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Interview: Fighting austerity in higher education

Interview with Rich Levy

Amanda Achin spoke with Rich Levy, Political Science Professor at Salem State and member of EDU about how Salem State is being affected by the covid-19 crisis, how their community is resisting and how EDU is playing a role in the fight to protect higher education.

How is your school being affected by austerity and it’s covid-19 incarnation?

As with others in public higher ed in Mass, we have been moved to remote teaching with little time for prep.  This undermines education for students and faculty as well.  We are also being told that we need to anticipate massive cutbacks – up to $28 million has been ‘gamed’  – generally on the assumption that a significant increase in funding is unthinkable.  Such cuts would be a massive disaster if not a further step in the direction of an irreversible death spiral. 

More critically, this is not new!  It is part of an ongoing trend of austerity, starting with the gradual defunding of public higher education and concomitant switching of the financial burden to students, beginning in the 1980s and continuing in the present.  This has taken the forms of being told to  ‘do more with less.’ and ongoing cutbacks, constant speed-ups for faculty and staff, reduction of the adjunct budget, hiring freezers (for faculty), removing program options outside of the shared governance process, (not offering classes, shutting down facilities) particularly in signature Arts and Science programs with high student engagement impact and unique contributions to the community – but they are not the professional courses more valued by the Board and the Administration.  

The Board of Trustees, appointed by Governor Baker, not surprisingly, has no educators on it and although Democratic governors have not appointed Trustees who are outside of the neoliberal paradigm either. The present Board is more blatantly pro-privatization, with members most recently arguing both that we should go fully online in the fall and, that since ⅔ of an institution’s undergraduate students allegedly major in 12 programs, elimination of programs and consolidation is the way forward – although this would likely undermine the accreditation of comprehensive universities like Salem State.

What are your concerns for the future of public higher education?

Public higher education is facing an existential crisis.  It is the only avenue for children of working class families, many of them people of color, to have access to the higher education which can help to prepare them for their roles both as citizens and as economically productive members of society.  

Even before the covid crisis, gradual privatization has made public higher education increasingly unaffordable for families that are not wealthy.  Students face an average debt of some $30,000 and end up in virtual debt servitude.

Although historically economic recessions have been times when many students return to college (or go to less expensive schools), this is different. In the present crisis, many of our students (and recent grads) are either in the front lines of keeping our society going and/or have lost their jobs.  Students are facing greatly decreased chances for employment during the summer – when many work to raise funds to pay for (part) of their tuition and fees for the next academic year – and decreased job possibilities in the fall as well.  With a looming economic downturn, future employment is also up in the air.  Many students have said that, in these circumstances they would be unwilling to take on further debt to attend school – particularly if the primary form of instruction is remote learning/online instruction.  This could lead to a massive downturn in enrollment, and if the stay at home orders continue into the fall,empty dorms.  Without a massive stimulus – which must come from the Federal government since the state is required to have a balanced budget, we are facing the type of elimination of campuses just put forward in Vermont or the complete collapse of the public higher education system.  I believe that most students can return to campus and accomplish what they need to to allow the US to resuscitate itself – although in a different form – after the crisis only if they can return to school tuition and fee-free at least for the duration of this crisis. 

Finally, educators- and even more so adjuncts –  and staff are facing additional speed-ups and layoffs which will make it even more difficult for SSU and other public institutions of higher ed to provide the quality face-to-face education that our students need and deserve.

How are people coming together in your school?

People are coming together in virtually unprecedented ways.  Some 2500+ students (about half the number of full time students at Salem State) signed a petition demanding a pass-fail system as a result of the disruption caused by the crisis and the transition to online teaching. More than 20 student groups came together to also successfully demand refunds for dorms, meal tickets and parking and pass/fail for all classes.  They also called for tuition and fee-free public higher education, rather than further cutbacks, to address both the immediate and the underlying crises in public higher ed. 

Last Monday, our union local had a meeting of more than 120 members, more than twice the highest attendance in the past twenty-plus years.  We will be coming together again next week to clarify what our principles and demands for the short and long term and how to achieve them. It will not be easy but there is more anger, interest and enthusiasm than I have seen in twenty-five years. 

What do you hope we can achieve in this moment in the fight to defend public education?

We should build on what is happening. It has never been clearer who really keeps society going – and in that process, teachers, along with many others, begin to get the respect they deserve.  We need to work with people, not only faculty, to better understand how this crisis is exposing the basic equiaties of US society – exacerbated by the Trump Administration – and making clearer the need for public goods, protection not only for healthcare workers but health care and education for all.

To achieve this I hope we are able to strengthen our collective action through unions, among other means, to build up enough pressure through advocacy and even threatening to withhold our labor to stop these austerity measures and win a federal stimulus package that would allow public higher ed to continue to provide the education our students need and deserve while also canceling student debt and setting the stage for long term debt free public higher education.

How is EDU playing a role in the fight to defend public higher education?

EDU has been critical in many ways.  Including both K-12 and higher ed, full time faculty, adjuncts and ESPs, it has made us all more aware of the similarities in our struggles to preserve public education as a public good and the need to bargain not just for ourselves, but for the common good.

EDU also provides a support network and allows us to gather and brainstorm better ways to organize at our schools and in our communities.

But even more importantly, it allows for collective thought and analysis which gives us a deeper understanding of neoliberalism and the austerity framework that underlies the cutbacks and threats the public education is facing.  And this, in turn, allows us to better understand and develop ways of linking immediate concrete demands to protect our students, our schools and ourselves in the short term with a long term strategy for changing the framework in which public education is viewed and for empowering faculty and students in large part by clarifying for us our own power as the engines that make public education work. 

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