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

October 5, 2009, 1:39 pm

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 bud
get-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.

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