Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Bad News That Must be Addressed

by Norman Markowitz

There are some disturbing reports in the press today. The first concerns a study that since the beginning of the Reagan presidency college tuition and fees have risen about three times as much as median family income when adjusted for inflation. The study, done by the Center for Public Policy and Education. The president of the Center, Patrick Callan, notes that "if this goes on for another 25 years we won't have an affordable system of higher education," gross understatement in my opinion, since for millions of students we don't have one now.

I have been teaching in universities since 1969, for two years at Northern Illinois University in Dekalb,Illinois and for thirty seven years at Rutgers University, (the first ten at Livingston College, a new college born out of the struggles of the 1960s with a special commitment to provide higher education for urban working class and minority students). I have seen the tuition costs for Rutgers students rise from a few hundred dollars a year to thousands. I have seen huge numbers of undergraduate courses in the Reagan and post Reagan eras come to be taught by part-time lecturers on a course by course basis and by graduate students, exploiting the former who function as a kind of lumpen professional class in the world of university teaching and forcing the latter to extend their graduate studies by years as they teach courses that previously were taught only by full time faculty.

I have no great nostalgia for the "good old days." Universities were always filled with self aggrandizing types who operated on the Tom Sawyer principle, that is, getting associates like Huck Finn to do the teaching(the way Tom got Huck to paint the fence and then take credit for it) and then used their ability to acquire research grants, outside offers from other universities, praise from strategically placed friends, to either create and/or inflate reputations and gain huge rewards from universities where they rarely taught students(especially undergraduates) only participated in faculty governance when their immediate interests were involved, and in some cases rarely showed up.

But these negative characteristics of the U.S. university system have grown far more extreme since the beginning of the Reagan era because they are now linked with a corporate model for higher education. That "corporate model" as applied to public universities where a substantial majority of students are located, has seen a spectacular rise in the salaries of university presidents and top administrators, the intensification of income inequality both between underfunded public university and well off private ones and much deeper inequality in income/status among faculty.

In New Jersey for example, we have come to accept the unreal reality that the highest paid public employee in the state and the highest paid individual connected to the educational system is the Rutgers football coach, an unreal reality which is the norm in a great many states. Thanks to the spread of the corporate model in universities, Tom Sawyer faculty with administration support have become a self advertising group of free agents, birds of passage who as I see it con
administrators the way administrators con the working faculty and students.This has happened against the background of university administrations which often talk liberal talk( in regard to support for student and faculty diversity and social service) but pursue policies toward faculty (labor) and students (consumers) more brazen than many large corporations (employing more and more part timers, treating institutions of faculty and student governance with at best benign neglect, at worst open contempt, and of course, making the students pay more and more for less and less).

Patrick Callan makes the point that even after the recession is over, "the educational gap between our work force and the rest of the world will make it very had to be competitive. Already, we are one of the few countries where 25 to 34 year olds are less educated then older workers."

Wow That is the most damning fact of all against the model of an elite "research public university" among the "publics" (the term that contemporary university administrators use in ways that are similar to the way that Wall Streeters have long referred to companies which sell their stock on the stock market as "public corporations"). The National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges issued a more "optimistic" report, contending that low and moderate income families have "choices" ranging from community college to four level institutions, but they like Callan, who realizes that students education is funding by a mountain of student and family debt, have no real solutions to the crisis, which is as much a part of that "free market" pro corporate anti-labor philosophy which President Elect Obama declared during the campaign to be an utter failure.

Let me raise some points that usually evoke smirks from the sort of administrators that I have mentioned. When the U.S. economy was at its peak, free tuition public education existed in two of the largest and most productive systems in the U.S. and the world, the City University of New York system and the University of California system. Many other public systems, although not all, had low tuition which was affordable for most students, who might do some work study and/or work in the summer to supplement their incomes but did not have to have work long hours at outside jobs during the school semester to pay bills, as millions of U.S. students do today.

What can be done to reverse the negative trends of the last three decades. Callan suggests that tuition costs should rise more when the "economy" is doing well and then be held down in periods of economic downturn. Although his group's study is excellent and hugely important, this is a band aid.

Just as we have got to establish a national health program, which we never had, we have in my opinion, got to get back to the old U.S. model of the comprehensive public university, with a real commitment to scholarship, teaching, and service to the larger, realizing that the education of millions and millions or undergraduates is the foundation of the entire system. The U.S. from the late 19th century to the late 20th century led the world in public higher education. To a considerable extent it still does, although today many students from abroad come here to study in facilities that do not exist in their home countries, especially in the sciences, creating a sort of negative "in sourcing" of U.S. educational services to "complement" the outsourcing of productive jobs.

Federal aid to higher education, aid guided by an education policy which rewards universities which return seriously to the comprehensive public university model, show that full time faculty with degrees and experience are doing most of the teaching work, begin to seriously reorganize science teaching and scholarship (the worst system of all where faculty have to bring in outside grant money to sustain themselves and a good deal of undergraduate teaching is done by various teaching and research assistants, many from abroad with difficulties in communicating in the English language). Rewarding universities which reduce tuition, develop plans to limit student and family debt with major federal aid of the kind that produced the expansion after WWII through the 1970s and punishing with reduced support those universities which continue to to pursue the corporate model at the expense of working faculty, staff, and students, would be the best policy to enact, an "industrial policy" for education similar to the industrial policies that post European governments often used to develop sectors of the economy that would produce decent jobs for large numbers of workers, keep capital in the country, and increase the overall productivity and value of labor. It would also be a great idea for the federal government to actively support unionization at universities by faculty and staff by withholding federal funding to those university administrations which pursue anti-union policies, an act which would be in the best traditions of the New Deal at its progressive peak.

It will take massive social investments in higher education to make the U.S. what it once was, the best and most productive system of higher education in the world for American citizens. But that investment should only go to a reformed system which moves away from its present emphasis on graduate education to benefit selected faculty and administrators much more than graduate students, highly paid university presidents and other top administrators spending their time and energy raising money from and acting as minor league extensions of wealthy donors and big businessmen(today, that "fund-raising" is drying up rapidly in the face of the economic crisis.)

This is the sort of higher education policy that the Obama administration should be exploring. It is both necessary and, given U.S. traditions, possible. Like a single payer national health care system, it would take enormous burdens off of moderate and low income families and strengthen the progressive forces in U.S. politics by winning over those working families, including many who currently support conservative politics, to policies that would give their children a brighter future without burying them in debt.