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Miami TshirtNote: This was originally published on Raging Chicken Press earlier today. An excerpt is included below. To read the full post, click the “Continue Reading” link at the end of the excerpt or go there NOW.

I did my PhD work at Miami University. No, not in Florida – Miami University in Oxford, OH. There was a t-shirt in the bookstore that always provided a snarky retort to those who made the assumption that I was writing my dissertation in Florida: “Miami was a university, before Florida was a state.” Nope, I was far from Florida – a bike ride away from the Indiana border and about a half an hour from Cincinnati.

As a Central New York native, I had never heard of Miami University. This was before Ben Rothlesburger would help put Miami on the national map for Division I football and just about the time Wally Szczerbiak would lead the Redhawks  to the Sweet Sixteen in the 1999 NCAA basketball tournament. I found out about Miami because two amazing mentors, Jim Zebroski and Nancy Mack, spent part of a spring break coming up with a list of PhD programs in composition and rhetoric that they thought I should apply to as I was nearing the end of my Masters degree at Syracuse. Miami had one of the top PhD programs in the country in composition and rhetoric and I still think my decision to go to Miami for my PhD was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Many of my fellow doctoral grad students have become leaders in the field – Scott Lyons, Malea Powell, Pegeen Reichert Powell, and Gwendolyn Pough just to name a few.

I loved my time at Miami. My education was stellar and the intellectual commitment of the people I studied with was unparalleled. That doesn’t mean that Miami was some kind of utopia. In 1998, for example, I was one of seven students arrested for protesting a series of racial hate-crimes on campus. I was the one grad student and the only white student arrested in the protest. On the way to jail, we heard police refer to us as the Miami 7. We took the name and used it to fight our arrest and draw further attention to long-standing, institutional racism at the university. We refused a plea bargain and demanded a jury trial. In the year leading up to our trial, the discussion about racism and racial intimidation became intensely complex and complicated, but that did not change our resolve. We fought and we won. We were acquitted of all charges (you can read Pegeen Reichert Powell’s critical reading of the context of the protests and the administration’s handling of the issue here).

Also, like many research universities, Miami relies heavily upon the labor of adjuncts and graduate teaching assistance to teach a significant percentage of their undergraduate, general education courses. Miami University also has two branch campuses in Hamiltion, OH and Middletown, OH – both more urban and working class campuses. Miami’s administrations had a long history of treating their branch campus faculty as second-class citizens in relation to the Oxford Main campus faculty.

Up until 1997, Miami’s mascot was the “Redskins.” Activists had long sought to change the name, which seemed especially important for a university that took its name from the Miami Indian Tribe, in a state that boasted the sambo-esque  “Chief Wahoo” plastered all over Cleveland’s baseball legacy. It was not until leaders of the Miami Tribe made direct appeals to the university to change the name, that Miami adopted the Redhawks as its new mascot.

Miami’s main campus was almost entirely white, suburban, and middle to upper middle class. It has the reputation as a “public ivy” which it cultivates aggressively. In 1996, as I was in the middle of my PhD coursework, the university’s administration through the leadership of the new university president, James Garland, began a process of “transformation” that many of us found deeply troubling. The new plan was to put Miami at the forefront of the corporatization of higher education. Literally. Miami administrators began to refer to Miami as a “corporate university,” a term they still use in their own webpages to describe the period between 1996 and 2009 in the university’s history. Under President Garland’s leadership, Miami went on a building binge, seeking to turn its already manicured lawns into the country-club university in southwest Ohio.

Given Garland’s overt commitment to corporatizing Miami and building lots of beautiful buildings and luxury dorms, it was head-turning to read ProPublica’s interview with Garland published on Monday. The article, “On ‘Country Club’ Campuses: A Public University Ex-President Shares His Second Thoughts,”  is an indictment of the trend in higher education to spend millions of dollars on beautifying the campus in order to attract wealthy students to universities.

Garland’s words could not come at a more opportune time as PA State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) university presidents are moving forward with harsh austerity plans, slashing faculty and gutting academic programs. As I reported last month in “Wall Street on the Susquehanna,” PASSHE university presidents, administrators, and Board of Governors are all crying “budget crisis” and insist that the crisis stems from 1) the 2008 economic crisis; 2) the long-term decline in state appropriations coupled with Governor Corbett’s deep cuts in PASSHE in 2010; 3) declining enrollment; and, 4) “increasing costs” in faculty and staff salaries. The sites of PASSHE’s austerity policies have been aimed squarely at faculty and staff. What PASSHE refuses to even acknowledge is that one of the most significant contributors to the current “crisis” has been a decade long, unfunded spending spree on new buildings and “beautification” of campuses. PASSHE university presidents have bonded-out our futures so they can put their names on buildings.

James Garland seems to now be questioning the choices he made to lead the country club trend while president at Miami. As Garland put it,

As I think back, I didn’t realize it at the time, but in hindsight I worry about whether we did the right thing. As president, you to try to make campus attractive. You do things primarily to maintain financial stability.

I just think there’s a movement these days among universities that are able to do this, to turn themselves into country clubs. But inevitably that comes at expense of academic rigor and the quality of the academic program.

In my tenure we certainly contributed to this trend. And there’s a price you pay for that. For every dollar you put into building a student sports facility –- workout rooms and exercise rooms and squash courts and things of that sort — every dollar you put into that is a dollar you’re not spending on improving classrooms or paying your professors a high enough wage that you can recruit from higher up in job pool.

CONTINUE READING on Raging Chicken Press

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In case you missed it over on Raging Chicken Press,  I was talking about my recent article, “Wall Street on the Susquehanna: PASSHE Bond Scheme Bleeds Education Budget for Beautiful Buildings,” on the Rick Smith Show this past Tuesday night.

Click on the image below or CLICK HERE to listen to the interview:

Mahoney on Rick Smith PASSHE Bond Schemes 10-22-13

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This originally appeared in Raging Chicken Press on October 21, 2013. It is a fairly long article detailing changes in PASSHE policies regarding new buildings and capital projects. I am including Part 1 of the article here with brief excerpts from other parts. To read the complete article, click “READ THE FULL ARTICLE” at the bottom of the post or go to the original right now by CLICKING HERE

This past July, eight of the fourteen PA State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) universities sent letters to their faculty and staff warning of the possibility of deep cuts, layoffs, and program elimination (what they like to call “retrenchment”). University presidents at California, Cheney, Clarion, Edinboro, East Stroudsburg, Kutztown, Mansfield, and Slippery Rock all shouted “crisis” and warned that unless they resorted to strict austerity measures, the end, would indeed, be near.

Clarion University led the PASSHE austerity train, announcing on August 15th that it would slash over 40 jobs – including 22 faculty jobs – and eliminate a number of academic programs. On September 10th, Edinboro University joined the party announcing it would cut 40 faculty, 9 staff members, six managers and a host of academic programs. Two weeks later, on September 25th, Mansfield University announced it intended to eliminate nearly 20% of their 170 faculty members. That same day, East Stroudburg University indicated that it was slowly marching toward retrenchment. Two PASSHE universities, California and Kutztown, were spared a similar fate this academic year. California University miraculously found that it did not, after all, have an $11.8 million dollar budget deficit as it had reported in the spring. Instead, Cal U is looking at a $5.8 million surplus. Ooops! Kutztown University’s president, Javier Cevallos, announced that Kutztown would be putting off the most painful cuts until next year: “Current estimates project a $10.3 million deficit for 2014-15, which will be addressed through a combination of base budget cuts and one-time funds,” he wrote in an October 2nd “Presidential Update.” And, as I reported last week, Slippery Rock’s provost is seeking a “third way” austerity plan – and if faculty do not agree to departmental transfers by Thursday, October 24, the ax may fall there too. The fate of the remaining PASSHE universities is still unclear. However, university presidents are rapidly approaching an October 30 deadline for reporting their intentions to eliminate any tenured faculty members.

To say it’s been an “interesting” start of the academic year for the 100,000+ students and 6,000+ faculty and coaches at PASSHE universities is an understatement. Left hanging in the balance are people’s current and future livelihoods. As I recently wrote on Raging Chicken, PASSHE’s mantra is that faculty and staff salaries and, more recently, a decline in enrollment are the reasons for the deep budget shortfalls. However, despite their continued proclamations, the numbers have never added up. My most recent post on PASSHE’s budget deceptions, “PASSHE’s Austerity Magic: Save Your Despair for Better Days,” highlighted the significant increases in spending on capital projects – buildings – at Kutztown University. As I suggested in that article, the pattern at Kutztown is not limited to that PASSHE university. In fact, it points to a much more widespread practice that has gone virtually unnoticed until the recent ouster of California University of Pennsylvania president, Angelo Armenti, Jr. (more on that in a little bit).

The budget “crisis” at PASSHE universities has its roots in a long-term defunding of public higher education in PA, Wall-Street-esque risky investment schemes, and a virtual lack of oversight.

Part I: How (Not) to Fund the College Experience

PASSHE Appropriations v ENGPennsylvania vies for the top spot when it comes to the size and cost of its state legislature. PA also has the lowest percentage of public workers in the United States. In the best of times, that scenario might lead to excellent representation and efficient government. More recently, however, it has meant a right-wing Republican Party intent on destroying the public sector and a shrinking number of public employees to handle the work of cleaning up their messes. Anyone paying attention to what’s happened in PA since the 2010 mid-term elections, knows the story all too well. Newly elected governor, Tom Corbett, put public education – K-12 and higher ed – on the chopping block from day one. In his first year as Governor, K-12 schools were cut by $1 billion; PASSHE universities were cut by 20%. The trend has continued. There is no doubt that Corbett’s shock doctrine policies for public education have hit PASSHE universities hard. However, Corbett’s cuts were really a more extreme version of what had been happening for decades. In 1983-84 State appropriations accounted for almost 65% of PASSHE’s budget, while tuition and fees amounted to just over 35%. In 2011-12, State appropriations amounted to just over 25% of PASSHE’s budget, with tuition and fees reaching nearly 75%.

For more than three decades, the “free market” mantra of right-wing think tanks and policy makers, have eroded investment in all things public. However, as Dina Ransor made clear in a 2011 article for Truthout, their claims don’t match their outcomes:

This belief that the “free market” will always do better than the government at any task has increased over the years until each president since Reagan has taken it as a given.

Even Bill Clinton pushed to shrink the federal employee workforce by “outsourcing” the work to supposedly cheaper contract workers to save money during his “reinventing government” effort. This craze to outsource as much of the federal government as possible hit its height during the second Bush administration. Saving money was always the reason given, but there was very little actual proof that this was true.

The situation in Pennsylvania was no different. Over the past three decades, Pennsylvania state legislators of both political parties slowly abandoned investments in public higher education as a public good. Instead, higher education became a “service” or a “commodity” that students – now “customers” – bought. Politicians and policy makers from both political parties gradually, but decidedly, drank the free market Kool-Aid instead of reenergizing efforts to invest in Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education.

While the steady decline in State appropriations significantly contributed to the current “budget crises” at several PASSHE universities, several under-the-radar policy changes at the top-levels of PASSHE’s administration during the last decade have continued to drain the universities’ already diminished “Education and General Fund,” or “E&G” budgets. One of the most devastating came during the tenure of former PA Governor, Ed Rendell. Yes, the Democrat.

Part II: Of Bonds and Balance Sheets (Down the Rabbit Hole)

Until 2000, PASSHE had a fairly centralized process for initiating new building projects on any of its 14 universities and the official guidelines were pretty murky. The one Board of Governor’s policy that addresses planning for new buildings (Policy 1995-01-A), “Facilities Projects Contract Compliance Program” had more to do with ensuring compliance with Act 188’s Nondiscrimination Policy (Section 20-2014-A) with respect to the awarding of state contracts, than it did with laying out a process for making decisions about where to build and why. Under Section E, “Program Administration Responsibilities,” Policy 1995-01-A stated:

The Chancellor of his/her designee shall serve at the program authority to administer a System-wide uniform Contract Compliance Program. Each university president shall be responsible to the Chancellor for implementation of the Nondiscrimination and Equal Employment Opportunity Program at his/her institution. The president may designate and delegate responsibility to a qualified contract compliance officer and other staff as necessary to implement the program.

There is not a single mention of how the Chancellor, Board of Governors, or anyone else for that matter, decides when new buildings need to be built. The one thing this old policy does establish is a centralized process of communication and compliance. That is, it is clear that the Chancellor’s office is where the authority initiates. Administrators at each PASSHE university comply with “orders” issued by the Chancellor’s office.

Policy 1995-01-A was “repealed by the action of Board of Governors on July 13, 2000 and replaced with Board Policy 2000-02, “Capital Facilities, Planning, Programming, and Funding,” on that same date. Board Policy 2000-02 is much more extensive; it lays out the process for making decisions about new buildings. Three parts of the new policy are significant for my purposes here.

1. Decentralize New Building Planning …

2. Privatize Funding for New Buildings and Capital Projects Incrementally …

3. Finance New Building from University Education and General Funds …

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Part III: Talking to the Taxman about Poetry above the Sounds of Ideologies Clashing so We Can Help Save the Youth of America

Keep in mind that under the current PASSHE Board of Governor’s policy 50% of the funds for new building projects have to come from “alternative funds,” primarily funds raised from external sources. In the post-collapse environment, those “alternative funds” were hard to come by, but the bills were still coming in and universities had to find ways to pay “bond expenses including fees, debt service, and principal” that they had agreed to pay at the beginning of the process. So, universities are forced to dip into their financial reserves and E&G funds to make their bond payments – funds that should have been used for educational purposes.

So, naturally, PASSHE’s Board of Governors stopped approving new building projects in the post-collapse environment, right? I mean it would be irresponsible to issue additional debt for universities who were now struggling to make their existing bond payments, right? Wrong.

Check out this table compiled by the faculty union, APSCUF, based on PASSHE’s 2008-2012 audited financial statements. The top part of the table shows new capital purchases – that is, new buildings and the like – for each of the 14 PASSHE universities over those years. The bottom part of the table shows the interest and/or principle payments toward each of the universities’ debt for those same years.

Capital Debt and Payment

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Part IV: Smoke and Mirrors Budgeting: There’s More than One Way to Sink a Ship

Do you remember Enron? Here’s a little refresher from Wikipedia:

Enron Corporation was an American energy, commodities, and services company based in Houston, Texas. Before its bankruptcy on December 2, 2001, Enron employed approximately 20,000 staff and was one of the world’s major electricity, natural gas, communications, and pulp and paper companies, with claimed revenues of nearly $101 billion during 2000.[1]Fortune named Enron “America’s Most Innovative Company” for six consecutive years.

At the end of 2001, it was revealed that its reported financial condition was sustained substantially by an institutionalized, systematic, and creatively planned accounting fraud, known since as the Enron scandal. Enron has since become a well-known example of willful corporate fraud and corruption. The scandal also brought into question the accounting practices and activities of many corporations in the United States and was a factor in the creation of the Sarbanes–Oxley Act of 2002. The scandal also affected the greater business world by causing the dissolution of the Arthur Andersen accounting company.[2]

Enron Stock TankEnron’s finance people used a whole slew of “off-balance sheet” accounting practices that allowed the corporation to omit significant liabilities – debts – from their official books and filings. Enron, for sure, went far beyond these legal, if not quite ethical, accounting practices and committed numerous acts of fraud. And, the fact is that “off-balance sheet” financing schemes were all the rage when Enron went down in flames.

“Off-balance sheet” financing schemes were especially popular U.S. colleges and universities as a way to finance new building projects in the absence of significant endowments. It was part of the “public-private partnership” (PPPs) craze of the early 2000s that I discussed above. In a 2010 National Association of College and University Business Officers article assessing the impact of the financial crisis on “off-balance sheet” building projects at colleges and universities, Roger Bruszewski, Sam Jung and Jeffrey Turner note that many colleges and universities entered into PPPs “through the university’s existing foundation, a newly developed university-affiliated foundation, or a collaboration with an unaffiliated national foundation that partners with institutions.”  One of “benefits” of this model was that these projects were treated as “off-credit, off-balance sheet transaction[s] that preserved institutional borrowing capacity and balance sheet integrity.” That is, bond rating companies did not consider debt from “off-balance sheet” projects as part of a school’s liabilities. As the authors note, “many of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) schools have continued to utilize this approach.” However good these schemes looked initially, the authors warn:

Over the past several years, however, the off-credit, off-balance sheet transactions have come under considerable scrutiny from lenders, rating agencies, and accounting standards boards because of the direct or indirect ties between the project and institution. Over time developers and universities learned that a project can meet the qualifications to be off-balance sheet and still be included in an institution’s debt profile. These initial on-campus project financings were completed without any developer equity and as 100 percent “project-based” debt. Typically, a not-for-profit entity owned the improvements (subject to a ground lease) and the developer was paid a fee to complete the project. The capital markets determined that because of the absence of equity, the high loan-to-value ratio, the project-based nature of the debt, and the lack of any meaningful developer commitment to the project, an institution was the only logical backstop in the event of trouble. “This ‘moral obligation’ resulted in potentially negative implications for an institution’s debt capacity,” states Bill Bayless, president and chief executive officer at American Campus Communities.

And, it turned out, these warnings bore fruit. In 2012, the bond rating agency Moody’s downgraded PASSHE’s credit rating from Aa2 to Aa3 (click here for explanation of Moody’s ratings) in part because of increasing debt and off-balance sheet projects. Under “Challenges” for PASSHE, Moody’s listed:

  • High balance sheet leverage from substantial increase in debt since FY 2004, with total pro-forma debt rising to nearly $2.36 billion, driven largely by privatized student housing debt issued for replacement student residences on State System’s university campuses.
  • Debt structure of member university foundations to fund replacement student housing includes variable rate debt requiring bank support or direct bank placement adding risk of liquidity demands of the foundations’ own modest resources and expectations of PASSHE to step in to fund or assume management or ownership of the housing facility

***

Remember the backdrop we’re all working with here. PASSHE university presidents across the state are screaming about budget shortfalls and the need to make deep cuts to faculty, staff and academic programs – and not just at the universities that are most immediately under the budget ax. The new PASSHE Chancellor, Frank Brogan, had made it clear that the cuts will continue, remarking In October 10 during a media briefing, “Make no doubt about it, retrenchment is here.” And the story from PASSHE’s administration continues to be that the “problem” comes from “rising costs” from faculty and staff salaries – no matter how clear the data is disproving that claim.

In reality, the costs of more than a decade of irresponsible building projects and sketchy oversight will be borne by faculty, staff and students. And, like the Wall Street fraud that led to the Great Recession of 2009, the people who gambled with our money – with the money that we expected to be responsibly invested in our future and the future of our children – will walk away, pointing their fingers at all of us.

READ THE FULL ARTICLE on Raging Chicken Press

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Note: This is the second article in a series on the incoming PASSHE Chancellor Frank Brogan I am writing for Raging Chicken Press. The first article, “New Chancellor for PA State Universities Comes Complete with Right-WIng Baggage,” focused on Brogan’s times as Florida’s Commissioner of Education and as Lieutenant Governor under Jeb Bush. I’ve included an excerpt below. To read the full piece, click “CONTINUE READING” at the bottom of this post, or go to the full article now

Last month, the Board of Governors of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) lifted the veil of secrecy and announced that they had chosen Frank Brogan to help write the next chapter of the 14 state-owned universities. Brogan comes to PASSHE fresh off his gig as chancellor of Florida’s State University System. PASSHE Board of Governors chair, Guido Pichini, sang the praises of Brogan in a public relations piece released following the announcement:

He has had an impressive record of success throughout his career. He understands the many complexities and challenges facing public higher education and the vital role public universities play both in preparing students for a lifetime of their own success and in ensuring the economic vitality of the state.

However, as I reported in my first article on the in-coming chancellor, Pichini’s words could not be judged on their merit. He and PASSHE’s Board of Governors forced search committee members to sign confidentiality agreements to not disclose any information about the search process – including the names of the candidates. Given that PASSHE and public education in general has been under assault by Governor Tom Corbett’s administration, we at Raging Chicken Press thought we should get up to speed on who this guy is.

My first article in this series focused on Brogan’s background as a right-wing education “reformer,” who served on George W. Bush’s education transition team in 2000 (helping to usher in No Child Left Behind and high-stakes testing); his close ties with anti-union and anti-public education organizations such as the far-right Center for Education Reform;  his time as Florida’s Lieutenant Governor under Jeb Bush in which he pushed for the rapid expansion of vouchers and charter schools; and his advocacy for using high-stakes testing to shut down “failing” public schools.

In this article, we’ll take a look at Brogan’s time as the President of Florida Atlantic University. If you’re looking for some good news, you might want to stop reading now.

CONTINUE READING at Raging Chicken Press

 

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Flood Metaphor

 

 

As the news of deeps cuts at Clarion University spreads across the Commonwealth, for many faculty and staff across PASSHE, “back to school” now comes with an asterisk. As the Patriot-News reported last week, several PASSHE universities received letters about the possibility of retrenchment: California University, Cheney University, Clarion University,  East Stroudsburg University, Edinboro University, Kutztown University, and Slippery Rock University. State APSCUF has also confirmed that Mansfield University also received a letter.

I’ve received a number of inquiries concerning letter that was sent to Kutztown. The meat of the letter reads:

As a result of budgetary shortfalls, consideration is being given to the elimination of programs and courses, as well as the elimination of duties or services performed by faculty outside of the classroom. As the impact of such actions may lead to the retrenchment of faculty, this letter serves as notice to APSCUF of the possibility for faculty retrenchments to be effective at the end of the 2013-2014 year.

According to APSCUF, the letter is virtually the same letter that was sent to all 8 PASSHE universities facing retrenchment.

You can read the entire letter here: Kutztown Retrenchment Letter

I am writing a series of articles on PASSHE retrenchment over on Raging Chicken Press using the tag #slasshe (thanks to Rick Smith and Brett Banditelli for that one). You can also follow that same hashtag on Twitter for updates.  I will post excerpts and links to the full articles here.

 

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Note: This article was published earlier today on Raging Chicken Press. An excerpt appears below. You can read the full article by clicking the link at the end, or you can go to the original article now by clicking here

Last week, Clarion University announced what it called a “bold, ambitious workforce plan” that will result in the elimination of over 40 jobs, including 22 faculty. This is only the latest blow to a Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) university in a state that seems hell bent on gutting public higher education. This past May, Raging Chicken Press reported on plans to retrench – that is, fire – faculty members at East Stroudsburg University and the long battles with austerity-minded administrators at Kutztown University is a familiar story to our readers.

What sets the move at Clarion apart from previous PASSHE cuts is that it may be the lead example of “transformation” at state universities championed by the system’s Board of Governors. PASSHE’s last Chancellor, John Cavanaugh, released a new vision for PASSHE in November 2010 called simply enough, “PASSHE Transformation.” That document laid out in general terms PASSHE’s intention to take the 14 university system in a different direction:

The vision includes four major components, all grounded in the need for transformation: (a) how, when, and where learning occurs; (b) how the resources necessary to ensure learning are pursued, retained, and sustained; (c) how our universities relate to their various communities; and (d) how we partner with the Commonwealth to create and deliver a shared vision for the future. Only through transformation, grounded in a thoughtful reexamination of our historic emphasis on high quality student learning opportunities, will our success be assured during these very difficult economic times [bold in original].

In my review of Cavanaugh’s tenure as PASSHE Chancellor after he announced he was headed out the door for greener pastures in Washington, DC, I note that Cavanaugh’s vision of “transformation” was lock-in-step with what’s happening to public education at all levels across the nation:

Anyone paying attention to what was and is going on in higher education policy, especially in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis, saw the coded language consistent with those seeking to privatize and profitize education at all levels. Take, for example, language from the Broad Foundation, founded by Eli Broad – #157 on the Forbes Billionaire list with a personal net worth of $6.3 billion. Broad is a major contributor to Democratic Party candidates with close associations with Democrats favoring anti-labor, Michelle Rhee-type “reforms” to public education. At the center of the Broad Foundation agenda is, you guessed it, “transformation” of public education. Cavanaugh’s “PASSHE Transformation” memo seemed to signal the austerity to come, squeezing PAASHE’s limited resources and striking a blow to our 6,000+ member union.

While Cavanaugh’s memo was short on specifics, what it meant was not lost on the faculty union. In a scathing piece of satire, “The Great Stalin Plan for the Transformation of PASSHE,” president Steve Hicks and vice president Ken Mash of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties (APSCUF) wrote:

Perhaps you’ve seen the Chancellor’s latest on “PASSHE Transformation?”  It’s amazing how a document so short on details can still manage to rankle.  The very notion that students and faculty will be transformed is enough to disturb, but its implicit anti-intellectual message really vexes.  It’s hard to ignore the presumptuousness that could lead some to conclude that “transformation” is necessary or, even worse, that they somehow single-handedly possess the knowledge of what that transformation ought to be and that it should be imposed from above.

Clarion University’s new “workforce plan” reads more like an accounting ledger than it does a document that helps guide the university to best serve students of the Commonwealth. Clarion’s plan is clearly situated within the growing right-wing, “market-based” proposals to “reform” everything public. Rather than putting forth a strategic plan based on an academically sound rationale, we are treated to a consumer vision of higher education: “eliminating academic programs which no longer hold the interest, based on enrollment trends, of our students.”

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It’s about 3:30 am and I am up preparing for today’s PASSHE Board of Governors meeting in Harrisburg. I am printing out the last faculty letters to the Chancellor that I received late last night, reviewing my notes for my 90 seconds before the Board of Governors, rechecking Google maps directions to ensure I can return to KU in time for my office hours and afternoon class, and hoping that enough faculty members from our 14 university system will make the trip to Harrisburg today to pack the Board of Governor’s meeting. As an academic – especially one that teaches writing and advocacy rhetorics, I am compelled to accept the persuasive power of rational discourse and I hope that the words of my colleagues and I will have some degree of impact on the Chancellor and the Board of Governors. I want to believe that we can help convince PASSHE administrators to bargain in good faith and help us secure a good and lasting contract.

However, the activist in me, the labor unionist in me, is also compelled to recognize that the persuasive power of words – yes, even in an academic context – have power only insofar as they are backed by people willing to act up on those words. Words, by themselves, are constrained by context – e.g. if there is no one listening, or a decision has already been made, or there are no institutional rules that require those in power to listen. If words are not empowered to be meaningful in any given institutional context, then their source of power must come from outside that institutional context. As Frederick Douglass memorably put it:

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

For sure, Douglass was no slouch when it came to a commitment to the persuasive power of words. However, he was also no fool. His direct experience with slavery and racism taught him otherwise.

Late yesterday we found out that the Chancellor’s Office has limited the public comments section of today’s meeting to three speakers. Each speaker will be limited to three minutes. Then, that’s it, comments are cut off. The Chancellor’s Office limited public comments to three speakers at least once before – when cafeteria workers from IUP, represented by SEIU, were protesting the Board of Governor’s meeting because of Sodexo. The take away? When workers in the PASSHE system – from cafeteria workers to academic workers – seek to make their concerns part of the official discussion, the Chancellor’s Office turns off the mic after providing just enough time for comments so they can claim to have been “open” to public concerns, but not enough time for any substantive discussion. It’s not about discussion after all. It’s about control.

I will be splitting my time with our local APSCUF-KU President, Paul Quinn. Before hearing that the Chancellor’s Office was going to limit debate, each of us had three minutes. But, we’ll take what we can get. I will deliver faculty letters and I will make some brief remarks. But, in the end, what will matter is if the Chancellor and the Board of Governors see that they are not up against three or four faculty members, but hundreds. The power of our words will be measured by the number of faculty members packing the meeting room and manning the picket lines outside the Dixon Center.

I prepare to drive to Harrisburg knowing full well that the Chancellor’s Office has already stacked the deck against us. That the only reason I am  being given time to speak is because the Chancellor’s Office needs to appear to to be open to public comments. I don’t have any illusions about that portion of today’s meeting. I am going to Harrisburg to stand with my colleagues from across the state who, through their physical presence, are saying, “Enough!” I am going to Harrisburg to provide the Chancellor’s Office with a small taste of what a picket line looks like. I am going to Harrisburg to begin a process of demonstrating what gives a union power at the negotiations table  – not simply the negotiation skills of the people at the table, but the collective power of our more than 6,000 members across the Commonwealth. I am going to Harrisburg to begin a process of putting limits on the aspirations of would-be, petty tyrants.

 

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