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Divided We Fall

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With that new narrative came a new vocabulary.   Savvy university leaders ceased asking state legislatures for money; instead they asked for "investments."   Those investments were rhetorically tied to economic development--and with good reason, because they are tied to them. Businesses locate or relocate to areas where great schools afford education opportunities to employees and their families.   Great universities do innovative work that translates into more good reasons to live and work and make money there.

But that wasn't the only thing that came with the new vocabulary.   Research replaced teaching as the primary obligation of faculty, but for faculty that didn't mean teaching became less important nor was excellence in the classroom no longer expected; it meant that excellent teaching was expected but not much rewarded at raise time.   And for researchers, the model of reward shifted from publication in scholarly journals to getting large grants from foundations and from the government because large chunks of overhead money could be claimed from those grants by universities to pay their burgeoning bills.   This shift in research emphasis from scholarly publications to money didn't lessen the demand for scholarly publications, either.   Just as had been the case with teaching, it meant that publications were still expected but just not much rewarded at raise time.

As research universities demonstrated they could pay more of their bills by generating their own revenues, state contributions dropped substantially.   Remember the 1990s?   However, during that same time, politicians who ran for offices did not alter their time-tested promise of guaranteeing "the best education" for the daughters and sons of their states while promoting lower taxes, not did they talk much about cuts made to education.   Nor was access to be denied to any qualified student (why turn away any new voter?)--or even many who were not qualified but could be brought up to standard--so that in addition to annual cuts to education budgets and an increasing number of college-age students wanting to get in came annual mandated increases in student enrollments.  

Here in Arizona, the only new money that has come into our university coffers from the state for many years is based on annual increases in student enrollment, regardless.   Regardless of a lack of new revenues to support them.   So, of course, to meet this demand and the need for new revenues, class sizes got larger, more emphasis is placed on auditorium-sized lecture courses and even huger online offerings.   In my school, for example, freshman intro classes have 500 students; in sociology, the intro course is online and the enrollment limit is 2500.

In some ways, those of us in the classrooms doing the teaching are akin to frogs who don't notice the water is getting hotter until it boils, at which point, damn , it is too late.   But unlike frogs, we have noticed.   We have also noticed that we haven't received raises, in some cases for four or five years, despite our records of achievement and the success we have had in meeting or exceeding our evaluation metrics.   What we have been told by administrators that we are lucky we have a job.   Meanwhile, our insurance premiums have increased, as have the cost of even our parking permits.   Like everyone else who works for living in a post-bailout culture of home mortgage crises and the rest of it, we have seen the value of our investments decrease while those who profited from our losses get even richer bonuses and no one goes to jail.   So, yes, my friends, educators are angry.   We have seen the quality of our lives diminish through no fault of our own at the hands of ham-fisted politicians who lie to the public to get elected, spin fantasies about the economy to remain popular with their rich supporters, and then are surprised when those of us doing the work protest how we have been treated.

Then there are our students.   One of the courses I teach this semester is populated by graduating seniors from one of the most prestigious schools of communication in the country.   Yesterday, I asked them how many of them had job prospects.   Only three out of thirty raised their hands.   One, an African American female in a R.O.T.C. uniform, is going to be commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U. S. Army and is probably headed to Afghanistan.   Another one, a white male, has been accepted into officer candidate school.   The third student, another white male, is headed for a job working for his father in the commercial real estate business, which he says may be turning around.   I hope he's right, but I'm not seeing any evidence of that.   For the rest of the class, the job prospects aren't as bright, although they may be considerably less dangerous than Afghanistan and less problematic than the current real estate market in Phoenix.

Want to know what caused hundreds of thousands of Egyptians to overthrow Mubarak?   The vast majority of them are young, college-educated, and poor.   They had limited job prospects because the economy was tightly controlled by the rich and for the rich, which was Mubarak, his cronies, and his family members.   These young people want better lives.   They want jobs.   They want to be able to afford to get married.   They want what they see that others have.  

This is how and why protests that turn into revolutions against the rich begin.   In Egypt the protests were mostly peaceful.   In Libya, what began as a peaceful protest turned brutal and bloody. Protests can go either way.  

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So far in Wisconsin, in Indiana, in Ohio, and no doubt elsewhere before it's over, it's not just public employees and unions who are angry.   It is our students who graduate and who don't have jobs.   It is our students who graduate and can't afford to get married.   It is our students who want the American Dream but who read that while American corporations have more cash on hand than they ever have had, they aren't using to create jobs.   And there is no help from the Obama administration, either, probably out of fear that he would lose the 2012 election if he created a federal jobs program.

So here is where I bring the whole of this argument about the relationship of money to quality and the current crisis of higher education in America: things are only going to get worse for all of us in higher education unless and until we act to make them better.  

That means engaging the bad old narrative about who and what we are.   We need to show the public that we are all, in fact, not the cartoon characters or flawed movie representations that are falsely associated with college professors.

We also need to show our solidarity with other public employees, and with union members, and with schoolteachers in the K-12 ranks who also are being attacked.   This is no time for division in our own ranks.   It is a time to find a common voice to raise in protest as one voice in this struggle against the rich and the wrong.

Finally, we need to tell our campus leaders that "divided we fall."   And that if we fall, our nation fails.   Our strength is in our unity as not only a system of state workers, but as a nation of them.   Even though most of us would rather swallow raw sardines than engage in political activity with the likes of those who seek to oppress us, we have everything to lose if we don't.   And I don't know about you, my friends, but I can't afford. 
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H. L. (Bud) Goodall, Jr. lives in Arizona where he is a college professor and writer. He has published 20 books and many articles and chapters on a variety of communication issues. His most recent books include Counter-Narrative: How Progressive (more...)
 

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