Striking For The Public Good

When anthropologists engage in fieldwork there is a fundamental rule: listen intently to what people say, but pay careful attention to what they do. Sometimes a person's talk is contradicted by the actions he or she takes. This anthropological principle is very much in play for the future of public higher education in Pennsylvania, where the union that represents faculty and coaches at the 14 state owned universities (APSCUF) has gone on strike--for the first time in its 34-year history.

The politician-bureaucrats who run the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) have demonstrated little respect for the professoriate or for the needs of the students. In their various contract proposals--to eliminate faculty research funding for professional development, to increase the workload of temporary faculty and pay them less, to require health care give backs that result in salary losses--they have demonstrated disdain for the faculty, for the students and for pursuit of scholarship.

Although the Chancellor of the State System, Frank Brogan, has been a university administrator in Florida, where he also served as Lieutenant Governor under Jeb Bush, there is little evidence that he understands or wants to understand the power and promise of public education. He says he respects the faculty, but his actions seem to demonstrate contempt. How odd it is for the chancellor of a system of public higher education to demonstrate such little regard for the very system that he ostensibly leads.

I have been a professor of anthropology at West Chester University for 36 years. During that time, I have taught thousands of students, introducing them to the fundamentals of anthropological study. We have explored the whys and wherefores of culture, considered the mysteries of kinship, reflected on religious practices in cross-cultural contexts, and have thought about what prompts change in the social world. We have debated multiculturalism and wondered about what American society will be like in 50 years.

Throughout those years, I have tried to be an intellectual guide, pointing my students toward paths of self-discovery. Along the way, my active role in anthropological research and publication has refined my teaching. Like my colleagues on the picket lines at the 14 PASSHE universities, I work long hours to make sure that my knowledge is conveyed in a way that enables my students to discover the world anew--and in their own way. It is quite satisfying to watch a student wake up to the wonders of the social world.

The most rewarding aspect of my experience as a public university professor, though, has been teaching students who are the first members of their families to attend college. Many of my students fit into this category. They often come from families of modest means. Many of them have to work one or two jobs to pay for their education. Despite personal and financial challenges that would derail most of us, they persevere.

Do these inspiring students not deserve a world class education?

Do they not deserve to be taught by professors with cutting-edge knowledge?

Of course they do.

But PASSHE proposals would diminish academic quality, reduce student-professor interaction, increase class sizes, and limit or eliminate faculty research, which they seem to think is unimportant to the pedagogical process. Their view is to increase class sizes, which, of course is good for them but bad for students.. For PASSHE and the education budget cutters in the Pennsylvania Legislature the university is a business in which students are processed like numbers to be spit out and assessed on spreadsheets. These folks have little or no appreciation of what it takes to teach. They have little or no knowledge of the mutual meaningfulness that emerges from teaching young adults how to think critically and write compellingly.

What is going on in public higher education in America? When I became a college professor there was respect for the acquisition of knowledge and for science. Back then, senior professors volunteered their time and experience as college administrators. Sure there were problems and controversies, but that didn't diminish a widespread fundamental respect for the pursuit of knowledge. Now we often have university presidents who have business backgrounds. Sometimes they are politicians with a political agenda. They tend to see education like any business--five-year plans, enrollment goals, and assessment protocols, which makes education a product that has to be evaluated. In this way education loses its intellectual depth and becomes the means to the end of getting a job; it is job training.

To add insult to injury politicians like Chancellor Brogan's fellow Floridians, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott have publicly mocked philosophy and anthropology as frivolous non-job producing pursuits of study. Such anti-intellectual nonsense is part of a broad populist know-nothing movement that celebrates ignorance and denigrates science. Evolutionary theory is mere speculation. Climate change is a hoax.

There is something more sinister at work here, however. Gutting public higher education is a very good way to increase income and social inequality. American public higher education has long been a pathway to a better life, a way to expand the middle class, a way for young adults, especially young adults from families of modest means to reach for the stars and realize their dreams. For whatever reason, university administrators, especially those who are politicians, are actively placing roadblocks on those pathways.

Should a world class education be reserved for children of the rich?

Should we accept a program that would gut public higher education for worthy students?

Have university bureaucrats have no sense of decency, no sense of the public good?

Enough!

It's time to strike for quality public higher education in Pennsylvania and in America.