The Potential for Student Power

One of the many reasons for the quickness with which the state moves to reduce the funding of its schools is an awareness of students’ passive–even ignorant–attitudes toward their collective social status as students. It is sometimes said that students cannot form a class because of the temporal nature of their situation. Students are always looking forward, identifying pro actively with what they hope to become, and as a result neglect their current status. Often, they hold no jobs, and those who do hate their jobs, dreading the wasted hours behind a cash register, for example, but seeing it as a necessary evil.

An awareness of this can guide our efforts. If students identify as future journalists, artists, teachers, researchers, etc., we should start by appealing to them as such. Show what awaits. This is not an economic conflict, where wage earners fight their bosses for better pay and better conditions. The fact that tuition may go up $600 dollars is largely met with indifference. Instead, the conflict is almost entirely social. What is needed now is to unmask the social conditions that await by revealing the obsolescence of deeply entrenched attitudes about education, attitudes that come mainly from the working class of previous generations who saw a college education as a ticket to the middle class.

How many English majors are out there, for example, with the illusion that they might one day get paid to immerse themselves in reading and writing? How many business majors are living in denial about their prospects? Even the grad student’s hope of making it into academe, to live the “Life of the Mind” is now just an hallucination. A recent article from the Chronicle of Higher Education describes one student’s struggle:

She was the best student her adviser had ever seen (or so he said); it seemed like a dream when she was admitted to a distinguished doctoral program; she worked so hard for so long; she won almost every prize; she published several essays; she became fully identified with the academic life; even distancing herself from her less educated family. For all of those reasons, she continues as an adjunct who qualifies for food stamps, increasingly isolating herself to avoid feelings of being judged. Her students have no idea that she is a prisoner of the graduate-school poverty trap. The consolations of teaching are fewer than she ever imagined.

Students in California are putting the emphasis on the fact that we’ve become “damaged goods,” thrown into a hopeless job market where delayed periods of unemployment are thought by employers to be corrupting. This is probably the right first step. Shatter the illusion. Another recent article by Don Peck in the Atlantic, “How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America,” gives an analysis of the effect recessions have on youth entering the workforce:

[A] whole generation of young adults is likely to see its life chances permanently diminished by this recession. Lisa Kahn, an economist at Yale, has studied the impact of recessions on the lifetime earnings of young workers. In one recent study, she followed the career paths of white men who graduated from college between 1979 and 1989. She found that, all else equal, for every one-percentage-point increase in the national unemployment rate, the starting income of new graduates fell by as much as 7 percent; the unluckiest graduates of the decade, who merged into the teeth of the 1981-82 recession, made roughly 25 percent less in their first year than graduates who stepped into boom times.

But what’s truly remarkable is the persistence of the earnings gap. Five, 10, 15 years after graduation, after untold promotions and career changes spanning booms and busts, the unlucky graduates never closed the gap. Seventeen years after graduation, those who had entered the workforce during inhospitable times were still earning 10 percent less on average than those who had emerged into a more bountiful climate. When you add up all the earnings losses over the years, Kahn says, it’s as if the lucky graduates had been given a gift of about $100,000, adjusted for inflation, immediately upon graduation or, alternatively, as if the unlucky ones had been saddled with a debt of the same size.

It’s difficult–maybe impossible–to see anything promising in the present or the future. Shit is fucked up. As students from Boston have put it, “The only assurance we have in the present future is uncertainty. The uncertainty of whether we are able to complete college. The uncertainty of getting a job after graduating. The uncertainty of having enough food to feed ourselves. The uncertainty of living life. Only these uncertainties are for certain.”

But in unmasking this reality, we create new possibilities for the future. Our vacant futures can unite us. In shattering our dreams, the present conditions force us to see ourselves not pro actively, taking on the identity of what we hope to be, but actively, as what we are: students who share a common struggle.

Occupations and walk-outs become meaningless without this context. The attack on public education depends in the first place on student identity, or student consciousness. So also does the fight against it.

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Four

Don’t compromise.

We, as students, have the greatest stake in this struggle. We have the most to lose. That being said: we must be uncompromising in the face of this bald-faced attempt at essentially privatizing the public school system. It is not our job to pitch “politically feasible” options. It is our job to fight for what we are owed and continue fighting until we get it.

We are not the politicians. We are the targets of this legislation. Let them deal with the compromising and let them deal with us. The Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act (PHEEIA) reduces an affordable public education system to a public frame with private organs. As tuition rises (a projected 6-7% annual increase) and the state budget is cut, the SUNY system will float amongst the private competition where it will behave much like a private school in order to maintain revenue.

No longer insulated from the private sector, the SUNY system will needfully place revenue above education as a primary concern. The SUNY Board of Trustees are not academics. They are not students nor are they faculty. They’re CEO’s and investors. The PHEEIA simply gives these profit-hawks an open door to place the cost burden of education on the backs of students and families while hashing out public-private partnerships to maximize income.

We don’t want to pay twice as much for half as much. We will not pay twice as much for half as much.

Like the banners in California say: “We Want Fucking Everything” and before we get anything we need to stick to our guns and ask for it all. We want a great education with a strong state budget. We want student power and no private encroachment of our public school system! Do not compromise. Organize.

Remembering Rethinking SUNY

The administration is presenting the Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act (PHEEIA) as a means to deliver us from the Governor’s evil budget cuts: make the university more autonomous, they’re saying, to liberate the university from the meddling influence of politics in Albany. Well. Looking past its meaningless and condescending name, any the actual proposal is nothing more than the resurrection of old arguments and old struggles, only recast in newer catch- words and phrases: globalization, innovation, economic vitality, resilience, flexibility; the list goes on. No doubt these vacuous utterances stem from the minds of bureaucratic manipulators who either don’t know what they’re talking about—which they do—or have something to hide.

The business press can usually be counted on to provide at least a glimpse of truth on these matters, and Buffalo’s Business First doesn’t disappoint. From their Jan. 15 “SUNY may receive tuition flexibility”:

If the bill’s intentions sound familiar, that’s because it is based on similar legislation crafted last year by the University of Buffalo.

Namely, the UB 2020 Flexibility and Economic Growth Act, which stalled in the legislature. Going back even further, Pataki’s cronies on the board of trustees proposed in their now-infamous 1995 manifesto “Rethinking SUNY” the same few changes:

  1. to allow “market forces” to determine tuition and offerings—now being called differential tuition, with the free-market-cargo-cult’s lingo being out of vogue;
  2. increased public-private partnerships—now the leasing public taxpayer-owned land by appointed, not elected, administration officials and board trustees; and
  3. a gradual system of tuition increases—now called, obviously, rational or flex tuition.

In the PHEEIA, a newer proposal is the containment of revenue by the university, where revenue from tuition and other money-making ventures wouldn’t go to Albany, as it does now, but instead remain within the university. Nominally, this is proposed as a way to reduce red-tape and micromanagement, but is  clearly intended to keep Albany’s hands off the revenue derived from those public-private partnerships the administration is salivating over.

In short, they’re pushing to dismantle and privatize the state university system.

But is it any surprise? Keynes once wrote that “The power of vested interests is usually exaggerated when compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.  . . . Indeed the world is ruled by little else . . . Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.” The administration, in distress, is only grasping at straws here, only acting within the space they encounter, picking up the ideas lying around. And we find that, in fact, this turns out to be more than just figurative. Commenting on the PHEEIA as proposed by the governor, the Higher Education Committee chairwoman Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky (D-Queens) has said recently, “I think he opened a drawer, found an old proposal and pulled it out.” It’s no secret that the most facile way to ensure “fiscal vitality” in the short term is through the private sector. Like maggots in an open wound, private influence can be benign, even beneficial. But it makes no sense for the university to slash at itself, slicing open more wounds only for the purpose of stuffing them with maggots. Budget shortfalls can be resolved in other ways, and to see the administration gloss over them is disappointing.

The fact is this: flexible tuition will be flexible in only one direction. Up. What’s worse, it flexes gradually, cleverly avoiding those pesky students who make noise about the steep hikes that occur when the legislature is involved. It’s merely a throttling mechanism, not a “competition” facilitator. What that means is a 6-7% increase in tuition every year over the next ten years. That’s about a $7,000 increase by 2020. It’s good to remember here that forty years ago, SUNY and CUNY were just about free.

At that time, public education served its purpose: to provide affordable and accessible education to everyone, unfettered by the vacillations of the market and free of its totalitarian-style institutions (read: corporations). For the university to so openly and cynically betray this mission is disgraceful. Shame on the president; shame on the chancellor; shame on their sycophants masquerading as professors. How stupid it was to think President Stanley would be a relief from the the sneering and snorting Shirley Strum Kenny, who gobbled up as many tits and tats and quids and quos as was humanly possible.

The faculty and administration are not only aware of the trend toward privatization, but also of the risks of opposing it. Many will recall picknose Pataki’s 1996 ejection of then chancellor Thomas Bartlett for daring to protest cuts to the SUNY budget. Bartlett criticized Pataki and the trustees for “not understanding the role of public higher education.” When things get political, even campus presidents are at risk. It comes as no surprise, then, that when they aren’t openly cheering the implementation of the vitiated philosophy of “let the market take care of it”, they’re cowering in fear of being fired by its zealous adherents.

Students should be mobilized. Unions should be mobilized. This concerns everyone; as such, it can only be solved by everyone. It’s a shame that the campus is only intellectually organized around various “smelly little orthodoxies”, and socially organized according to specific interests. Brothers and sisters, comrades, friends, we need to unite. To be apolitical is to leave your fellow students at the mercy of ideology. And beware of compromisers—the truth seldom lies, but when it does lie it lies somewhere in between.

March 4th, 2010

http://www.defendeducation.org

SUNY Stony Brook is answering the call for a national protest in defense of education. With the pending Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act which will lead to higher tuition, less public accountability and a step towards the privatization of the public school system, students at Stony Brook and in the SUNY system at large have a huge stake in this struggle.

We Are The Crisis NY is currently organizing with student groups and other interested parties on campus in preparation for March 4th. Interest has been piqued across disparate groups and students are uniting in the run-up to nationwide protests which will signal the discontent we have with the state of public education in both New York and across the United States.

Budget cut after budget cut; tuition hike after tuition hike; the cost of education is being shoved off onto students and their families while the private sector thrives. We are tired of paying more for education that decreases in quality and importance in the face of profit and investment. We will not stand for emptier pockets! We stand for student power. We stand for education. We stand for freedom from the private sector.

Three.

What does the privatization of a public school system bring?

It brings higher tuition.

It brings higher loans and more student debt.

It brings a business/CEO mindset to the entire operation putting education on the back burner.

It makes students into investments rather than human beings.

It makes students into unorganized, voiceless (for the most part) clients of the school which is turned from an educational facility to a paid-service. A privilege. They’re subject to financial exploitation in the form of cost/profit optimization. For optimal profit you obviously want income to vastly outweigh output. This means jacking up tuition and lowering costs. Lowering costs can come in the form of reducing the amount of free resources normally provided by a public school. It can come in the form of lowering wages or benefits for faculty. It can come in the form of corporate investment in the campus (contracts with large corporations, leasing land to businesses etc.). Cost controls are not always a bad thing, but the principle behind them is dangerous. Profit and cost control first. Education second.

The increasing privatization of our public schools is something that needs to be fought. If not for us, in the now, then our children in the future. We are not only fighting for our wallets and our voice, we’re fighting for a mindset. A mindset that says that profit has no place in important, human issues like education. A mindset that says we prioritize access to a good education over the six-plus digit income of CEO’s.

The Perfect Storm

The Perfect Storm and the Privatization of Public Higher Education

During the last quarter of a century, public higher education institutions have found themselves buffeted by a perfect storm (a term I owe to Pat Callan). This storm has led to discussions about the privatization of those institutions, which has implications for their ability to improve, or at least maintain, their quality and their accessibility to students from all socioeconomic backgrounds. A weakening of our public higher education system along either the quality or accessibility dimension would have serious consequences for our nation’s future.

As public tuition levels have increased and a greater proportion of public higher education costs have been shifted to students and their families, states and the federal government have responded to political pressure from the middle class by shifting financial assistance away from need-based aid. At the state level, a greater share of funding is now in the form of grant aid to students rather than appropriations to public institutions to support their operations. And that aid is increasingly based on merit, which privileges educationally advantaged students.

Two.

The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers. ~Ralph Nader

We have seen what happens when we rally behind solitary leaders or benevolent bureaucracies. Responsibility falls on the shoulder of one or a few and the majority fall by the wayside waiting for sweeping change to be ushered in.

Would it be easier if we set a date, made a plan and carried it out? Certainly. We could plan a campus-wide student occupation. Set the date. Inform the masses. If we did everything right, plenty of people would even show up. What happens next, though? What happens when the pressure hits? When the cops arrive? How about when the occupation is broken and new action is to be taken? Are the masses now jaded having expected a complete victory?

A movement should be self-sustaining, alive and breathing. Each member should be a vital organ within the movement. We Are The Crisis aims to help lay the foundation upon which a real student movement can flourish. This involves exhausting amounts of outreach and education, networking between existing progressive campus organizations and relentlessly bombarding student media with position pieces and articles on the issues we want to tackle.

We want to connect disparate groups, disparate activists and disparate causes to create a network of activity and organization which is instrumental to any movement. We want to encourage a social/cultural shift amongst the student body which is the first step towards real political formation and consciousness. We want to demonstrate to those who want to but are afraid to take back their campus that they won’t be alone in doing so. We need to reach critical mass and the rest will follow suit.