Keeping a good education affordable (June/July 2016)

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By Susan Krumholz

President, UMass Faculty Federation, Local 1895

 

The University of Massachusetts has been in the news an awful lot in the last few weeks.  Since mid-May, I have read numerous articles about student debt, enrollment, admission policies, and the expansion of the university's research mission. 

A few weeks ago, UMass Boston announced that, with a potential budget deficit of $22.3 million, they would put 400 adjunct professors on notice that their contracts may not be renewed in the fall.  The possibility of layoffs is present on the other UMass campuses as well. 

According to a report by a group called the Young Invincibles who  describe themselves on their website as "a national organization, working to engage young adults on issues, such as higher education, health care, and jobs," Massachusetts gets an F when considering per-student spending, average tuitions, and state financial aid programs.  Some of their findings include a 23% decline in higher education funding from pre-recession levels accompanied by tuition increases for both two and four-year institutions.  Higher education makes up only 10% of the entire state budget, putting us below the national average, and grants only comprise 7% of the budget for higher education (http://younginvincibles.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/YI-State-Report-Cards-2016.pdf). Other reports indicate that Massachusetts continues to rank 30th in funding for public higher education, with the actual per student funding below the national mean.

The Young Invincibles report also talks about attainment equity.  They also found that the degree attainment gap is 21 points for African Americans and 30 points for Hispanics.  And this attainment gap has increased since 2007. The Globe recently published an article by Neil Swidey that gave us a powerful look at student debt in the state.  But the quote that stood out to me was  "where there has long been a history of robust public support for the state education system and where most students attend public colleges, the student debt loads tend to be considerably less. . ." 

At the same time all of this news is breaking, the Pioneer Institute released a report on the current state of UMass. I suspect those of you reading this, who have been working tirelessly against the unfettered expansion of charter schools, are familiar with the work of the Pioneer Institute.  It is a "free-market think tank" which has been described as "dedicated to privatizing the common wealth."  So we shouldn't be surprised that the report would be critical of public education.  Criticism includes too much expansion, too much reliance on public money, and too many out of state students.

According to UMass President Marty Meehan only about 17% of the $3.1 million that funds UMass comes from the state.  And out-of-state students, who continue to represent a smaller percentage of students then at the state universities around New England, directly benefit the university, both for the higher tuition they pay, and for the "diversity" they bring.  He also accused the Pioneer Institute of trying to protect the private universities. Having gotten my post baccalaureate degree at Northeastern University, I know how valuable it is to have good private universities of the caliber we find in Massachusetts.   But for the future of the state, a strong state university system is vital. (Besides, I thought competition only made us stronger.  I guess that only works when you're the one with all the power?!)

So, how does all this connect?  It seems pretty obvious to me at this point that in order to provide a great and affordable education to everyone--and not just those with the skill and resources to navigate the system--properly funding a state university system is critical. The Boston campus of UMass is the most diverse campus in the system, with the poorest demographic.  Yet it is the first campus to risk losing substantial numbers of faculty.  Faculty TEACH.  That probably sounds silly, but in the era of bloated university administrations, reducing deficits on the backs of those providing the essential service--after all what universities do is teach -- is ill-advised. 

Here at UMass Dartmouth we have seen the culture of teaching change radically over the past two decades.  Though the talk of student retention and student success is persistent, the role of teaching as an important part of what tenured/tenure-track faculty do has diminished. I have just started reading the book "Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy" by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber.  It's an engaging read and the discussion about enjoying teaching ("Pedagogy and Pleasure") is relevant here.  Pleasure, they say, has no place in the corporate world, a world increasingly inhabited by the university.  Yet pleasure is central to both teaching and learning.  When the pressures of just keeping up overwhelm us, "stress and cynicism" replace pleasure.  When teachers stop enjoying teaching, students stop enjoying learning.  Seems obvious, but even the obvious bears repeating - loudly and often!  More on this book in upcoming columns.

Summer has begun, at least for those of us in higher education, but the work continues.