Looking Ahead (December 2016/January 2017)

Share This

By Susan Krumholz

President, UMass Faculty Federation, Localk 1895


What will higher education look like in four years?  As I see it there will be four areas that need to be explored:  leadership at the Department of Education, tuition, grants and student debt, unions in general, and research funding.

We now know that the nominee for education secretary is Betsy DeVos.  In a recent editorial (pelase see page 2), AFT President Randi Weingarten said about DeVos, “She is the most ideological, anti-public-school nominee for secretary of education since the U.S. Department of Education was created” and that she is “a grave threat to what made America great in the first place.”  She has used her family’s wealth to advocate against the interests of public schools, and against the interests of the most vulnerable children.  We know very little about where she stands in regard to higher education, but there is a great deal of speculation.  What is suggested by friends, supporters and critics us consistent; if confirmed DeVos is likely to focus on transparency and performance, workforce development, for-profit institutions, support of free speech on campus, and redusing Pell Grants.

Let us look at each of these points in turn.

The first of these can be read as measurement and assessment. While workforce development is not an altogether bad goal, it is still one that prioritizes skill over knowledge. When it comes to for-profit institutions, need I mention the devastation brought about by the collapse over the past decade of several for-profit schools?  There is also reasonable speculation that DeVos “may push for federal funding that would make its way more toward private and religious institutions at the expense of public institutions.” Free speech on campus has been a major hot point of late. While “free speech” used to mean the ability to criticize institutions, now it seems to mean the ability to criticize individuals by spewing racism, misogyny, and other forms of hate speech. (By the way, when did hate groups get politely renamed “alt right”?). As for reducing Pell Grants, these grants have been providing a significant source of funding for low-income students, to the tune of about $30 billion annually.  As both the costs of education and the number of eligible students rise, there is temptation on the part of lawmakers to reduce the program.  However, any constriction will impact the most vulnerable students (who are often the same students who choose to attend public institutions).  Up until now, attempts to cut Pell Grants have been unsuccessful.  The future is uncertain.  More certain, perhaps, is the revocation of Obama’s regulations that removed banks from the lending and collection of federal student loans.  Trump advisors have said that they expect to get the government out of student lending and hand it over to the banks.  If we consider that there is also an intention to remove most of the regulations on banking, student loans may be readily available, but rates will be high and repayment options limited.  If we combine that with a desire to de-fund public higher education, we can see that the real goal is to keep the poor uneducated.

Let’s talk about Unions.  I expect that others in this newsletter are addressing this, so I will be brief.  Despite the President-elect’s claim that he has just saved 1000 union jobs in Indiana, there is no indication that anyone in this collection of billionaires supports unions.  The Vice-President elect and Governor of Indiana defended his predecessor’s passage of a state “right-to-work” law, and he himself repealed Indiana’s prevailing wage laws which created a common wage for most state construction work.  According to a recent article in the Washington Post, several of the recent labor victories were executive orders or regulations that can easily be undone.  These include the Fair Labor Act that raised the cap on salaried workers that could be exempt from overtime pay, and an NLRB ruling that allowed graduate teaching and research assistants to unionize.  And then there is the Supreme Court.  It is difficult to comprehend the devastation of rights that can occur if the next administration has the ability to make numerous court appointments.  But it will likely only take one – which is inevitable – to result in a case similar to last year’s Friedrichs case (i.e., one designed to cut to the heart of public unions),to see some degree of success.  

Though federal research grants have been trending downward for the past 15 years, the expectations being placed upon university faculty for receiving grants has steadily increased.  While no one knows exactly what is to come there is good reason to believe that the Knowledge Economy will be one of the casualties of the incoming administration.  Trump has spoken disparagingly of the National Institute of Health (NIH), an agency that, according to the Boston Globe, “funded $2.5 billion of medical research in Massachusetts last year.”  Also, the President-elect’s assertion that climate change is a hoax, and his list of cabinet appointees that include prominent climate change deniers, doesn’t bode well for any environment-related research funding.  And at a recent gathering for about 4500 criminologists, there were constant references to upcoming cuts in research funding on treatment, diversion, or any other alternative to incarceration.  Further decreases in federally sponsored research projects will have a chilling effect on faculty who are increasingly expected, often required, to bring grant money to campus.  

In the days since the election, I have had frequent conversations with friends and colleagues wondering how we will get through.  The two best pieces of advice I can share are spend lots of time and energy with those you care about most and who are most supportive, and re-activate.  We can’t sit back and relax.  It’s time for every one of us to find our inner activist!