Sunday, November 22, 2009

University of California System Protests, What it Says About America

The University of California System is bankrupt.

What was once the greatest state university system in the world has been forced to raise tuition and fees 32% to well over $10,000.00 to remain solvent. I have been reading the many posts and Facebooks about the protests from professors that I know in that system and I have to say that this reality was a long time coming and there is plenty of blame to go around.

Academics, Students and the State caused this catastrophe and while occupying buildings and protesting feels good we as a nation need to realize that we need systematic funding and education reform to retain our edge as a nation in the face of China which is by the way America's real competition for global development. Al Queda is not the adversary China is and as we destroy our universities it is in Beijing that they notice and laugh.

First off lets be honest if you are tenure track professor at a major university your lifestyle is protected and maintained by a system that in short is unsustainable in today's climate. At many large state universities Teaching Assistants who are paid next to nothing teach most of the classes.

Many tenure tracked professors are given such perks as full year sabbaticals away from the classroom to "write". Because of the tenure system older professors never retire and so now we have a glut of younger PH D's who cannot find work and who cannot compete because of the system that now exists.

It is very difficult for the average American taxpayer to understand this system. Most average taxpayers have to produce daily to keep their jobs and do not get two or three months a year off.

Most average taxpayers do not get full year sabbaticals with pay and most average taxpayers do not have the many perks of tenure track professors and so it becomes very hard to convince average taxpayers to pay more taxes for a system that seems inordinately cushy for those at the top while many other deserving PH D's are left out to work as adjuncts or worse.

Students and parents at major state universities are also to blame. In the past student life was determined by sacrifice an saving but with the advent of easy student loans many students today can use credit to live upper middle class lifestyles while at school. When I was a student 20 years ago almost no one had a car, a computer or yearly vacations but today because of the student loan and credit culture these things are normal. Also tuition has risen so much that only one class of student can really afford college.

If students and their parents had been more demanding of universities in the past perhaps the tuition would not have have increased? Perhaps we need to think differently about undergraduate education which most Americans care about deeply and most academics at large state universities don't care much about?

Finally we as citizens are to blame for this mess. We want low taxes, fast food and easy money and we do not want any sacrifice. In 1964 the California System was free to all its students asw a public good. The average California resident paid a higher percentage of their income in income taxes to the state, and students did not have any debt this was an investment is the future. Since that time we have decided that education is not an investment worth making in the future and so we have made our children debtors and our universities hostage to tax policies that are destroying them.

The most dynamic part of our nation is not its factories or soft ware companies the real engine of innovation are our universities. If you take the top 150 American universities and the top 50 liberal arts colleges these places gave us; Nuclear Power, the Internet, the Hearing Aid, Heart Valves, Cell Phones, Rockets, Jet Engines, Plant Hybrids, Google, Windows and a million other innovations . All these things were not developed by corporations or Chinese industrialists but by some geek in their dorm room or lab and without Universities we as a nation will surely go into deeper decline.

So why can't Academics, States and Students realize that we all need to find a solution to this problem? Perhaps academics could revise the tenure system and the perks that are now out of step with reality?

Or is that too much to ask?

Perhaps students could get less gourmet food in the dorms, ipods and vacations and perhaps average citizens could realize that perhaps higher taxes are worth paying to preserve America's biggest advantage in the world?

Or is this too much to ask?

Is it too much to ask that instead of destroying our State University System and thus make a elite education only the province of the rich at private schools that we all sacrifice to preserve this essential American institution?

Is it too much to ask what in a cost of education caused it to rise so much? The average tuition us up 246% since 1965 at public universities what other product has risen that much in 40 years? There is a real solution to this problem and occupying buildings is not it.

And is it too much to try to stop this runaway train called America from careening off a cliff by a little sacrifice?

1 comment:

Steve Halle said...

Hi Ray,

While this post is necessary and necessarily polemical, I wanted to call your attention to a couple points I contend with.

First, I'd advise against putting any of the current situation on the backs of students, as this comment does:

"When I was a student 20 years ago almost no one had a car, a computer or yearly vacations but today because of the student loan and credit culture these things are normal. Also tuition has risen so much that only one class of student can really afford college."

It's a mistake to think credit culture is responsible. At Illinois State, all students are required to own a computer. The rapid advance in technology cannot be staved off by harkening back to the earlier days of PC culture, when technology was truly a luxury. Access to technology is now a necessity.

Too, the astronomical cost increase of college you point out later in the article has a correlation with the rise in students who have cars. In 1965, students were more likely to be able to pay for school/expenses with the money they earned from summer employment, which today is unheard of, a pipe dream. Many of my students work part- or full-time jobs in addition to going to college full time, and given the suburban sprawl setup of Bloomington-Normal and the substandard public transportation system (one bus an hour), owning a car seems a necessity. Pedestrian culture is almost nonexistent here (especially in winter). I don't think that students owning cars is a reflection of credit abuse or affluence, necessarily; it more likely reflects the culture as a whole.

While I also agree that universities would be better off with a unionized professoriate instead of the tenure system, I also think you need to take into account that many of the great inventions/innovations you tout came about not from curricular work but from having the space to work, play, and experiment.

Many larger corporations, Google coming immediately to mind, offer employees time to work on pet projects, and innovative products like Gmail, Google Earth, and Wave are the results of this flexible time. While year-long sabbaticals are excessive in today's economy, I wouldn't hasten to take away research time for professors, especially in the hard sciences and technology.

I also don't like education being called a product ("The average tuition us up 246% since 1965 at public universities what other product has risen that much in 40 years?"). The idea that educators, especially in higher education, are to deliver what students have purchased, while certainly in the spirit of high capitalism, is not in the spirit of progress, as it cheapens or bypasses the human interactions that are intrinsic to teaching and learning.

As someone who is going become part of the professoriate, I don't honestly believe I'll ever get a tenure-track position (if I do, it will be tantamount to winning the lottery). I am, therefore, behind your concern for the future of American higher education, even as I hope it will not be the next thing we outsource, piss away, or let fall into decline, at least not more than it already has. Thanks for a though-provoking post, Ray.

Steve Halle