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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 2/26/11

Divided We Fall

By       (Page 1 of 2 pages)   3 comments
Message Bud Goodall
Cross-posted at "The Daily Narrative":
In the midst of an American uprising against those who would break the backs of unions, eliminate broad swathes of public employees, and redefine higher education as the common enemy of all right-thinking, self-righteous citizens, it is particularly disheartening to see a progressive leader of a major university willingly succumb to the "divide and conquer" strategy used to drive an economic wedge between her flagship and the rest of the university system.   I am speaking ill of Carolyn A. "Biddy" Martin, the Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Madison.   But also I am implicating former Secretary of Education and the current Chancellor of the University of Miami, Donna Shalala, who called Martin's plan "a bold move."

Neither of these highly accomplished progressive leaders is going it alone, or, my guess is willingly, and therein we find the ugly spread of this right wing ideologically fueled strategy, as well as the true nature of our deeper challenge, which is to begin to speak openly about money.   The "M" word.   The thing those of us in education are not supposed to talk about, or complain about.   The taboo term for those of us who have dedicated our lives to public service.

But first, allow me to show more clearly what I am talking about when I implicate "the divide and conquer" strategy.   Let me say that the impetus of my usage is a statement from a university leader, who, during a leadership seminar, forthrightly proclaimed that she used that strategy to lessen dissent against her policies by getting smaller units to fight with each other instead of her.   Sound familiar?   Now let's see some examples of exactly that strategy.

In my home state of Arizona, there is another "bold plan" under discussion to break up the existing Board of Regents currently responsible for all three of the state's universities, and to replace it with three new boards--all to be appointed by the current Republican governor and approved by the Teapublican state legislature--in order to facilitate "greater competition" for our already severely limited budgetary resources.  

"Greater competition" is a code word in Republican-speak for letting an unregulated free market determine outcomes, which, in our case in Arizona as well as for a similar plan in Texas, includes providing vouchers to students who would then be "free to choose" how to spend them.   Since the vouchers would not, in all likelihood, fully cover the higher tuition and fees of the state's flagship universities, the idea is that more in-state students would be "free to choose" one of the smaller colleges, or an online degree machine such as the University of Phoenix.   In other words, divide and conquer.  

By treating students as customers searching for a bargain rather than as students preparing for lives in a global workplace in need of the best education they can find, this strategy confuses real state-of-the-art-and-science education with a cheap piece of paper, thereby replacing knowledge and know-how with a commodity called a degree. In essence, this "divide and conquer" strategy makes colleges and universities into competing Wal-marts, each one trying to offer the lowest price in order to attract enough customers to pay its bills.

What is absent from these discussions of free markets and competition is the issue of the relationship of quality to money.   Put simply, money buys quality .   That is because contrary to the widespread propaganda perpetrated by conservative pundits and politicians, academics are not economic dumb bunnies content to devote our lives to teaching, research, and service in exchange for an ever-smaller share of the cabbage.   That may have been the case a long time ago when elite institutions were largely populated by the sons (and a few daughters) of the upper classes whose trust funds supported them, but for today's working-class academics--even those at the top of their game--a middle class life comes with mortgages, car payments, children to raise, parents to care for, and financial obligations that keep many of us awake at night.   In other words, we are real people.

So it is that we work hard for our money in one of the most competitive environments ever created on the blue planet--the global marketplace of ideas.   Again, contrary to the propaganda of the past thirty years, we do not spend our time indoctrinating the young to Communism or convincing students there is no God.   The vast majority of us would prefer never to entertain those discussions and if they do arise, we find ways to deflect them.   Nor do we work in assessment-free zones.   We are evaluated, compared, and promoted or terminated based on what we accomplish, what we contribute to the mission of the organization, just like everyone else in any responsible workplace.   Nor does tenure guarantee us lifetime employment.   Tenured faculty are harder to remove, but with just cause and due process of law--just like everyone else--we can and do lose our jobs.   Nor do we have the easy fictional life vilified by the right, wherein we work a couple of hours a week and then go shopping, or play golf, or whatever.

Instead, we routinely put in 60-80 hour work weeks preparing for classes, learning new technologies so that we can deliver those classes to an ever increasing number of students, writing grants to support research, doing research, creating opportunities for students to do research, and all the while doing what needs to be done to keep a university running smoothly--attending meetings, serving on exam committees, devoting time to university governance, evaluating research and teaching, and volunteering in our communities.   When we leave the campus and return to our homes, be they ever so humble, we usually grab a quick bite with our families, spend some time enjoying their company, and then open our laptops and get back to work.   Weekends are not much different, summers are booked for work and travel long before June arrives, and most of us think our largely self-financed trips to professional meetings and conventions are our "vacations."

It's a great life.   But it is a working life.   And we expect to be paid for the work we do.   Those of us who rise in our fields command higher salaries, but outside of business and engineering schools, those salaries are much lower than comparable professional salaries with the same education and years of experience.   That doesn't mean we are cheap.   It means we do what we do because we are committed to excellence in our chosen fields.

Like our union brothers and sisters, we contribute to retirement and health care plans.   Those contributions aren't cheap either.   Unlike our union brethren, we also usually pay to park our cars in spaces that are not guaranteed and that, increasingly, still require us to ride a bus or train from where we park in the nether reaches of the university proper to get to our buildings on campus.   While on the bus or on the train, we open our laptops.   We are at work, even when we are just riding some conveyance to arrive there.   So that is who we are, and that is what we do.

Now to the money.   The "M" word.

As someone who has devoted a long and happy career to higher education, and who has spent about two-thirds of that career as an administrator, I know for a fact that there are important quality differences among institutions and the education they provide that are directly tied to money.   It takes money to attract and reward talented faculty, staff, and students.   It takes money to run research programs and to make the outcomes of that research part of the cultural, social, and economic wealth of a community, of a state, of a region, and indeed throughout the network of global connections that are part and parcel of today's higher education enterprise.

So, if good, hard working people are doing the work of universities, why then are state-assisted educational institutions in such bad financial shape?    Here again, contrary to the propaganda on the right, it's not because our faculty or staff is overpaid.   Nor is it because we waste money (because we worry about money we tend to be very stingy with it and always require a full accounting for every dollar spent).   Nor do we "lose" it, as was the case with about $9 billion in Iraq that Congress and the Pentagon cannot account for.   Nor do we make bad investments with it, create fictional economic bubbles that burst, or ask the government for a bailout.   Universities are largely self-supporting enterprises that rely on a mix of tuition dollars, research and contract funds, the largesse of alumni and other donors, and a small contribution from state revenues to operate.

How small?   In Arizona it is about 12-15% of our total operating budget.   In other states it is smaller, in a few it is a little larger.   But the halcyon days of 50-90% of our budgets being covered by state revenues is long, long gone.  

Part of the right wing story about economic improvements being tied to dramatically reduced taxes (e.g. state revenues)--particularly corporate taxes but also personal income taxes and taxes on small businesses--came with the idea that educational institutions could always be counted on to do more with less.   This theme was part of the overall Republican narrative that claimed if we reduced government at every level, no one would suffer because there was so much waste.   The good news is that new efficiencies replaced a few of the old ways of doing things that did, in fact, cost too much money.   The bad news is that these cuts forced universities to create a new narrative, a new metaphor, to take into their state houses at appropriations time 

It was during this emergence of the anti-government, anti-tax, anti-regulation narrative that university presidents promoted a counter-narrative vision: that higher education must be redefined by the "entrepreneurial model," a model that replaced the old, antiquated idea of a university as a necessary and protected cultural space that should be supported as part of the "public good" with the "bold idea" of a university as a business.

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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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