The “Not-So-Lite” SUMMER READING LIST for Academics

From the "No Reading After the Internet" Salon site.

From the “No Reading After the Internet” Salon site.

The “Not-So-Lite” SUMMER READING LIST for Academics!

    Teri Shaffer Yamada

Jeffrey J. Selingo, Editor at Large at the Chronicle of Higher Education, has extensive experience with the politics of higher education.  In  College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students  (2013), he historically constructs with thoughtful veracity an understanding of our current  disruptive-technology moment in higher education while anticipating future trends.  He suggests as many as three-quarters of current higher ed institutions may not survive the shake-up over the next decade because they are financially unsound.  His overview of the “lost decade in higher education” (1999-2009) and the fraud or willful ignorance in student loan and tuition discount practices entrenched in the higher education sector produces faculty outrage. This business practice of obfuscating tuition costs for profit in the education sector has certainly fostered the legislative shift to cheaper education experiments with MOOCs in California’s public ed sector (the least culpable) and elsewhere across the country, along with the growing public perception that a degree may not be worth the cost.  Highly recommended for faculty.

Musician and computer scientist Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future? (2013) creatively explores the intersection of  technology, economics and culture  and “also looks at the way the creative class —especially musicians, journalists and photographers — has borne the brunt of disruptive technology.”  See Scott Timberg ‘s review.  And for another opinion on the cultural impact of technology see Evgeny Morozov’s To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism (2013)Both authors remind us how in our world of disruptive technology moderation is important as a response to the current wholesale embrace of analytics, framed as the solution to (all) problems in education.  This drive for a quick-fix solution to student access, bottleneck courses, or the four-year graduation rate, through the use of technology and analytics, has unintended consequences. (1)  We need the education media to embrace this discussion in a more complex, nuanced manner.

Lost in digital cyberspace. Student attempting to read academic prose on a digital platform for an open-source quiz.

Lost in digital cyberspace. Student attempting to read academic prose on a digital platform for an open-source quiz.

Shahnaz Habib’s review of Robert Darnton’s The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future is a thoughtful discussion of the debate on physical and digital books, typically framed in an “either-or” proposition.  To many of us, the either-or discussion is absurd.  We use an e-reader for light reading or news and “codex” for the purpose of research and publications.  Anecdotally, I recently discovered a student in class who had used her smart phone to scan chapters from our 654-page text and was attempting to use that digital copy for an open source quiz.   It was not working well for her. She is smiling about my OMG reaction as I contemplate copyright issues among other things.

For those contemplating how to reach our new N0 CHILD LEFT BEHIND freshmen population, see Elizabeth F. Barkley’s Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty (John Wiley & Sons, 2010).  This handbook contains many creative ideas for engaging students in active learning practices with or without the application of blended learning pedagogy.   The first few chapters explain why we often don’t see engagement and motivation in independent learning among  our freshman students; and how we can foster a meaningful educational experience, for both instructor and pupil, as we switch from passive to active learning strategies.  In many public university systems like my own, there has been no significant funding to support faculty development in new teaching pedagogies over the past decade (if ever).  Dedicated faculty, noticing the sad disengagement from learning among our freshmen cohorts, have struggled to retrain themselves in an organizational vacuum or in an institution with an administrative ideology that incorrectly demeans faculty as obstructionist and unwilling to change.   Student Engagement Techniques is an inspirational example of faculty concern and creativity in new pedagogical practices nationally.  (2)

 

As a reward for all this heavy reading, please consider Indian writer Farahad Zama’s novel The Marriage Bureau for Rich People (Penguin, 2009).

(1) This the issue of bottlenecks and barriers to 4-year graduation see Michel Feldstein’s blogpost “The Scope of the Bottleneck Course Problem” on e-Literate.

(2) For insight into how devastating ‘teaching to the test’ has been for K-12, and what the new push for analytics (if done thoughtlessly) would mean for higher ed, watch Ellie Rubenstein’s impassioned video resignation (Illinois, Lincoln Elementary School).  Highland Park News (updated May, 28, 2013).

PLEASE CONTRIBUTE Your RECOMMENDATIONS!


Fear and Trembling: Nov. 6 and Public Higher Ed.

Hurricane Sandy and New York City

Our hearts go out to our colleagues and everyone on the East Coast battered by  Hurricane Sandy, the second October megastorm in two years.   May an outcome  of this devastation be the recognition of climate change   and the beginning of a rational public policy and action to address it, including the construction of  a more resilient electrical grid and  public infrastructure.

Fear and Trembling:  Nov. 6 and Public Higher Ed.

A deep existential dread pervades many of my colleagues in education  as Nov. 6 approaches.  And it is not just because we are in California with its problematic Prop 30, which would be the  coup de grâce  to public education if it fails.   This election could signify the closing of opportunity for any significant pragmatic action to protect what remains of public higher education across the country. The outcomes on Nov. 6 could be a further blow to unions, who despite faults, have worked hard to protect workers rights in the face of a relentless onslaught of big money, and reactionary legislation to gut them.

And I can be counted as one educator in this election season disappointed by the lack of debate on the state of  defunded public higher  education across the nation and the instability for young educated adults in the new lackluster economy.   I can see the impact of a dramatically changed economic reality on my students since the fiscal collapse of 2008: seniors about to graduate troubled by their chances on a job market that provides no career stability or upward mobility.  One of my students, a talented software programmer in the gaming field, works from contract to contract  asking for a permanent position at each job with no result.  Or there is the mature student, a biology major in my capstone course, who has survived rising  tuition costs in the CSU with a “good job” at Starbucks and may have to stay since jobs in her area of expertise are scare; or her partner also in the science business who does get highly paid contracts, but they are all short-term and he worries constantly about  the next short-term job.   This is an age of contingency for all workers, blue or white-collar,  and my students wonder whether they will ever have the economic security to even start a family or own a house.  The American Dream feels  very fragile to my graduating students in California in an age of business opportunism eager to exploit contingent labor.  This is a global trend , of course, pitting young educated adults against each other in the hunt for more stable jobs.

Is it the same across the states? Just last month many of us received the following message from  the American Association of University Professors (AAAUP) explaining the seriousness of union busting in Michigan:

 Dear AAUP Members:

In attacks on working families similar to those we saw in Wisconsin and Ohio, the Michigan legislature and governor have decimated collective bargaining rights in the state. In Michigan, this has been done not in one omnibus bill but with an onslaught of individual bills, railroaded through committees with the arrogant attitude, “your voice doesn’t matter.”

Fearing this pattern might continue though the next legislative session, and possibly lead to a so-called right-to-work state, the labor movement has initiated a ballot campaign to amend the Michigan constitution. The proposed amendment would protect the basic right to negotiate for fair wages and benefits with an employer.

Our friends and colleagues in Wisconsin and Ohio stood their ground and fought back with the power of collective action reminiscent of the 1930’s. It is now Michigan’s turn to carry the movement forward.

As we have seen over the past couple of years, corporate special interests have amassed staggering resources to use in their attempt to destroy collective bargaining rights. We therefore appeal to our AAUP colleagues from across the country to join us in preserving the labor/management relationship that has been so successful in creating the American middle class.

Our colleagues in Michigan need your help. To see how you can help, please visit the Michigan AAUP conference website (http://www.miaaup.org/).

Rudy Fichtenbaum President, AAUP

In California, funded by super PACS (including Karl Rove and the Koch Brothers).we have Prop 32 on the Nov. 6 ballot that would make political action close to impossible for unions here.   May we shake off the dread and act to make sure this doesn’t happen as we inspire our colleagues to become politically engaged by getting out the vote this week.  This is all hands on deck!

In his recent blog .”…Same as the Old Boss”  (below) Bill Lyne  provides a case study of the ongoing privatization of public higher ed in Washington State:

In a move that would make Dick Cheney proud, Education Secretary Arne “Aren’t I cool because I play basketball with the president” Duncan recently convened a secret meeting of higher education bosses to help him figure out how to do to higher ed what he has done to K-12.  According to a report in Inside Higher Ed, the meeting included top officials from prominent MOOCs, other players in online learning, veteran experts on course redesign, college administrators, people from powerful foundations, leaders of several of the major higher education associations, technology vendors, and for-profit college representatives.

“Few actual faculty members were invited to the meeting,” reported IHE. “And no high-profile faculty advocates attended.”  In the doth protest too much portion of the program, “education Department officials repeatedly said during the meeting that they recognize the leadership role faculty must take in any teaching and learning developments.”

Yeah, well if you’re not at the table, you’re probably on the menu.

In related news here in Washington, Governor Gregoire has now made her appointments to the Student Achievement Council, a longtime state bureaucrat with zero education experience is now running our community college system, and Rob McKenna thinks college professors are blowhards who should be turned into temp workers.

For those who haven’t been reading the fine print, the Student Achievement Council almost exactly fills the footprint left by the recently deposed Higher Education Coordinating Board.  Scott White is probably rolling over in his grave after the bill he introduced to scrap the bloated and ineffectual HEC Board has only produced a lot of wasted time and money to replicate the HEC with the SAC.

The governor’s appointments to the SAC all seem like fine people, but while the names have changed, the lineup overall is distressingly familiar.  A bunch of lawyers and managers and a token student (who will, depending on her willingness to go along, either be co-opted or marginalized), none of whom bears much resemblance to an actual educator.  As with every other task force, board, council, and committee appointed to ride herd on public higher education, there is no faculty member, no one who does the work of education, no one who knows from daily classroom experience what student achievement might actually mean.

For the past thirty years, U.S. public education has been going to way of U.S. health care.  Like health care, education is something that should be a right that has been inexorably turned into a commodity as a public good has been made more and more available for private profit.  The funding model has shifted from taxation to debt (much to the delight of the financial industry), eroding both the accessibility and quality of college.  Real educators generally object to this shift, which is why the new appointees to the SAC were chosen precisely because they are managers and not educators.  Kind of the same way that the people chosen to run health care are always managers and not doctors.

As public higher ed was eviscerated over the past four years, the HEC board stood by and didn’t raise a fuss, choosing instead to do endless tuition studies and produce lots of charts with pretty blue arrows.  It’s a pretty safe bet that the new SAC can be counted on to be just as acquiescent.

 Meanwhile, just down the street at the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, Olympia perennial Marty Brown has been named Executive Director.  When last we saw Mr. Brown, he was throwing a fit to any reporter who would listen about the faculty contract at Western Washington University.  Despite the fact that Western professors’ salaries, adjusted for cost of living, ranked in the bottom fifteen percent in the country, Mr. Brown felt it was “a mistake” for the Western trustees to negotiate a contract with the faculty that included small raises.

This disdain for faculty, along with his complete lack of experience as an educator, should help Mr. Brown fit right in at the SBCTC, where hundreds of well-paid managerial employees with benefits oversee a system that is well on its way to becoming a sweatshop.  At some of Washington’s community colleges, up to 80% of the faculty are badly paid part-time itinerant workers with no benefits.  As SBCTC Director, Mr. Brown will have access to study after study that shows what a difference well-qualified permanent faculty can make.  He will also have the expertise of thousands of professors readily available.  The smart money is on his taking advantage of neither, instead continuing to rely on the squads of non-classroom consultants and “experts” who will continue to peddle the notion that doing more with less has no effect on a student’s education.

 Alas, these also seem to be Rob McKenna’s confidantes.  Mr. McKenna has made education the centerpiece of his gubernatorial campaign and he certainly gets it right when he talks about how he wants to increase funding for higher education.  And he consistently recognizes the damage done by years of cuts to higher ed.

 But when he gets down to specifics, it becomes clear that the Attorney General has drunk the managerial Kool-Aid.  In a higher ed speech at WWU’s Munro Institute this summer, Mr. McKenna cogently made the case about higher ed funding, but then moved into the trickier areas of instruction and teaching.  After a few banal remarks about online learning and “blended courses,” he launched into this observation about the nature of teaching:

 “We’ve got to move from a model where you always have a teacher or a professor who is, as someone put it, the ‘Sage on the Stage’ to where you’ve got a professor or a teacher who’s the ‘guide by your side.’  This is a phrase that I learned from Sam Smith at Western Governor’s University (WGU), I thought it was pretty striking.”

What seems novel and striking to Attorney General McKenna is actually pretty old and tired.  “Sage on the stage” and “guide by your side” have been around since at least the early 1990s and have been co-opted by the for-profit education movement as a way to demonize professors as pompous windbags and convince prospective student customers that a badly paid unqualified pal on the other end of a digital connection is better than a genuinely qualified instructor.  (The irony worth noting here is that almost every time some self-styled education expert trots out the sage-on-the-stage insult, he or she is usually speaking from a stage to a passive audience, just as Rob McKenna was at the Munro Institute.)  It’s no surprise that McKenna picked this up from Sam Smith, the lobbyist for WGU, where they have no faculty, just “course mentors.”

 McKenna’s lack of connection to real educators becomes even clearer when we take a look at his higher education position paper.  Buried near the end is a proposal to eliminate tenure, a move that would guarantee Washington’s universities would never again be able to recruit high quality faculty.

Chris Gregoire, Marty Brown, and Rob McKenna are doing nothing to improve the quality of higher education, but they can take solace in the fact that they are right in step with Arne Duncan.  Though they all come from different points on the ideological compass, they all firmly agree that major policy and funding decisions about higher education are best made without any actual educators in the room.

When the Duncan cabal got down to their business of identifying the obstacles to their brave new world of McEd, the things they pointed to were financial aid rules, pesky accreditors demanding some sort of accountability, and the “faculty culture” created by those nasty professors who stayed in school into their thirties and took jobs paying much less than they could have made as business people or lawyers, just because they don’t really care about students.

Given their mania for efficiency, it’s probably a good thing that Arne’s army kept the professors out of the room.  They would have just muddled things with questions about massive disinvestment, the difference between real education for responsible citizens and job training for docile employees, and why everybody in the room was sending their kids to real colleges while claiming that the MOOCs were good enough for everyone not in their tax bracket.

 The NFL Referee lockout demonstrated once again that nobody protects quality, integrity, and safety like organized, professional practitioners and that bosses, no matter what manner of pious bullshit they may publicly spew, are mostly interested in squeezing workers as hard as they can.  The bosses who have now focused on higher education are determined to make sure that today’s children get tomorrow’s education equivalent of replacement refs.

(permission to repost granted by the author)

 


Unpacking the ‘flexibility’ mantra in US higher education

WISHING EVERYONE A JOYOUS HOLIDAY SEASON.  WE WILL RETURN IN JANUARY 2012.


With permission of Kris Olds (Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison), we are re-posting his Oct. 23, 2011 blog on “flexibility.”   Similar to the misuse of “accountability,”  “efficiency,” and “access,”  flexibility is another concept  being manipulated by the engineers of privatization or “financialization” of the public education sector in the United States, especially  the virtual school movement with its deep pockets, embedded politicians, and influential lobbyists.  For example, “flexibility” appears in a recent statement by former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise, now working with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush as directors of the Digital Learning Council:  “This thing <digital learning/virtual schools> is going to happen.  The question is whether there is going to be a road map—one that provides some direction and at the same time major flexibility.”  In the real world, it appears that flexibility is often decoupled from accountability given the current poor track record of many virtual schools/Educational Management Organizations (EMOs).   Abby Rapoport in her reportage for the Texas Observer “Education Inc.: How Private Companies Profit from Public Schools” also mentions the use of  efficiency,  often partnered with flexibility, as part of the ideology of  privatization: 

“Public education has always offered big contracts to for-profit companies in areas like construction and textbooks. But in the past two decades, an education-reform movement has swept the country, pushing for more standardized testing and accountability and for more alternatives to the traditional classroom—most of it supplied by private companies. The movement has been supported by business communities and non-profits like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and often takes a free market approach to public education. Reformers litter their arguments about education policy with corporate rhetoric and business-school buzzwords. They talk of the need for ‘efficiency,’ ‘innovation’ and ‘assessment’ in the classroom.”

 We are currently losing the rhetorical war on  the public perception of  “value” in public education. We need to show how an iteration and repetition of the same concepts —access, flexibility, innovation, efficiency, accountability—is being used to manipulate public perception.  Just because a virtual school provides access doesn’t mean it provides accountability in terms of student success, defined as completion to graduation and actually learning something WE define as important.  The same virtual school, however, may be accountable to share holders interested in projected  higher dividends achieved through access.   Rupert Murdock, who recently purchased Wireless Generation, an education technology company, sees “...a $500 billion sector <K-12>  in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed by big breakthroughs…”Who would oppose the goals of  flexibility, accountability and innovation given the embedded positive emotional resonance of those values in mainstream U.S. culture? These terms are being endlessly repeated and conflated with virtual schools/digital learning/EMOs because of  the strong emotional resonance of these values with the public.  We need to clarify how the semantic boundaries of these terms are being manipulated, conflated, and misrepresented.    And we probably need to explain this more often and more effectively to the general pubic in 2012.  


Kris Olds blogs at GlobalHigherEd: Surveying the Construction of Global Knowledge/Spaces for the ‘Knowledge Economy.’

‘Flexibility’ is genuinely slippery concept, one that provides some sense of coherence with vagueness. It is also a concept that is a resource to be used in the pursuit of power.

I’m most familiar with the concept of flexibility in relationship to the changing nature of production systems. There has been a long debate in Economic Geography, for example, about phenomena like ‘flexible specialization’ and ‘flexible accumulation’. These interrelated concepts have helped scholars and industry analysts make sense of how production systems are evolving to cope with increasingly levels of competitive pressure, the emergence of global value chains, new forms of territorial development, and so on.

The concept of flexibility was also used, in abundance, when I lived and taught in Asia until 2001. It was frequently used in association with the corporatization (aka autonomy) agendas occurring at the same time as Asian higher education systems and institutions (HEIs) were expanding. Since then numerous systems of higher education (including Singapore, Malaysia, China) have seen expansion going hand in hand with rapid increases in funding, along with enhanced flexibility with respect to governance. Implementation problems exist, of course, and autonomy and flexibility mean different things to different people, but this was and still is the broad tenor of change.

It’s surely a sign of the times in America that we have also seen an expansion of the use of the concept of flexibility, though linked not to increased levels of funding, but to striking budget cuts. Given this, the concept of flexibility needs to be interrogated. This entry does that, though only in a very exploratory manner.

As noted above, flexibility is emerging as a keyword in some ongoing higher education debates in the US. For example, it is frequently used in in association with the ‘Charter University’ agenda in several states (e.g., Ohio). Closer to home (for me), flexibility was a mantra in deliberations and communications about the proposed ‘New Badger Partnership‘ (NBP) initiative put forward by the recently departed Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (Carolyn ‘Biddy’ Martin) as well as the University of Wisconsin System alternative known as the ‘Wisconsin Idea Partnership‘ (WIP). If realized, the NBP would have led to the separation of UW-Madison from the UW System, along with numerous flexibilities and enhanced autonomy (from the System & the State). See here for an April 2011 summary of key elements of the NBP (vs the WIP), including proposed ‘flexibilities’ with respect to:

  • Budgeting
  • Tuition/Pricing
  • Human Resources
  • Capital Planning/Construction
  • Financial Management
  • Purchasing/Procurement
  • Governance
  • Accountability

In the end, the NBP was not supported by the State Government due to a complicated array of political factors, as well as a problematic planning process that generated ineffectual support on our campus.

Now, while the NBP is unlikely to be resurrected, some elements of it have been incorporated into the unfolding governance agendas reshaping both the future of the UW System and UW-Madison itself.  A state-appointed “Special Task Force on UW Restructuring and Operational Flexibilities” was recently established to consider the future of the UW System (it will report back by January 2013).

Given the debates about the NBP to date, and the announcement of even more budget cuts last week, it is inevitable that the  ‘flexibility’ mantra will continue to exist. Indeed last week we witnessed one Wisconsin politician (Alberta Darling) state that:

“[U]niversities could use budget flexibilities passed by lawmakers in June as part of the budget. ‘It’s not going to be easy, but it can work out,’ Darling said.”

But what is the full meaning and significance of flexibility with respect to higher education? I’m not 100% sure, to be honest, but what I have noted is that there is more missing from the debate about ‘flexibility as solution’ than there is present. In short, there is a surprising absence of information about what flexibility is and can be defined as, what it can help achieve, and what its costs and limitations are.

There is also an absence of discussion about the long-term implications of relying on ‘flexibility’ to play a significant role in resolving what are in reality structural problems including the steady decline of state support for higher education, as well as the absence of a compact about optimal and necessary levels of support for public higher education. In other words the flexibility debate is a problematically truncated one.

In the interest of helping myself sort things out, I’ve put together a few thoughts and questions about flexibility. Please feel free to disagree with them, and/or add more to the list:

  • Flexibility as legitimacy vehicle: The discourse of ‘flexibility’ masks the scale of budget cuts by tying painful cuts to a hoped-for (and unbudgeted, see below) mediating factor. The chance of new flexibilities generating enough savings or new revenue streams to significantly cover the costs of proposed and actual budget cuts cannot be anything but marginal. The language of new forms of flexibility can let politicians off the hook in that they do not need to accept, in public and in private, responsibility for the full scale of the cuts they themselves are proposing.
  • Flexibility as reward: US politicians seem to be putting forth new flexibilities as a defacto reward of sorts if HEIs accept deep budget reductions. But why were these flexibilities held back for such a long time, including by politicians (Democrats as well as Republicans) who are ideologically predisposed to a constrained role for the state in the development process? And are these rewards indeed rewards for all? For example, flexibility on tuition can generate enhanced costs for students, or flexibility on governance can weaken the ability of some key stakeholders to participate in governance.
  • Flexibility as a means to enhanced governance: The offer of flexibility usually comes in association with significant budget cuts and new found demands regarding ‘accountability,’ ‘efficiency’, ‘transparency,’ and the like.  In most cases enhanced flexibilities come with enhanced forms of governance by Government, not less. These forms of governance can entail an attempt to reshape curricula, course offerings, program funding, faculty practices, etc. Agreements about some forms of flexibility have the capacity to enable Government to burrow more deeply, not less, into what happens within higher education institutions. The irony is that there is no correlation between declining levels of public funding and the desire to govern public HEIs.
  • Flexibility unbudgeted: Flexibilities are often put forward as a key solution to coping with budget cuts, but the potential cost savings associated with proposed changes are rarely (if ever) modeled in detail, nor in a transparent manner. This is arguably a politically-based ‘wish and a prayer’ approach to strategic planning.
  • Flexibility costs vis a vis implementation capabilities: The provision of many forms of flexibility involves shifts in the nature of governance, not its erasure. The recalibration process — pushing responsibilities up, or down (which is usually the case) — puts additional demands on the other units and officials. It is important to determine if these HEIs and officials have the capabilities to take on new responsibilities. If flexibility is distributed more widely, downwards, is there a ripple effect generated such that multiple units are now responsible versus the one before? Are proposed flexibilities more or less costly (in terms of labor costs) to implement in aggregate (e.g., across the campuses of a system)?
  • Flexibility’s power geometries: the application of ‘flexibilities’ in most institutional contexts involves the realignment of power relations at a state-HEI scale, and at an intra-institutional scale, with a planned breakdown of the status quo for good and bad. The realignment outcome often increases the power of some parties, and decreases the power of other parties. It is worth reflecting if this inevitable outcome is an implicit or explicit objective of proffered flexibilities, with an eye to the developmental agendas of various parties.

These are but six aspects I see associated with the emerging ‘flexibility’ agenda for public higher education in the US.

Who could be against flexibility? No one, really, and certainly not me (having worked in some very rigid systems of higher education)! But surely we need to be more critical about what the concept of flexibility really means given how frequently it is thrown around in this era of austerity. Given the nearly 200 years of building up a world class public higher education system in the US, the stakes are simply too high to allow concepts like flexibility be accepted at face value, especially if they mask agendas that are facilitating the decline of said system. This is the era of the ‘knowledge economy,’ after all, and higher education is a critically important dimension of the systems of innovation we are dependent upon for future prosperity.

Reposted on December 18, 2011 with permission by the author: http://globalhighered.wordpress.com/2011/10/23/unpacking-the-flexibility-mantra-in-us-higher-education/  (October 23, 2011)


Reflections from UMASS-Amherst: The Occupy Campus Movement

Guest blogger Deborah Keisch Polin is a parent, graduate student and education activist in Western Massachusetts. She is a member of the Education Radio Collective, a radio program that features interviews, testimony and analysis on issues facing public education in the U.S. through voices of teachers, parents, students, community members, education activists and education scholars, found at: Education-radio.blogspot.com. Please check out Ed Radio’s show on education and the 99% movement – We Are the 99%, Fighting for the “Public” in Education – at: http://education-radio.blogspot.com/2011/10/we-are-99-fighting-for-public-in.html

Reflections from UMASS-Amherst: The Occupy Campus Movement

As I sit down to write this post, I have several different tabs open on my browser that I keep compulsively checking – each keeping track of the happenings at various Occupy Movement/99% locations around the country on this International Day of Action. Just a few days after Zucotti Park was aggressively cleared, and thousands of dollars of supplies and personal possessions were destroyed, those who have been residents there for the past two months are undeterred by these intimidation tactics and are back at it, with overwhelming support from across the country as Occupy camps and actions emerge in more spaces daily.

I am particularly inspired by how this movement— in the streets, parks and on university grounds— is increasingly making the connection between the issues of the 99% and the fight for equity in public k-12 and higher education, and how it exposes the efforts to transform education – at all levels – into a profit-making enterprise. Teach-ins —by students, by faculty, and by community members -—are becoming just as commonplace and expected in these spaces as the use of the human microphone and the people’s libraries. Higher education students, staff, instructors and faculty are fighting back—demonstrating that we are fed up with increasing tuition and fees, overwhelming debt (student debt in this country now exceeds total credit card debt), unaffordable health care costs, curriculum driven by private research interests and classrooms that are increasingly surveilled. The connections between these and the Occupy Movement are obvious, and the opportunity to point that out  is one we cannot afford to pass up.

There is no tolerance for dissent in the current climate of privatized attitudes shaping public education. Berkeley professor Celeste Langon, aggressively arrested during a recent Occupy Cal event at Berkeley, notes this in a post she wrote upon her release for the blog Remaking the University. In the following excerpt from that post, she writes about the university justification for breaking up the Berkeley encampment containing a language of corporate efficiency. She begins with a quote from Berkeley’s Chancellor Robert Birgeneau: (Read the whole post here: http://utotherescue.blogspot.com/2011/11/why-i-got-arrested-with-occupy-cal-and.html)

We simply cannot afford to spend our precious resources and, in particular, student tuition, on costly and avoidable expenses associated with violence or vandalism. No one wishes to “waste” resources in this climate. Yet if one follows this logic one can see the looming threat: lawful assembly, peaceful dissent, and free inquiry—even so-called “breadth requirements”—can all entail some cost. They interfere with “getting and spending.” Dissent, like free inquiry, is sometimes inefficient. Dissent doesn’t always have a “deliverable.” But it takes time to determine a just answer to “What is to be done?”.

This attitude is contrary to the core of what higher education should ideally represent— an environment of critical inquiry, which includes an examination of the conditions of working and learning at a public university.  Celeste Langon serves as a model for academics to resist this co-opting of their profession by corporate and elite interests. But she can’t stand alone. Not everyone is in a position to get arrested, but we each must ask ourselves what can I do – what does my dissent look like? Because inaction equals complicity in the destruction of academic freedom and of schooling as we know it.

My own state of Massachusetts ranks 46 out of the 50 states in per capita appropriations for higher education (See the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts for more data: http://phenomonline.org/). This is not a time for compromise with the university. At UMass-Amherst we have tried that, and conditions have not changed. Our graduate student union has successfully negotiated raises for graduate employees, only to have the university counter these raises with increased fees (by 7.5% this year alone). The health care benefits that the union has fought for have just been cut with a 17% increase in premiums and a 15% co-insurance requirement for any off-campus care, which includes Ob/Gyn services. This prompted panic among pregnant graduate students who suddenly have to come up with thousands of dollars in labor and delivery costs that they hadn’t budgeted for. These are just a few of the examples that push access to a public university education further out of reach for many students.

The encampment and rallies at Occupy Cal are an inspiration. On my own campus, Occupy UMass is off to a slow but steady start, with more of a presence each day. And I am struck by the flicker of hope and excitement I feel at the immense possibility this moment has opened. Access to quality education for all people must be at the center of this fight – and that fight must be now – there is no time left for negotiation.

Comments from the Editor:

Several excellent essays, written over the past few weeks, reflect Polin’s concern about protecting the intellectual space of the  pubic university or college campus from corporatized violence and repression.  See Henry Giroux’s Occupy Colleges Now: Students as the New Public Intellectualand Juan Cole’s How Students Landed on the Front Lines of Class Wars.