Monday, April 14, 2014

Class Dismissed

Portland has, in recent weeks, become the latest case study in the ongoing corporatization of higher education.

Last month, The University of Southern Maine laid off 15 full-time faculty members--the majority of which belong to the humanities and liberal arts department--in order to make up for a $14 million budget shortfall. All of the laid off professors are tenured, but have been "retrenched," which, as the Portland Phoenix's Nicholas Schroeder explains in a recent cover story ("Crisis at USM," 03/28/2014), is a "jargony term for eliminating specific programs without appearing to violate faculty union contracts."

The departments cut include Music, Theater, English, Sociology and Women and Gender Studies, along with Geosciences, Recreation and Leisure Studies, and New England Studies. And this is only the first round of cuts to as many as 50 total positions across the University of Maine System. The USM administration, currently headed by President Theodora Kalikow and Chancellor James Page, cites declining enrollment and tuition freezes as the need for the cuts.

Kalikow says she wants to remake the sprawling, multi-campus college as a "Metropolitan university." With all due respect to both Portland and USM, the words "metropolitan," and "Maine" really do not belong in the same sentence.

But students and faculty are fighting back.

The anti-austerity activist group #USMFuture--which consists of current and former USM students, faculty, members of the Portland Green Independent Committee, the Southern Maine Workers' Center, and Occupy Maine--staged a rally and march against the layoffs in Portland's Monument Square on April 10.

Andy Moxley, one of the rally's participants from the organization Socialist Alternative, drew comparisons between the ongoing corporatization of education and the nationwide drive for a higher minimum wage (the "Fight for $15," as it is being called).

"These issues are absolutely related," said Moxley. "They are both issues that affect working-class young people. We keep belt-tightening until we have no room anymore. This sort of austerity is not working. I think people are realizing that. And the fight for $15 is definitely a part of this [larger] struggle."

Many protesters carried signs that read, "Students Are Not Customers," and "Education is Not a Business Transaction." Yet, that is increasingly how colleges are treating both.

More and more, college recruiters and administrators, parents, employers, and even a few professors, are pushing students away from the liberal arts courses, traditionally the backbone of higher education. They insist these disciplines are not "practical" and will not lead students to a career. Courses in the humanities (Music, Philosophy, Creative Writing, Literature) are considered "superfluous" because they will not make anyone (monetarily) rich. And this has perverted the entire purpose of education which is inherently self-critical, political, and even, at times, subversive.

Universities are becoming glorified vocational training mills, emphasizing job skills over actual learning.

"Education," W.B. Yeats famously wrote, "is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire."

John Branson, a Portland attorney who served as the pro-bono lawyer for Occupy Maine, echoes Yeats's sentiments. In a recent Op-Ed to the Portland Daily Sun ("In Defense of the Liberal Arts," 04/03/14) Branson recalls the benefits of his own liberal arts education at Yale.

"We [Branson and his classmates] were to become lifelong learners," Branson writes, "equipped with the intellectual ability and moral courage to contribute meaningfully not only to our future employers but society itself."

He continues:

Unfortunately, instilling our young people with the moral courage and intellectual ability to think for themselves is directly at odds with both the dominant paradigm of indoctrination and the corporate model for modern education reform. .... The goal of the modern corporatocracy... is to develop linear thinkers devoted to the absorption and acceptance of conventional knowledge, wisdom, and opinions; to mold pliant workers reluctant to rock the boat; and to create an army of malleable consumers easily influenced by modern advertising and marketing.

Let's be honest: The UMaine public schools have never been outstanding. They are average at best. (The truly excellent schools--Colby, Bates, and Bowdoin--are financially out of reach for most students and their families.) USM is a glorified commuter school, and the system's flagship college, The University of Maine in Orono, suffers from perpetual understaffing of faculty. Like most major colleges, UMaine overly relies on graduate students and part-time adjunct instructors to teach most of its courses.

But these budget cuts only threaten to make mediocre schools even worse.

And this dumbing down of education is not limited to our universities. The national trend toward austerity has led to a defunding of public schools, teacher layoffs, and a lack of adequate resources and learning spaces. Lawmakers complain they "do not have the money" to properly fund K-12 education, yet seem to have no problem with mega-retailers like Walmart and McDonald's basically living off of taxpayer expense.

And the emergence of charter schools in recent years--privately owned, for profit schools that are still publicly funded--threatens to usher in a future in which all education is privatized and commercialized.

The Kennebunk school district (RSU 21) where I teach as an Ed Tech recently finished implementing the new Common Core learning standards, which 46 states plus the District of Columbia have essentially been forced to adopt. (Adoption of the Common Core curriculum is tied to federal "Race to the Top" funding--some $4.35 billion. States not on board with Common Core are not eligible for the funding.)

These new standards mean more student learning will be "measured" by standardized tests and mandated educational outcomes. It also means more teacher salaries--and, in some cases, continued employment--will be based on their students' test scores. Indeed, this brave new world of corporatized education, in which the so-called "bad teachers" are those whose students do poorly on standardized tests, forgets that teaching is, as radical educator Paulo Freire observed in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a reciprocal endeavor. Even the most talented and engaging educators can only lead students to the metaphorical fountain of knowledge. They cannot force students to drink from it.

Yet the corporate forces--including the "philanthropic" Gates Foundation--that are pushing curriculum like Common Core do not understand this. They only understand one thing: How to make a profit. They see money in public education and they want it. All of it. And if we do not stop them, these corporate forces will destroy not only our nation's education system, but the very concept of an informed, engaged citizenry along with it.

UPDATE, 04/11/2014:

President Kalikow announced Friday afternoon that all faculty layoffs have been rescinded. According to the Portland Press Herald, Kalikow made the decision just minutes before the USM Faculty Senate Meeting and claims the student-led protests "did not play a role" in her reversal. This, of course, seems highly unlikely. However, Kalikow made clear the university must still account for the budget shortfall and is "open to alternative plans."

So, is this a win for us? It is hard to say. As Maine Green Independent Party chairman and state senate candidate, Asher Platts points out, this is, at best, a temporary victory. There are still structural changes needed to the University of Maine System's administrative board in order to change the ever increasing Business-orientation of higher education. Platts writes on the Maine Green Party's website:

While it's great that the faculty layoffs have been rescinded, we must keep our eyes on the prize of reforming the UMaine system to allow for more democratic means of making decisions, review funding models, and [to improve] the state of Maine's relationship to the UMaine system or we will be fighting this same battle over and over.

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