Faculty Groups to Pursue National Campaign to Fortify U.S. Higher Education

WASHINGTON —  A new national coalition of college faculty groups has launched grassroots movement challenging “reformers” whom they claim are pursuing policies and strategies that are endangering higher education opportunities for all but the most able to afford it.

The Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, spearheaded by the 22,000-member California Faculty Association, plans to challenge budget and education policy makers on a variety of fronts, from the push for performance-based budgeting to elimination of liberal arts courses. An early goal is to promote greater collegiality among academicians themselves, campaign leaders say, as nearly all are in the same economic boat these days.

“This campaign … is about tearing down the walls of isolation among faculty, but, more importantly, bringing together faculty and other groups who are passionate about higher education and are deeply distressed about its current direction,” says Dr. Lillian Taiz, a professor of history at California State University, Los Angeles and president of the California Faculty Association.

Taiz, a veteran college educator, says more and more educators are trying to educate students in “crumbling and toxic circumstances.” She was among a host of educators gathered Tuesday for a news conference at the National Press Club to announce formation of the new campaign.

Nearly two dozen organizations, a mix of education and labor groups representing college educators, were listed as organizers or supporters of the campaign, the end product of a January gathering in Los Angeles of 64 educators from 21 states. They met to explore the impact dramatic budget cuts and so-called education reforms over the past few years that are being increasingly imposed on institutions of higher learning with little input, organizers claim, from students and teachers in the classroom.

Dr. Arnold Mitchem, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Council for Opportunity in Higher Education, says the new organization will be another tool advocacy groups like his can use to voice support for the myriad federal and state programs that aid low-income and underprepared students but now face steady cuts in funding.

To illustrate his point, Mitchem says 43 states have reduced their education budgets by about 40 percent since 2007. Also, he says, the recently passed federal budget bill required the Department of Education to take an $11 billion budget cut. Mitchem, whose organization focuses on federal funding for the TRIO education programs, says 12 percent of the money the Education Department lost “was aimed at low income, minority and handicapped students.

“Our policy makers have lost their way,” Mitchem told the gathered audience, echoing the sentiments of others in the room.

“I’m very disappointed in what organized higher education in D.C. has been able to do,” says Mitchem, who joined Taiz and others at the campaign’s news conference.

“I’m very impressed with the (campaign’s) idea,” he continued. “They seem to express a genuine empathy for students of color.” He also notes that while the group was overwhelmingly non-minority, most of its participants work at schools that serve large numbers of students of color.

“People with little or no classroom experience are driving these initiatives,” says Dr. Barbara Bowe, an English literature professor at the City University of New York (CUNY) and president of the Professional Staff Congress at CUNY. “This is a civil rights campaign,” she says, citing the group’s decision to use the anniversary date of the historic Brown vs. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to launch their campaign.

Bowe and other organizers say the group hopes to have as much impact on the future direction of higher education reforms as the Brown decision did when it banned the decades old separate-but-equal education policies across the nation that denied most Black students of an educational opportunity equal to that offered Whites. “All of these moves involve inequality,” Bowe says.

The group issued a seven-point set of “principles,” the result of widespread discussion among participants of the Las Angeles meeting. A working draft was presented by her group at that meeting, she says, and all participants took it to fellow faculty and support staff groups on their respective campuses for airing.

Among the seven points is an assertion that higher education “must be inclusive.” On that point, the group warns policy and budget makers, “We simply cannot risk a return to earlier times when education was rationed on the basis of race and economic status.”

 

The seven principles also challenge the prevailing trend of focusing more and more learning on the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines, asserting “The curriculum for a quality 21st century higher education must be broad and diverse,”

The document also urged caution in the budget making process, a more enlightened approach to incorporating technology into higher education, more public investment in higher education and better standard and metrics for measuring “quality higher education.”

“It’s about making choices,” Taiz says, “unless you are OK with a two-tiered education system.”

For now, the new organization is employing the Internet to launch and provide its principles to the public, Taiz says. In the coming months it plans to establish a think tank to engage the public, and is talking with several organizations about future funding.