Jonathan Rees

Professor of History at Colorado State University - Pueblo

If We Don’t Hang Together …

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Image: CIO pickets outside a mill in Greensboro, 1941 (Jack Delano, Photographer)

We all know that reading the news about higher education can be a pretty depressing practice these days, even for those of us who are tenured and working at institutions that are relatively secure. Sometimes it seems as if reporters and pundits are simply trying to come up with new ways to scare us.

Yet if you read any of the excellent blogs by professors willing to write about higher-education issues, you’ll see ample evidence that those fears are entirely justified. I, for one, think I have spotted a new genre: reports from the frontlines of public universities falling to pieces. Such blog posts make me glad to work in a state that, until very recently, ranked last in higher education funding per student – because that’s still better than working in one where the whole public university system is being intentionally destroyed.

The new frontline for the struggle over higher-education funding is in North Carolina, Louisiana, and especially Wisconsin – states controlled by governors and state legislatures that are hostile to the very idea of public universities. What you can get from faculty blogs that you can’t get elsewhere is a good description of the effects of these skirmishes.

For example, here’s English professor Chuck Rybak discussing one impact of the budget cuts in Wisconsin: “When you work at a campus like mine, UW-Green Bay, losing even one person to another job can be crippling; it often means, in some cases, that you are losing half or all of a popular program. I have heard people, and one legislator in particular, say that the ‘loss of talent’ argument is not real. Make no mistake: the poachers are here. They have been here for years, as ... Wisconsin has seen an increase in the departure of thriving, post-tenure professors.”

Now that the Wisconsin legislature has declared war on tenure, that exodus will only grow.

Then there’s the matter of workload for those faculty who can’t or won’t leave their struggling state institutions. Amanda Ann Klein, in a truly epic post about the situation in North Carolina, notes, “All faculty are being asked to teach more classes, filled with more students, for no additional compensation.” What’s so maddening is that university administrators think professors will take on that extra burden without the quality of education suffering there. Cancel that. What’s so maddening is that the universities willing to employ that strategy simply don’t care if the quality of the education suffers there.

North Carolina’s “starving the beast” approach has been particularly stealthy, as one of my Twitter friends noted, pointing to a “revealing aside” in Klein’s post that illustrates how faculty members can sometimes be in denial or naïve: “I was exhausted and detached, like so many of my colleagues. We all knew that the cuts seemed unfair but we also knew that things would likely get better soon.” Not only are things not getting better in North Carolina, they aren’t really getting better anywhere. Heck, I haven’t even mentioned Louisiana State University’s possible financial exigency declaration yet.

So what are we as faculty going to do? What can we do?

I’ve seen lots of people talk about entering the political process. After all, as Rybak artfully points out elsewhere on his blog, this is (at least in Wisconsin) a political problem. A political solution seems like a logical fix. Yet faculty are a small minority of voters, especially in these deep red states. Even if the political process eventually brings some change, many of us will be walking the unemployment line before that ever happens when austerity becomes the new normal.

In a situation like this, I’m much more fond of the labor martyr Joe Hill’s last words: “Don’t mourn, organize!” Mourning has its purpose. Blog posts like Rybak’s and Klein’s have called attention to the problem. But now it’s time to start working together toward developing viable solutions.

“Working together?,” you may be asking yourself. “Aren’t you the guy who just last month wrote that “self-interested attitudes are par for the course in academia.” Indeed, I am. However, it’s time to recognize that we’re all just a bad electoral outcome away from being in the same position as our colleagues in Louisiana, Wisconsin, or North Carolina.

How do we organize? Of course, some faculty have the right to join trade unions, but many of us don’t. For those of us who don’t, there’s always our professional organizations or a group I’ve been involved with for many years now, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). Adjuncts are at the vanguard of many faculty organizing efforts. Maybe tenured and tenure-track professors should pay more attention to what contingent labor is doing.

Whether faculty organizing can stop the wholesale slaughter of America’s public universities is unclear. But even if you can come up with a solution to these problems all by yourself, who is going to listen to you if you have nobody standing beside you when you present that solution to the powers that be? To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, if we don’t hang together, we’ll all hang separately. Indeed, a quick look through the higher education blogosphere should more than demonstrate that the hangings have already begun.

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