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What’s Cookin’ In Higher Ed? The Race To Become The Stupidest State In The Union

March 30, 2011, 4:25 pm

Do I smell a conservative advocacy group in Florida too?

A young friend of ours recently visited a public college which we at Tenured Radical have admired for years.  S/he reported conversations with undergraduates about the effects of the persistent defunding of higher ed in that state, and the ways in which defunding has diminished a quality liberal arts education that people with very little money still have access to.  A prominent problem, in the view of students there, was incessant faculty turnover due to low salaries, poorly maintained library collections and the erosion of benefits. In turn, the constant loss of faculty  made it difficult to establish mentoring relationships, get recommendations for graduate school, or do senior honors work with faculty who had helped them develop the research and had planned to advise it.

The notion that college teachers are as interchangeable as hamburger flippers at Wendy’s follows, of course, on the neoliberal notion that secondary school teachers are also interchangeable.  Furthermore, on no evidence, free marketeers have sold the notion that college professors will continue to work cheerfully, and to a high standard, for as little salary and as few benefits as colleges and universities choose to pay us. The only teachers you really want at your school, the logic goes, have the personalities of 18th century Franciscan missionaries in the New World, willing to sign on to thankless, ill-paid labor purely out of love for those to whom they will minister. Although this theory goes unspoken in an increasingly adjunctified world of private higher education, attacks on educational employees in New Jersey, California and Wisconsin seem to be giving new energy to strategies for disempowering and intimidating teachers at all levels.  This is particularly heartbreaking in states that seem to want to break with a long history of providing quality, public higher education to ambitious students with little money.

One problem with free market theories for reorganizing education is that they lead to a free market in educators.  This, in turn tends not to be conducive to what administrators need to deliver a quality education to students:  faculties who commit to a particular school, and create a culture of excellence, over the long term.  Policy makers who believe that free market competition creates better education for the most people have, frankly, never been in a classroom beyond their three-year hitch at Teach for America. While I don’t know anyone in teaching who wouldn’t consider voluntarily sacrificing money and prestige to make and keep a desired life as a college professor, I also don’t know a single college professor who, on balance, believes that year to year contracts, no job security, diminishing benefits and the lowest possible pay are the basis for building a career in education.

Tell that to the Florida legislature.  Florida, of course, has been a leader in defunding education, (recently ranking 36th nationally in per pupil spending, ahead of luminaries like Mississippi) and in pioneering a terrific policy that gives troubled  schools in poor districts even less money to work with (repackaged by the Obama administration as “Race to the Top.”)  Now it appears that Florida Republicans now want to do for higher ed what they have accomplished at the secondary level.  Word out of Florida today is that a bill that would prohibit the granting of tenure at state and community colleges went through a legislative committee yesterday and is headed to the state senate.  Faculty would work on annual contracts but administrators would not; only new and untenured faculty would be affected by the law.  As Denise -Marie Balona of the Orlando Sentinel reports,

Opponents argue it would prevent colleges — already strapped by budget cuts and increasing enrollments — from attracting and retaining top-quality employees.

But state Rep. Erik Fresen, who presented the bill at Tuesday’s committee meeting, said the legislation is designed to help college administrators.

If administrators had more flexibility with their personnel, Fresen said, they would be able to expand and cut programs to meet student demand, which can sometimes change quickly.

“Oftentimes, the colleges cannot respond in time because of these ‘handcuff’ situations,” said Fresen, a Miami Republican who chairs the House’s K-20 Competitiveness Subcommittee that voted 8-4 to approve the bill.

The bill also requires colleges, when facing layoffs, to let go of their poorest-performing employees first instead of basing decisions on seniority.

At least one community college president has already come out in opposition to the bill and, as Balona reports, Florida Gulf Coast University experimented with one year contracts but “had such trouble holding onto faculty” that it now offers multi-year contracts. But he greatest impact will be on community colleges and the students who attend them. According to Univsource.com, 66% of young people in Florida who continue their education beyond high school do so in-state.  Two-thirds of them, even those who plan to take the B.A., will matriculate at community colleges following high school graduation.

So it is no accident that community college presidents, who are protected under the proposed legislation, understand what a disaster this policy is.  It worth emphasizing that the right has produced a new strategy that is remarkably consistent:  going after “workers” in the name of “citizens” and “taxpayers” — as if they were not all the same people.  In Wisconsin, Michigan, and Florida right wing special interests and their political stalking horses have provoked college professors — who are already educated, can leave the state and will — with the hopes of caricaturing them as a bunch of overpaid, lazy babies who are sucking at the public t!t while students languish.  But the people who will suffer, as the little story I opened with argues, are students. Students will have a longer time to graduation, they will have access to less qualified faculty who can’t get better jobs, and most of their professors will be stopping off on their way to somewhere else.  This, I am sure, will get lost in the debate as free marekteers replicate the success they have had in transforning the real estate market, higher finance and Iraq in the last decade.

In the coming weeks, we at Tenured Radical will have more to say about disinvestment in higher education in many kinds of schools, as well as its consequences for students as well as faculty.  The management actively solicits guest posts on these issues. Although we have consistently bucked for the reform of the tenure system, the elimination of tenure in a climate in which any
protection for public employees, is under attack and any security for the creation and maintenance of stable, dedicated faculties that can guide students through a two or four year degree, is truly unthinkable. We withdraw that position, pending a change in the political atmosphere.

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