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Interview: Student solidarity in higher education

Amanda Achin interviews Olivia Setzer, an undergraduate at Salem State University, about how students have been affected by the covid-19 crisis and how they are coming together to fight back.

What are some ways that you and other college students are being affected by the covid-19 crisis?

It’s no secret that almost everyone’s lives have been turned upside down by this pandemic. Focusing specifically on the college students’ experiences, I have heard mixed reviews about moving completely online. When it boils down to it, remote learning isn’t what students signed up for and their quality of education is being affected. The professors, in particular, have been outstandingly flexible and have gone out of their way to help students who are facing more than just motivation problems. 

Out of the five people living in my apartment, I was the only one fortunate enough to qualify to get a stimulus check. Even if I put all $1,200 towards our rent, that wouldn’t even cover half of it. Luckily, I live with people who are financially frugal and have saved enough to cover rent for between three and six months or they are still working, but I realize that not every student is in the privileged situation that we are.

I have had three jobs at a time for the past year and still didn’t make enough to qualify for unemployment during the pandemic. My job eventually offered employees voluntary furlough and enough people took it so I still have hours. Financial hardships can be stressful enough for students. When you add on seeing our siblings, children, friends, and cousins missing important schooling milestones or hearing the constant fear in our grandparents’ voices, it takes even more of an emotional toll. Having this stress for an extended period of time is going to exacerbate the already-existing mental health crisis in the US. 

How are students coming together in your school? 

I’m part of the Honors Program Advisory Council (HPAC). On HPAC, we have organized Virtual Bagel Tuesdays where we all sit over Zoom, eat breakfast and talk about what has been going on in our lives. We’ve also done Virtual Game Nights to keep students connected with one another. We’re in the process of planning another Game Night and possibly doing a Virtual Movie Night where someone screenshares a movie of the groups’ choosing. 

Students had been expressing their frustrations and concerns on multiple Salem State facebook pages. Initially, the biggest concerns were greater pass/fail options and reimbursements for tuition, dorms, and food plans. The pass/fail petition gained a lot of support from students and about 2900 students signed. Members of different student organizations started talking and brought together about 20 student organizations to sign on to a set of demands that were presented to the administration. A wide range of student groups signed on including Sunrise Movement Salem, Gender and Sexuality Alliance, Latin American Student Association, our campus radio station WMWM and even the SCUBA club.

The letter demanded that Salem State must 

  • switch to a pass/no pass policy 
  • reimburse students for unused meal plans, housing fees, and parking passes 
  • commit to an in-person Commencement ceremony for the Class of 2020  
  • advocate for and back federal and state proposals to provide immediate financial relief for students and public universities

All of these demands have either been met or are in the process of being met. 

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

During a time when social separation is key, students and faculty must come together to be a unified front during the fight to defend public education. We must all agree on a core set of ideals that benefit students, staff, and the public universities. Getting a large group to agree is hard enough as is, but when you have thousands of people’s futures in the balance, the stakes are raised even more, and emotions can run high. Unity is crucial for our success. 

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

The future for higher education has been hanging in the balance for a while, but the coronavirus pandemic has just sped up the process. All you have to do is a simple Google search of “Mount Ida College” to see that private colleges and universities have been struggling for a while. The increasing rates of tuition and decreasing enrollment rates at public universities demonstrate that this issue isn’t just hitting private schools. 

As I mentioned before, remote learning isn’t what students signed up for and the quality of their education is decreasing. When you pair students not getting what they paid for with a national and global financial crisis, odds are we are going to see a decrease in students choosing to get a degree and an increase of cost of tuition if something isn’t done to prevent it. 

How do you think we should move towards winning a debt free future?

Salem State is the sum of all of its parts. Every student and faculty member contributes their little bit of excellence to the community. I am sure this is true at colleges and universities across the State. I don’t want to see my university lose pieces of excellence because they can’t afford to pay for school anymore or the school can’t afford to keep their position. Money shouldn’t be a factor in how excellent my school is. 

Tying into the ideas of unity and the student action at Salem State, we should all come together to create a short, universal list of demands to be presented to all public colleges and universities across our Commonwealth. We need input from students, professors, teachers, maintenance workers, dining hall staff, library personnel, administrators, etc. all across Massachusetts for us to find a solution that works. If people from all public colleges and universities across the State are bombarding our representative with the exact same list of demands, written by us to benefit us, we are more likely to have our demands met. How we react now will determine whether or not we are one step closer to a debt free future. We must act quickly, cohesively, and decisively. The future of higher education is in our hands. Every second matters. 

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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