are all Californians now.

16 comments:

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Thank you for the post, and the link. I believe there was an op-ed in the NYT a few days ago.

One of the interesting side-effects of this crisis (at least at my uni) is that the large-scale firings of many adjuncts, and the cutbacks in courses offered by others, have done what no initiatives could do: raised the density of TT faculty. In three short weeks, our department went from 50/50 TT/Adjunct (faculty, not FTEs) to 65/35.

Of course, for students, all this means is that there are fewer classes (especially the lower-division gen. ed. graduation requirements) available.

It's bad here, TR, and next year is projected to be much, much worse. But hey! At least we're still spending as much on prisons as we do on public education!

Dan said...

Great post.

But experience (and history) suggests to me that broad movements for systemic change happen when people organize around their own interests. The notion that "faculty and administrators need to organize themselves" and work together to take on the present crisis is nice in the abstract, but sadly laughable in practice. The story of the American university since 1980 has been one of administrators taking more and more power away from faculty (and other workers), while moving to organize the university around market-based ideals. Take the patenting of university-based research in the wake of the Bayh-Dole Act (which happened to coincide with the notorious Yeshiva NLRB decision that marked the beginning of the steep decline in faculty members' collective bargaining power). I would submit that the vision that TR sketches out, that of faculty and administrators working together to re-define post-secondary education as a fundamental public good, will only be realizable when faculty and administrators (along with other white-, pink- and blue-collar university workers) can sit down together as equal stake-holders. Getting to that point requires organizing for the right to collectively bargain for precisely those contractual demands that TR dismisses.

Tim Lacy said...

TR wrote: "I can't think of a single reason why the private and religious institutions in the state of Connecticut do not band together to form a regional health care cooperative that could bargain more effectively with our insurance companies."

Sadly, I can. Sexual politics. Will a Catholic or conservative Christian institution in CT partner with a state institution that is forced by equal opportunity rules to offer abortions, sex changes, same-sex partner benefits, etc.? No. And that will be the reason why a regional health care consortium won't work. Sadly. - TL

Pallas said...

"In other words, when we fight for ourselves we need to do so in ways that are in solidarity with the interests of our students. "

Maybe this is just me being a contrarian, I wonder if the interest of students every ranks at all.

Imagine a world where students can focus on coursework of that plays to their strengths and interests, instead of suffering through minimum requirements in subject matters such as foreign languages, which will be completely forgotten shortly after the class is finished.

Imagine a world where thought is given as to the proper length of a program of study, instead of a cookie cutter education set at giving the college 4 years of reliable cash flow.

Mark Kille said...

I can't think of a single reason why the private and religious institutions in the state of Connecticut do not band together to form a regional health care cooperative that could bargain more effectively with our insurance companies.

It is currently illegal for private organizations to do this.

If there is a law against it, we should work to change it.

Please do.

No, seriously, really. If there is any energy for nitty-gritty political pressure, this is an excellent place to start. I will gladly participate.

Knitting Clio said...

Great post, TR. One thing the state universities and community colleges have been able to do by banding with other state employees is to negotiate decent health care benefits, pensions, and so forth. Whether this will continue given the current budget situation is anyone's guess. Although AAUP has problems there are advantages to a union.

Fellow SLACker said...

Dear TR,

Thanks so much for continuing to write about these topics! I agree with most everything you say, but I would like to hear you (or other commenters) expand on this:

Tenured Radical said, "I have recently heard from several faculty in the first decade of their careers that they expect to be paying back loans taken out for college as well a for graduate school: hence, the salary freezes and furloughs that are being imposed at campuses across the nation, public and private, are having a disproportionate effect on a generation of scholars who have the least influence on policy and the leanest household budgets already."

Given issues of salary compression, the ugly 90s, etc. are the current round of salary freezes truly disproportional to junior faculty? I go back and forth on this, and I think this is something institutions need to look at more closely.

Keep up the fight!

Dr. Crazy said...

"Given issues of salary compression, the ugly 90s, etc. are the current round of salary freezes truly disproportional to junior faculty? I go back and forth on this, and I think this is something institutions need to look at more closely."

My answer is yes, but. It is true that salary compression puts mid-level academics at a disadvantage, but it is also true, if one earned one's PhD greater than 15 years ago, it was much more likely that one could do so without going into a great deal of debt. If that was the case, that also meant that a person would be more likely to be able to scrape together the money to buy a home(with a normal mortgage) and perhaps to develop an investment strategy for what little money they have that's left over.

In contrast, if we take a recently minted PhD, say 2 years into a t-t appointment, it would not be unlikely for this person to have 50K+ in loans, no savings, no investments, no nothing. And then a salary freeze hits. Because of the massive loan burden, that person can't get a head. And when raises return, that junior person has also been compressed, but still is tens of thousands of dollars in debt for education and is no better off than he/she was 5 years ago.

But I do think that we have to think about the burden on junior faculty in this crisis as linked to the dangers of salary compression. I think the two are very closely linked.

Anonymous said...

You left one out: Too many people who don't benefit from a college education currently attend college. I can't count the number of people I know from undergrad who ended up in a job they could have gotten straight out of high school, and didn't learn much aside from beer pong in the interim. There are, relatedly, probably too many colleges. I also know several people who would have significantly lower student loan payments if they hadn't taken eight years (while being an alleged full time student) to get a bachelors.

Anonymous said...

Me personally? I'm just another boomer and low-grade sociopath who sees his best opportunities for personal enrichment working in higher education administration. That's where the dollars are.

Anonymous said...

While I agree with the spirit of your post let me be critical in a few place (in no particular order):

yes administration has become bloated but its also true that the modern university has a wider range of responsibilities than before and not all are frivolous--working for gender/racial diversity and mental health services are two that come to mind immediately.

the old model of the scholar-administrator is as outdated as the romantic notion of the citizen-legislator. That is both once had a place in society and the function as a nice ideal but in a specialized complex institution like a college/university administrators bring a special and necessary set of skills--ones that most faculty don't have. I would no more send most administrators to teach as I would send faculty to govern.

second, "marketing" serves some useful purposes. It certainly needs to be curtailed . My old institution, the U. of Richmond, had the most ridiculous marketing budget ever. On the other hand, different institutions serve different constituencies in different ways. Marketing helps inform the public about these choices.

third, your criticism of space is just way off. At heart I believe in the modernist architectual dream that well designed spaces can themselves produce revolutionary change in people and the way they interact. While in reality that hasn't always come true, the aspiration shouldn't be denied. And just because many of the dorms of the 50s and 60s sucked doesn't mean the modern dorm should suck as well.

fourth, the market and education have always been deeply intertwined going back to Franklin's founding of what became of the U of Penn. Much of the market response is bad, but much of it is good.

Fifth, and perhaps most important, your post neglects the technological changes that are about to sweep over higher education. In many ways your post reads like a plee to make the blacksmith's life better written in 1890 or so, i.e. the things you say are important but there's a larger tsunami headed our way. We can't fight yesterday's war. You're wondering how we can improve the musket and where about to face the gatling gun.

And as an aside your hostility to athletics is disproportionate to their role in this crisis. At some big institutions this is a problem but at most athletics is a problem and somewhat of a financial drain but there are bigger problems. Solving some of these problems will require making deals with the athletics devil. And as LBJ said about Hoover: I'd rather have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in. The big tent you describe should make room for those in athletic departments (even if some are noxious people) (and a biographic note: I'm a former Div 1 athlete with a ncaa championship medal who was offered illegal inducements during recruiting and who almost sued my own athletic department in college so I have plenty of problems with college athletics but own balance we need to work with them.

Anonymous said...

sorry for the typos in the above post. the itty bitty comment box makes clean typing awkward.

Leslie M-B (trillwing) said...

"Most important, and this will be the hardest thing for some of us to abandon, we must all give up the notion that the prestige attached to some of us entitles us to greater consideration."

Amen. The recent walkout spearheaded by Senate faculty at the UC left me, well, ambivalent. These faculty walked out only when their own interests were threatened--in the form of not being able to take their furloughs on instructional days. Only then did they take action--at which point they announced (I think token) solidarity with the lowest-paid staff, demanding that no cuts be made to the salaries of staff who make less than $40,000/year.

So my question is this: Where were those Senate faculty when merit increases for staff disappeared years ago? Where were faculty when staff layoffs began at about that same time? Their new solidarity with staff rings absolutely hollow to me; as a staff member, I know (because I've been told as much by Senate faculty) that they don't value my labor in support of teaching. (I work in a UC teaching center.)

I know the university administration doesn't value my labor because, had my pay not been frozen two years ago and had the furloughs not been instituted, I'd be making 14% more. I'm making less now than I did when I took my job. And I'm one of those recent PhDs (2006) who's trying to pay student loans, as well as all the credit card debt so many of us rack up when our families don't have sufficient dental or health insurance. (And don't even let me get started on the overproduction of humanities PhDs like myself. . .)

When I tried to engage a couple of science & math faculty online, they both spewed some free-market bullshit about how faculty should be making upwards of $300K, while staff should just go look for jobs elsewhere if we're unhappy. They assume because I'm staff that I'm too stupid and uneducated to get a job elsewhere--when my experience is that staff members here are highly educated and quite bright, and that many of them have UC degrees.

I'm sick of such entitlement, of those Senate faculty (and it's not all of them, by any means, but an awful lot of them) who take their privileges for granted, who only stand up when their own interests are threatened, and who show no real solidarity with students, grad students, lecturers, or staff. These faculty are protected by tenure; they're the only ones who can speak freely without fear of reprisal, yet they don't speak up for anyone but themselves.

And I could go on, but that would be a blog post in itself. . .

Tenured Radical said...

Anonymous 1:10 --

Thanks for your perspective, and I think these are all good points but one. I am not hostile to athletics -- and I think one big problem is that polarizing move where questioning the rationale for what are, at some schools, vast expenditures on what amounts to professional football and basketball teams (or developmental leagues for same), is written off as "hostility." Cut the women;s studies program, but pay the football coach several million dollars, that are guaranteed for X years even if he is fired?

I too am a former D I athlete, and currently the academic advisor for the rowing program at Zenith, if you want credentials.

aravind said...

The bit about this only getting the British press's attention reminds me of how the major studies on who actually won Florida in 2000 were mostly only published there too.

It's almost like we don't even have a media.

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