Categories: Opinion

We need smart spending, not dumb cuts for higher ed

By Larry Hanley, Brad Erickson and Juliette Hua

California colleges and universities have a choice: sacrifice future generations to cost-cutting and austerity, or give our students the future they need and deserve.

Following this semester’s massive disruptions, college students and their parents are rightfully anxious about the upcoming academic year. Anticipating enrollment drops and budget shortfalls, college and university administrations are rolling out plans to manage the next stage of the COVID-19 crisis. Unfortunately, these shortsighted plans aggravate existing inequalities and will harm the most vulnerable students, faculty, and staff.

We believe there are alternatives that strengthen rather than undermine higher education in California.

First, open the books. Budget cuts, layoffs, and terminations will devastate college faculty and staff and crush the hopes of students, parents, and communities. Before college and university administrators embrace cost-cutting, they must first embrace transparency. The AAUP — the nation’s largest association of college professors -has outlined measures that administrators should take before acting on financial exigency. College and university presidents must commit to these principles. Bringing budgets into the open creates the necessary conditions for consensus and legitimacy. We know that California public higher education will receive more than $1.3 billion from the federal CARES Act. And, the California State University system already has a “rainy day fund” estimated at $1.4 billion. How will these monies be spent? Public institutions must operate in the sunshine of public oversight and communication.

Second, maintain the conditions for high-quality education. In mid-March and with minimal or no preparation, college and university faculty hurled themselves into online teaching at a scale and pace unprecedented in the history of education. We have not even begun to measure the resulting disruption to student learning. The scramble to evacuate dorms, the collapse of the service sector, which many students depend on for employment, and escalating challenges to self-care and care for family, partners, and friends compounded this disruption. After this — chaos, our students need an even richer and more supportive educational experience. This richer experience will contribute to student retention and success. The relationship between student and teacher is the heart of high-quality education. Supporting this relationship will require more, not fewer resources. At a minimum, it requires maintaining our current investment in faculty and staff.

Third, protect the most vulnerable. One of the greatest scandals of higher education today is its dependence on under-paid, temporary, and part-time faculty. Many of these gifted and expert faculty live on poverty wages. Though they perform the labor central to education — teaching, they soldier on in the shadows of colleges and universities. Let’s be honest: when administrators talk about cost-cutting, what they’re really talking about is cancelling paychecks and health insurance. What they’re really talking about is adding to the social and human crisis that follows in the wake of COVID-19. Instead, we can protect our colleagues and refuse this moral blunder by reorganizing work. Ironically, the California State University’s planning documents see smaller class sizes — due to social distancing — as a drawback to restarting classroom instruction. We disagree. Smaller classes will benefit our traumatized students; they also require more, not fewer faculty. Recruiting contingent faculty to take up the slack in mentoring, advising, administrating, and other areas will preserve livelihoods and shore up universities and colleges still recovering from COVID-19.

Finally, prepare for the present but plan for the future. COVID-19 has dealt a punishing blow to businesses, workers, students, cities, and states. Though larger in scale and scope, we’ve seen crisis before. And, one thing we should have learned: if we’re not careful and wise, an inadequate response to crisis can set us back years, even decades. Just as it was during the Great Depression, public sector investment will be central to our recovery. Higher education is a resource of hope; universities and colleges build the future now. College classrooms set students on their life-long paths and careers. University research prepares us to meet the next crisis. University service to communities and localities plants the seeds for everybody’s growth and advancement. A headlong rush to cut and cut some more now only digs the hole deeper for coming years when we’ll need all the hope, talent, and good ideas we can get.

Larry Hanley is a professor in the Department of English at San Francisco State University. Brad Erickson holds a lecturer faculty position in the School of Humanities and Liberal Studies at San Francisco State University. Juliette Hua is a professor in the Department of Women and Gender Studies at San Francisco State University.

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