by Mary Ellen Flannery
Frustrated and alarmed by escalating student fees and class sizes, and the increasing exclusion of poor and minority students from higher education in America, this week hundreds of faculty from public campuses across the country joined a new Campaign for the Future of Higher Education.
Endorsed by the National Council of Higher Education, the higher-ed arm of the NEA, the campaign was formally launched in Washington, D.C. on May 17th – the 57th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. the Board of Education. That was no coincidence of the calendar, said California Faculty Association (CFA) president Lillian Taiz.
“The specific issues have morphed over time, but those of us in this campaign hear the echoes of those momentous issues arising today,” said Taiz to a packed house at the National Press Club and to faculty members listening in at 40 to 50 “watch parties” across the country. “Equality of access to quality higher education is under assault. Our campaign is about changing that direction.”
The loose coalition that kicked off the campaign include faculty from 21 states, including NEA affiliates like CFA, the United Faculty of Florida, the Community College Association in California, and New York’s United University Professions. They also were joined by student organizations, like the U.S. Student Organization.
All endorsed the campaign’s seven principles, which broadly espouse greater college affordability and accessibility, and increasing public investment in higher education. All decried the recent assaults on higher-ed by so-called reformers and lawmakers, saying faculty, students and community members must demand to be part of the decision-making around its future.
Too much of what has been happening in higher education is simply bad for students – and their country. Last year in California, for the first time ever, more than 200,000 students were turned away from community colleges, noted Ron Norton Reel, president of the state’s community college association. “This year, it’s likely we’ll turn away 400,000.”
“To me, it’s unthinkable,” he said. “We are dimming the lights of our society.”
At UMass-Boston, political science professor Heike Schotten has seen her students struggling to attend classes while working two or three jobs to pay for ballooning tuition and fees, as the state has cut its support for its public colleges and universities. At the same time, just over the past six years, her classes have grown almost 50 percent bigger.
With those sizes, “I assign less reading. I am able to grade less writing. I offer less individualized help – and I let more struggling students fall through the cracks,” she admitted.
The campaign already has been successful in bringing together faculty from different states, which rarely get the opportunity to collaborate. Next, campaign leaders intend to set up a “virtual think tank,” which would provide research and resources that could lead to new legislation.
“Millions of ordinary Americans know that their children’s future – and our future as a society – depends on equal access to higher education, and we believe they are willing to work for that future,” said Barbara Bowen, president of the City University of New York’s union.
“This is a campaign in their name and in the name of every working person, every person of color, every new immigrant whose life has been transformed by the unmistakable experience of a real college education.”