Higher Education

Starving the Beast: The UNC System in 2015

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I’m writing this post from inside a bunker. Outside the storm is raging but I’m hunkered down, amongst my canned goods and bottled water, waiting for the end of the UNC system to arrive. Many of my fellow professors may be looking out their windows right now, and the sun is shining and the birds are singing. But I assure you, in North Carolina, the sky is falling. Fast.

I have been a professor at a state university in North Carolina for the last 8 years. This is the longest I’ve ever held the same job—or any job for that matter. This was my first job out of graduate school, the golden ticket. I was finally on the tenure track!

At the time of my job offer, I was especially excited to join the UNC system, widely considered the “jewel” of North Carolina:

“The [UNC] university system has not only educated thousands, it has been an economic engine, helping spawn entrepreneurs such as Jim Goodnight and Dennis Gillings, attracting huge research grants and making the Research Triangle Park possible.

It was not a given that a largely poor, rural state such as North Carolina would create a great university system. It took a sustained effort by generations of business and civic leaders to make it so.”

There are 17 universities that exist under the UNC umbrella, a move deemed, in 1971, to be a “political miracle” and which ultimately “turned the state of North Carolina into a national leader in higher education, and in the process, transformed the state into one of the most prosperous in the South.” And yes, I felt a true sense of pride when I accepted a job here in 2007. In fact, I had two job offers in 2007 (oh 2007, you were great!): one from Greenville, North Carolina and one from outside Detroit, Michigan. In 2007, North Carolina seemed like an infinitely more attractive choice based solely on the local economy, the amount of higher education funding it appeared to be receiving (at least at my hiring institution), and the overall prestige of the UNC system.

In 2007, pre-Recession academia was failing, but no faster than many other long-standing institutions. And even during the 2008 Recession, when all North Carolina state employees took a paycut and travel money was slashed and low-enrollment classes were cut, the waist cinching felt reasonable and necessary and collegial, like we were all doing our part to muddle through the Recession together. Truly, this was the attitude in 2008. The budget cuts were temporary, we were told. Things will get better, we were told. We just needed to sit tight and be patient and wait for the economy to improve, we were told. Then? Everything would go back to normal.

I’ll admit that I watched these heavy cuts tear through my university from the frazzled standpoint of a pre-tenure mother of two young children. I knew that things were bad, but my biggest concern wasn’t salary compression or gendered wage inequality or the exploitation of fixed term faculty (all major problems at my university). No, to be honest, my biggest concerns during those years were purely selfish: finishing my book and getting more than 3 consecutive hours of sleep at a time. I was exhausted and detached, like so many of my colleagues. We all knew that the cuts seemed unfair but we also knew that things would likely get better soon.

Well, they didn’t. In fact, things got much worse. In 2011, former UNC System President Erskine Bowles warned of the dangers inherent in the radical cuts that were being made to the state’s university system: 

“We not only have to provide an education that is as free from expense as practicable, but we’ve also got to provide a high-quality education…I’ve always believed that low tuition without high quality is no bargain for anyone. It is not a bargain for the student, and it is not a bargain for the taxpayer

Bowles’ words have turned prophetic. The North Carolina legislature’s short term money-saving cuts have had longterm negative impacts on public education in this state. Here are just a few (and trust me, there are far too many to list here):

  • North Carolina has more Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) than any other state in the country (11)  but cuts to higher ed funding in the state are preventing many students from being able to attend these schools. As a result, HBCUs like North Carolina Central University and Elizabeth City College are seeing significant drops in enrollments. Johnny Taylor, president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, argues that enrollment declines are particularly devastating for HBCUs. He explains:“If you take a school like N.C. A&T, where 50 percent of the country’s undergraduate black engineers come to one school, it would seriously impact our workforce diversity initiative if that school didn’t exist.” Indeed, Elizabeth City College, which lost 10% of its funding in 2013-2014, has been teetering on the edge of being shut down all together.
  • Faculty who can leave, do leave. For example, one of my colleagues, a dear friend and a brilliant scholar, left our department in 2011 in order to chair another English department. He simply could not support his family on the salaries paid to English faculty. Shortly after leaving our department this colleague made an historic discovery, was profiled in The New York Times, and was awarded a research fellowship at Harvard. When you don’t compensate your best faculty, they leave. End of story.
  • Faculty, like me, who have thus far been unable to secure employment outside of North Carolina, have only had a 1.2% pay increase since 2008. That means that tenured faculty like me, who have 8 years of experience teaching the university’s student body and who have won teaching and research awards, are actually earning less today than we did when we were first hired 8 years ago. We are being penalized for our experience and our dedication to the university. I have been explicitly told that the only way I will see a raise is if I snag a competing job offer. Of course, a female colleague of mine did get a competing job offer, in an effort to raise her salary, and my university basically told her to have a nice life. So she’s still in NC, making what I make.
  • Funding for travel has been scaled back or eliminated all together. For example, I have been planning to attend a prestigious academic conference in Ireland this summer, during which I present research from my next book project. Attending conferences like these are essential for scholars to gain feedback and share their research with others. But, there are no more international travel grants, as I just learned recently when I tried to apply for one:travel grant
  • Fixed term instructors are losing contracts at an alarming rate.

The list goes on and on.

But, here are some things the North Carolina General Assembly did vote for recently:

  • allowing guns on school grounds
  • tax breaks on yacht sales
  • $41,000 tax breaks for those making $1 million or more per year
  • restrictive voter registration rules
  • requiring middle school teachers to discuss “sensitive and scientifically discredited abortion issues with students.”

But perhaps what is most offensive in this climate of austerity and sacrifice is when the UNC Board of Governors recently recommended salary increases for the UNC system’s highest paid employees, including presidents and chancellors:

“Under the new parameters, the salary for a UNC president would match that for chancellors at the two flagship research campuses – UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State University. The levels could range from a minimum of $435,000 to a maximum of $1 million, with the more likely market range of $647,000 to $876,000”

Maybe I’m biased, but I was always under the impression that the most important commodity at a university is the quality of its teaching staff, not the quality of its administrators. When I graduated from college in 1999 I didn’t think back fondly on all the administrators I had encountered along the way. So what explanation could possibly be given for proposing that university administrators deserve “competitive salaries” but the university’s teachers don’t? Why is the Board of Governors only concerned with attracting and retaining top administrative talent, not top teaching or research talent?

What, exactly, is going on? My university, you see, is very slowly being converted from an institution of education into a business. “Can’t it be both?” some of you might be thinking? “Wouldn’t academia, that dying giant, benefit from trimming the fat and keeping an eye towards pleasing the customer?” The answer, as someone who has slowly watched her university transition from a university into a Wal Mart over the last 8 years, is a resounding no.

Now, I can’t speak for every professor in the UNC system but I can tell you that I’ve witnessed these practices firsthand and they are destroying this university by slowly sucking the lifeblood out of its faculty. That metaphor may feel hyperbolic but trust me, it’s accurate. Indeed, it is the very metaphor employed by North Carolina’s own policy makers.

Back in February 2011, Jay Schalin of the Art Pope Center (which is essentially North Carolina’s own personal Koch Brothers), wrote an article entitled “Starving the Academic Beast,” which details the ways NC can “restore the 17 campus University of North Carolina system to its proper size and role.”

Screen Shot 2015-05-06 at 4.30.07 PM

So the stated goal of the Art Pope Center is, indeed, to “starve the beast.” But one has to wonder: since the North Carolina State constitution states that “The General Assembly shall provide that the benefits of The University of North Carolina and other public institutions of higher education, as far as practicable, be extended to the people of the State free of expense” AND  since public education has consistently proven to be the one enterprise that consistently provides a significant return on investment, then what THE HELL are these people doing and WHY are they doing it? Do they simply wish to starve the “beast” down into a nice, lean fighting weight? No, my friends, they want us to starve to death. And they are succeeding.

It’s also worth pointing our that  3 of the 10 most gerrymandered districts in the country are right here in North Carolina:

Screen Shot 2015-05-06 at 4.20.55 PM

That means we will likely have to accept the current policies (which only seem to be getting worse and worse) until at least 2016. This sad state of affairs has been incredibly demoralizing for me and for my colleagues. Many folks are resigned to the way things are, shrugging their shoulders and saying, “Why fight? There’s nothing to be done.” Fixed term faculty, whose precarity renders them most vulnerable to the whims of our legislature and, ironically, makes them least able to speak up about it, are worried about paying their bills. As my former colleague, John Steen, a visiting professor in my department who, despite being a brilliant scholar and talented teacher, must now pursue a different line of work, writes:

“Currently, over 52 percent of ECU faculty are fixed-term, and that number’s rising. This means that over half of the ECU faculty can leave the classroom after final exams uncertain of whether they’ll return for the next semester. Nationwide, 31 percent of part-time faculty earn near or below the federal poverty level. For raising a family, paying rent, and for supporting students throughout their ECU careers, that’s not nearly enough.”

Tenure track faculty, who have yet to submit their tenure materials, are worried about jeopardizing their one chance at academic job security (most of us on the tenure track are aware that we are lucky to have any job at all). We’re too scared to speak and too scared to be silent.

Well, that’s not exactly true.

As a result of these draconian policies, which both implicitly and explicitly seek to “starve” the great beast that is public education in North Carolina, some of us have started to get mad. And we’re trying to make some noise. And a lot of us have tenure,  the one thing, so far, that the General Assembly hasn’t taken away.

So this post is for you, my tenured friends. We are small in number—indeed, we are an endangered species. But I am calling on you now to speak up and get involved. Talk to your colleagues, your department chairs and your deans. Write letters to the editor of your local paper and to your student paper. Write to your legislators. Talk to your students about this–if anyone should be outraged about having to pay more tuition for less and less instruction it should be them.

But really, shouldn’t this outrage all of us? An affordable public education is the promise we made, collectively, as a state, many decades ago. We pay taxes for this education. This university system belongs to US, the people of North Carolina. So why are we allowing this wonderful, economy-boosting, prestige-raising, research-generating “beast” to starve? Are we really helpless? Have we really been stripped of all options? No. Because as long as we can speak and type and scream, we can fight. Won’t you join us?

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GHOSTBUSTERS as Neoliberal AltAc Fantasy

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image source: www.vulture.com
image source:
http://www.vulture.com

Normally, I’m not a big fan of rewatching films I’ve already seen. I have to do so much rewatching for my classes and for my research that in my free time my goal is to see new stuff. Nevertheless, over the last few months I’ve been rewatching some favorite films from my childhood, like Home Alone (1990 Chris Columbus), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993, Chris Columbus), Teen Wolf (1985, Rod Daniel), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986, John Hughes), Karate Kid (1994, John G. Alvidsen), and Footloose (1984, Herbert Ross), with my own children and I’ve been surprised by how much I’ve (mis)remembered those films. When I rewatched Mrs. Doubtfire, for example, I was shocked by how my memories of that film were so conditioned by its theatrical trailer. The scenes that I found myself remembering before they happened — Robin Williams asking Harvey Fierstein to make him a woman, Robin Williams throwing a piece of fruit at Pierce Brosnan’s head, Robin Williams’ rubber breasts on fire — were the scenes that were featured in the film’s trailer:

As a child of the 1980s, I grew up with commercials, with flow, and I watched these commercials over and over, even when I didn’t actively watch them (because I was fighting with my brother or gabbing on my sweet cordless phone). These scenes travelled through my brain repeatedly, wearing a groove, making themselves at home. Robin Williams’ burning rubber breasts are a permanent part of my memories.

But it wasn’t just frequent exposure to trailers that shaped my memories of these films — my memories have also been shaped by the way I watched movies as a child, that is, by my child-self’s attention span. A few weeks ago we decided to screen Footloose for our kids, reasoning that its numerous dance scenes would make up for its snoozer of a plot about an uptight preacher (John Lithgow) who won’t just let those kids dance! But my husband and I misremembered the film — there aren’t that many dance scenes in the film. And when those kids aren’t dancing? Well, the film is pretty boring. Our kids (and our neighbor’s kid) were antsy throughout, only pepping up when a dance number came on. Then they would leap off the couch and dance furiously until the narrative started up again. So perhaps they, too, will misremember the film when they’re old like me, filing away the “good stuff,” the dancing and the Kevin Bacon, and forgetting the boring stuff.

What I’d like to talk about in this blog post, though, is my experience of rewatching a beloved film from my childhood and realizing that the film my child’s brain watched is very different from the one I watched as an adult. I’m talking about Ghostbusters (1984, Ivan Reitman). I remember being 8-years-old and actively anticipating the release of Ghostbusters, a movie which was most certainly a must-see for the elementary school set. Like most kids my age, I was obsessed: I watched the sequel and the Saturday morning cartoon, ate my Slimer candy, and of course I drank my fair share of Ecto Cooler .

item_ghostpaste

This past Saturday we rented Ghostbusters, made some popcorn, and invited another couple and their son to watch it with us (at this point my child-free readers might be asking themselves: is this what Saturday night looks like when you have young children? Yes it does, child-free friends, so please, practice safe sex). As we all sat down to watch the movie, the first thing I remembered about the film, or rather what I had forgotten about the film, is that before they become “Ghostbusters,” saviors of New York City (and by extension, the entire world), Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Raymond Stantz (Dan Ackroyd) and Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) are actually professors at Columbia University, studying the paranormal.

Pointless brain research. Image source: ghostbusters.wikia.com
Pointless research.
Image source:
ghostbusters.wikia.com

I had completely forgotten this but the moment the film cuts from a frightened librarian to the interior of a Columbia lab where Bill Murray flirts with a student participanting in his ESP tests, I turned to my children and declared “The heroes of this movie are professors, kids, just like Mommy!” The friends who were over are also professors, in Biology and Geology, so they were also excited for their son to see professors doing cool shit in a movie (this rarely happens, as you all know). After we watched the scene in which the professors are informed that their grant has been terminated, my daughter was confused “What just happened?” she asked. I explained, “It would be like if Beth’s boss took away her corn fields or if Eric’s boss took away his rocks.” Then my husband piped in “Or if someone said Mommy couldn’t watch movies.” Rocks and corn are not ghost busting, but they’re more tangible than the study of film. Nevertheless, this answer satisfied my daughter.

As I watched Venkman, Stantz, and Spengler pack up their offices and their life’s work and leave Columbia’s grand campus, I thought about the current state of academia and then, I began to watch Ghostbusters in a different way. Instead of watching the fun, comedy-horror-blockbuster of my youth, I found I was watching a vision of the future of academia, a fantasy of the Alternative-Academic career, one based wholly on the market value of the university professor’s research, rather than the broader, and somewhat less market-driven value of the professor’s ability to instruct students in that research and to engage the public in those findings.

Hello Professors! Image source: www.clearancebinreview.com/
Hello Professors!
Image source:
http://www.clearancebinreview.com/

When the professors leave academia they are not ghost busters. They’re just unemployed PhDs, which, as we all know, are a dime a dozen. What transforms these useless, unemployed academics into Ghostbusters? An ancient Sumerian god named Gozer the Gozerian, who wants to destroy New York City! These professors are literally the only people in the city who can do this job. They actually have ghost busting equipment: proton packs (for wrangling ghosts), ghost traps, and an Ecto containment unit on hand. I mean if there’s something strange in your neighborhood who are you gonna call? I don’t need the 1984 Ray Parker Jr. hit to answer that question, because the answer is, naturally: GHOSTBUSTERS! The university may not value these men, but the good people of New York certainly do. Their research will save the world! Does your research save the world? Mine sure doesn’t!

So you see, these professors have a real value. As soon as their first commercial airs, glimpsed (fortuitously) by beautiful Dana Stevens (Sigourney Weaver) just before she finds a demon in her fridge, the phone at Ghostbusters central never stops ringing. In fact, the Ghostbusters have so much business, they must hire a fourth ghost buster, Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson). My childhood memories of this film have Hudson’s character, aka the “black Ghostbuster,” playing a much larger role, perhaps because he gets more screen time in the sequel? But during this viewing at least, I was surprised by how little screen time he gets. His character truly feels like an afterthought, like a producer said “You better get a black guy in there somewhere” and so they threw him in at the last minute. But I digress. All of this is just to say that business is booming at Ghostbusters and the men are finally getting the chance to prove the value — the real, incontrovertible value — of their life’s work. The market says so.

In this neoliberal (a term I use here to reference the broader trends toward the privatization of higher education) fantasy of higher education, academia within the walls of the academy is stifled and limited. But once professors are freed from the constraints of the Ivory Tower, with its navel-gazing and its pretentiousness, and are placed at the mercy of the market (aka, “the real world”), they can demonstrate the true value of their research and their pedagogy. Professors should be training our college graduates for real jobs in the real world. After all, isn’t the whole point of a university education to create future workers, future entrepreneurs, future moneymakers? Sure it is.

But what happens next? What interrupts our fairytale of flourishing academics? It’s the goddamn Environmental Protection Agency, that’s who! Walter Peck (William Atherton), the EPA representative, is the film’s heavy. I remember hating this character when I was a kid. “Why won’t he just let the Ghostbusters do their jobs? Doesn’t he realize the fate of the city is at stake? Regulation is the worst!” Peck wants to investigate the environmental impact of the Ecto containment unit, which, I have to admit, looks super shady. I wouldn’t want to live downstream from the Ecto containment unit, but if I had to choose between living with Gozer and living with Ecto in my water? Bring on the Ecto cooler! Screw the EPA! Regulation, boo, hiss!

In the final scene of Ghostbusters, all four men (yes, even Winston), are cheered by New York City residents who are grateful that they’ve been saved from the wrath of Gozer. I told my kids “Look, they’re cheering for the professors!” And then the four adults in the room laughed for a long time.

My kids laughed too. They were delighted by the film, just as I had been as a kid. But this time around, Ghostbusters gave me pause. The narrative hit a little too close to home because I am acutely aware of the market value of my degree and my profession. My Governor tells me my work is useless and elitist. So I’m waiting for the day when this dystopian future is upon us, when the key master finds the gate keeper, and we’re all packing up our offices,  just waiting for a chance to prove our true worth.