Posts Tagged Higher Education

March 1st National Day of Action on Behalf of Higher Ed

This week is one of those rare occasions in which the blog post for both sites I manage is the same.  My reason for this overlap is the severity of the crisis we face in Higher Education in the United States.  In the last thirty years, public funding for Higher Education at the state and federal level has consistently been reduced.  Private colleges have also been squeezed more each year by a decline in alumni giving and the investment returns from their endowments.

With colleges and universities living in a constant state of budget crisis, students are more dependent upon loan debt rather than scholarships and grants to finance their education.  A recent study conducted by the non-profit Institute for College Access and Success indicates that the average student indebtedness in the United States is around $26,000.  In my home state of Illinois, 62% of college graduates reported owing some form of debt upon graduation.  That is up from 46% in 1990.

Students are also becoming part of the low wage economy through work-study jobs that not only have no connection to their studies but have unwittingly helped dismantle blue-collar employment on campus.  Who wants to pay $45,000-$65,000 a year to clerical and service workers when the same work can be done by an undergraduate for pennies on the dollar.

Colleges were forced by circumstances to find ways to “economize” and “monetize” their existing assets, but inviting corporate logic into the realm of Higher Ed was like welcoming the fox into the hen-house.  Higher Education has now become a factory that turns out graduates while remaining agnostic about their fate subsequent to graduation.

In order to address this crisis, Occupy Education, a branch of the larger Occupy movement, has called for a National Day of Action to be held on March 1st throughout the United States to draw attention to the problems we face and hopefully prod those interested towards crafting a solution.

Here in Chicago a number of rallies are planned throughout the city. I will be at events taking place in the Loop beginning at 8:30am and ending around 4pm.  Here are a list of those events:

8:30am– A panel led by Diana Vallera, the president of Columbia College’s Part-Time Faculty Union (P-Fac), and Curtis Keyes, the lead organizer for the union at East-West University will be held as part of the National Education Association (NEA) convention taking place at the Palmer House Hilton.  That panel will address the current crisis in Higher Education and the work that unions have been doing to combat it.

11:00am–A rally will meet outside the Palmer House as Curtis Keyes speaks with members of the student group C.A.C.H.E. (the Coalition Against Corporate Higher Education) prior to marching south to the main offices of Columbia College at 600 South Michigan Avenue.

1:00pm–C.A.C.H.E. will continue its march to Congress and Michigan and hold a rally.

These are just a few of the events occurring that day.  Hundreds more will pop up all over the city so keep your eyes open.  If you are unable to find or participate in one of these rallies, check out these facts on Higher Ed and share them with a friend or coworker.  Together we can insure that college education is available for all who want it and maintain the educated citizenry necessary for a healthy republic to survive.

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Knowledge Is Power

Somewhere in the top drawer of my dresser is a metal insignia that reads Savoir C’est Pouvoir–Knowledge Is Power.  That insignia was given to me by my uncle years ago when he left the 82nd airborne to return to civilian life. He had served for several years as an intelligence officer with his unit and that service was reflected on the insignia he wore on his maroon beret.

What is true for the armed forces is often equally true in other areas of life.  In this case the quest to reform the conditions of teaching and learning in higher education.  To achieve any kind of victory, it is first necessary to understand what exactly you are up against.  Good data can save lives on the battlefield and it can shape for the better (or worse) the future of students and teachers in the college classroom.

The task to gather accurate intelligence on Adjunct labor conditions began with a vengeance last week as Josh Boldt, an Adjunct Professor of English at the University of Georgia and fellow attendee of the New Faculty Majority summit, created a Google docs spreadsheet where Adjunct faculty can list their salaries, benefits, and working conditions.  Here for the first time the general public can see in one place how much Adjunct faculty make at institutions throughout the United States and (in some cases) the world.  I’ve added my information to the spreadsheet.  I’d encourage you to do so as well.

Reading through all the information on the spreadsheet is a bit daunting and at some point it will need analysis and visualization to work as an organizing tool, but I anticipate some great coalition building campaigns emerging from out of this data.  Administrator’s can easily dismiss claims based on ethos and pathos but they can’t dismiss the logic of numbers.  A quick scan of the data on this sheet shows that the median salary for Adjunct faculty is well below the suggested MLA guidelines and is far lower than the amount needed to sustain oneself let alone a family.

In a recent post to her Inside Higher Education Blog, College Ready Writing, Lee Bessette extols the benefits of this “crowdsourced” project on behalf of Adjuncts everywhere and I am inclined to agree with her.  My only quibble is with her use of the word “hero.”

At the New Faculty Majority summit I was frequently the annoying pragmatist who pointed out the need for data and clear talking points not simply to push our adversaries back on their heels but also to energize the people we hope to form into a coalition to change higher education.  Call it lamenting, kvetching, carping, whatever you like–the fact remains, I have been witness to and participant in ALOT of failed organizing campaigns.  I’d like to think that I have learned something from those experiences and what I was saying came from that perspective.

We don’t need heroes in the quest to reform higher education.  Instead we need patience, perseverance, and clarity of vision.  These are the qualities that inspired Srdja Popovic in his campaign to topple Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic and later guided uprisings in places such as Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.

Let’s not kid ourselves.  The status quo works for the people in power.  If it didn’t, contingent labor wouldn’t be expanding and it wouldn’t be invisible to the general public.  To make it stop working will require thousands of micro-strikes against it rather than one dramatic lunge.  We are small but mighty.  Non-violent guerilla war against corporate higher education has begun.

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Reflections on the New Faculty Majority Summit 2012

A few hours ago I returned to Chicago from the New Faculty Majority (NFM) Summit, which took place this Saturday from 8am to 5pm at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington, D.C.  I was invited there along with Josh Boldt, Lee Bessette, Brian Croxall, and Karen Kelsky as part of a “social media” team.  Our job was to amplify the voices of those at the summit and make its issues and conversations known to audiences all over the world.  From what I have seen so far–I think we succeeded.

The first session began with a discussion of the origin, development, and scale of the shift from tenured to non-tenure track labor in Higher Education.  Much of the material in this panel has been covered by writers such as Marc Bousquet (http://howtheuniversityworks.com/wordpress/) and will be familiar to those who have been working and researching Adjunct and Grad student labor.  However, given the nature of the coalition that NFM seeks to forge, joining Faculty, Staff, Students, and Parents, it was necessary to first set the context for the discussion before we could proceed.

Following this opening session the summit moved on to examine successful campaigns for adjunct’s rights (see in particular Vancouver Community College’s Program for Change http://www.vccfa.ca/program-for-change/index.html), effective strategies for coalition building, and ways to change attitudes towards Adjunct faculty on campus.

The post-lunch sessions involved small group meetings where each room examined NFM’s own Program for Change draft and made suggestions for what to change, add, or leave out.  Summit participants closed the day with a reflection on the results of their break out sessions.

If it’s possible to be energized, daunted, and disappointed all at the same time that is where I am at following the close of this summit.  I think Josh Boldt’s recent post (http://karmaslide.com/2012/01/29/nfm-12-post-two-stop-looking-for-the-treasure-map-and-start-laying-bricks/) describes my emotional state as well.  Perhaps you should read his words before proceeding to finish reading this post.  Of course, he puts me to shame as a writer in that piece.  So maybe you should wait to read it until later.

I really loved the energy generated early in the day and gained some really useful insights, many of which ended up in my twitter feed under the hashtag #newfac12.  These included:

  1. You don’t need to form a Union to organize.  Something of a revelation for this Chicago Democrat.
  2. Coalitions should include more than one interest group.  This relates to point one.  Unions only allow those seeking a labor contract under the law to join.  A non-union coalition isn’t hampered by this.  Parents, students, staff, and even administrators could join.  As Joe Berry put it during the summit, to have a successful coalition you need both “insiders” and “outsiders.”  The outsiders raise hell and the insiders create a framework to make sure that changes stick.
  3. Changes in Adjunct labor begin with attitude.  In particular, Adjuncts should act “as if” they were not contingent but stable members of a department.  Show up to social events, colloquia, open meetings.  Have conversations with tenured faculty over coffee and tell them what you are working on in and outside of the classroom.  And don’t be afraid to keep looking for a better job.  We are devoted workers but we shouldn’t be martyrs.  (Shout out to Karen Kelsky goes here.  See her website and in particular this post:  http://theprofessorisin.com/2012/01/24/adjuncting-and-stockholm-syndrome/)
  4. Not all Adjuncts are teachers.  Don’t forget the Alternative Academic community.  Librarians, Technical Support, Laboratory workers, Research Assistants, etc.
  5. Educate yourself.  coalition building and advocacy depends on accurate information, which includes budget numbers, faculty appointment data, and documented working conditions across campus.  We should also relearn the old fashion skills taught in civics class such as how to lobby our congressperson and get legislation introduced at the local, state, and federal level.  It’s your government.  Find a way to make it work for you.

Ok, now for the disappointed and daunted part of my post.  As Josh Boldt expressed it, I was hoping for some concrete goals to take back home at the end of NFM.  Some things that NFM wanted me to do to get the national coalition off the ground.  I didn’t get that direction.  Reading through their Program for Change draft (http://newfacultymajority.info/PfC/?page_id=2) I couldn’t help but fear that I’d be another “guy with a clipboard.”   You know, the person on the sidewalk trying to sign you up for a worthy cause for reasons that as yet remain unclear.

There are just too many petitioners for our time and money in realtime and online.  How and why does NFM stand out from this large number of social activist groups?   My hunch is that NFM’s niche is as a higher education advocate whose special focus is Adjunct labor rather than simply a labor focused organization. Unfortunately, this strength does not stand out in the current Program for Change language.  This puts the would-be organizer for NFM at a daunting disadvantage.  Not only do they have to create the coalition but also create the language to convince it to come into being.

The lack of direction in most break-out sessions reflected the overly “squishy” (Lee Bessette’s word) nature of the Program for Change document.  I fully understand why it was made general–to allow for variances at campuses across the United States.  However, this decision puts too much pressure on local groups to create the NFM message without proper guidance from a national office.  To borrow the metaphor from Peter Brown (cited by Josh) we only have the walls of the building.  But I would argue there are not four walls (a full shell).  Instead, we have two.  Give me two more and I can put up a roof and start filling the interior.

What would those two walls consist of?  Here are two suggestions.  First, an organizer’s kit with “suggested” talking points and statistics gathered by NFM on Adjunct labor.  Some of the materials from the summit (contained in the tote bag) might double in this role.  I need to read through it all before I can come to a conclusion on this.  Sorry, I was busy tweeting all day yesterday.  Second, some mechanism to check in on locals and see how they are doing.  Even if you don’t plan to mandate standards for local NFM groups, you still need to make sure they are doing something to justify the affiliation.  An occasional request for a status update would help.  This information could then be uploaded to the NFM website to demonstrate progress (even of the smallest nature) and would help boost morale in other parts of the NFM network.

I can’t end this post without expressing my immense gratitude to NFM for inviting a relative nobody like myself to take part in the summit and paying for my travel as well as part of my hotel expenses.  Let’s face it, Washington, D.C. isn’t cheap.  To show my gratitude I will continue to write on NFM’s behalf through twitter, Facebook, and my blog.  I will also get to work on coalition building here in Chicago with groups such as P-Fac, Occupy Chicago, IFT, and CACHE (the Coalition Against Corporate Higher Education).  Most importantly, however, I’m going to put my money where my mouth is and join the New Faculty Majority.

If you’ve read my post and want to get involved in shaping and sustaining the great work being done by NFM, you can donate online at their website (http://www.newfacultymajority.info/national/).  I’ll be doing that tonight.

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