starve the beast
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):
- In 2013 the NCGA voted to stop offering pay raises to K-12 public teachers who earn a Masters degree, a move which discourages professional development. In an ironic twist, enrollments in my department’s Masters program, a program which catered to many local teachers looking to improve their pedagogy and their salary, have dropped significantly. A true lose/lose scenario for NC’s teachers and students.
- 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:
- Fixed term instructors are losing contracts at an alarming rate.
- All faculty are being asked to teach more classes, filled with more students, for no additional compensation.
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.”
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:
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?