Compartmentalizing Dissent: Transparency, Austerity and the Soul of UNC

Compartmentalizing Dissent: Transparency, Austerity and the Soul of UNC

Compartmentalizing Dissent: Transparency, Austerity and the Soul of UNC

In North Carolina, the struggle for higher education has taken the form of protest against the appointment of Margaret Spellings to the position of University of North Carolina (UNC) president. For months, student protestors attended Board of Governors (BOG) meetings to show their absolute displeasure at the opacity of governance within their university system. Faculty have also voiced their concerns, especially with Spellings’ lack of qualifications for her new role. In an effort to quiet the dissent, the public comment portion of the BOG meetings was created. While this represents a triumph on the part of students and faculty that supported this movement, it has not kept the board of governors from counterbalancing the victory by making the public comment segments both difficult to attend and without response. If we are to achieve real change in higher education, we must stand together and continue pushing forward no matter the setbacks.

I arrived at the UNC Center for School Leadership Development on Sept. 9 promptly at 11:30 a.m. While the email sent to me mentioned the public comment section of the UNC Board of Governor’s meeting would begin at that time or within 30 minutes after the closure of proceedings, I wholeheartedly expected to speak at the very least within the hour. Instead, I was forced to wait in the lobby with another commenter until almost half past noon. Now, I work full time and my fellow commenter Mitch Xia works part time and attends University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC-CH), an hour and in her case a multiple hour wait was time that both of us could ill afford. We attempted to gain access to the public gallery to witness the end of the meeting, which according to the screens scattered about the lobby was open for observation. Rather than let us in, an administrator halted our movement, and proceeded to explain the gallery was at capacity.

The truth is, we could both plainly view there were very few seats filled and there was more than enough room for the two of us. Eventually, the administrator convinced us to return to our seats in the lobby. He accomplished this with the aid of two burly police officers, despite the fact that neither of us had anything but a calm demeanor throughout the interaction. Apparently, a petite woman and an average-sized man constituted such a threat to the proceedings that these agents of the state were needed to keep us from acting out. When we were finally allowed in to address the BOG, it turned out that Ms. Xia and I were the only two speakers. The UNC Board of Governors had allotted a full hour for public comment, and to ensure equality of voice had given each speaker a three-minute time limit. This, of course, would make sense had there been a large group of speakers, but that situation did not come to fruition. When I reached the end of my time limit, I expected to be given the chance to finish since I was representing not only myself, but the rest of the public who could not attend.

After I spoke, the media approached me for my personal information, and hoping to make my comments more widely accessible I cooperated with their requests. Since then, there has yet to be an official response from the board of governors to the issues posed by Xia or myself, and there has been no mention of public comments on any of the official websites of the BOG nor anywhere in the media outside of the Daily Tarheel. Since our story probably reflects that of many in academia today, I will take the opportunity to share my piece that I prepared for public comments.

First, and for me most importantly, we must look to what the rule of law is in North Carolina. Section 9 of Article IX of the North Carolina Legislation on Education reads, “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.” Now, I am sure the response by the BOG to quoting this section of the constitution would be to highlight “as far as practicable” as the operative phrase to deflect criticism, but even if this were to be conceded as the working objective, it is one that has been grossly unfulfilled. Over the last three decades, the burden placed upon students to obtain a degree has increased exponentially. If anything, the state has moved further away from its promise to its youth by leaps and bounds.

As of 2014, 61 percent of university students graduated with an average of $25, 218 worth of debt, a 50 percent increase from $16, 863 only a decade earlier. A cursory look at budgets gives an excellent explanation to how the UNC system got to where it is today, burdening those who had no part in the rising cost of education. These debt burdens bar many from entry into jobs that might be able to loosen their load, pay their bills, and allow them to enjoy their lives. Instead, many are forced to accept a menial job that has no connection to their academic training, rely on tenuous contingent work, and the postponement of many activities that were seen as rites of passage for previous generations. For the 2014-2015 fiscal year, $1.7 billion of the UNC system budget came from student fees and tuition and another $2.7 billion came from state tax revenues, effectively placing a third of the state’s education funding burden squarely in the laps of those who can ill afford to pay for it.

While it may be beneficial for the board of governors that North Carolinians have collectively forgotten that things have not always been this way, only 30 years ago funding for UNC-CH, the flagship school of the state higher education system, relied on tuition and fees for only 5.8 percent of its budget. To put this into perspective, the number of undergraduate students enrolled nationwide in 1986 was a little more than 10 million, by 2016 that number rose to slightly more than 17 million. This is a nearly 60 percent increase in college attendance in 30 years, and some would argue that this in part has led to the increase in the cost of tuition. However, a look back at allocations from the state budget for the UNC system in 1986 shows this explanation could not be further from the truth. Accounting for inflation, the state allotted almost $2 billion for the UNC system that year, which only serves to show that state expenditures have actually kept up with the increase in the number of students attending an institution of higher learning in North Carolina.

With attempts to institutionalize austerity as the normal course of affairs, many public institutions took to implementing new operating methods. Based upon recommendations made in 1995, the UNC system adopted an enrollment-based funding model. Touted as creating an “equity of funding” among campuses by allocating funds based upon enrolled students’ course loads. In effect, what it has actually done is create a culture where administrative values prevail. Numerous administrative positions at UNC system campuses exist only to entice prospective students to attend their particular institution. It has also led to expenses on capital investments that serve no academic purpose, but rather appeal to the leisure culture among the increasingly more homogenous and wealthy college students, as tuition continues to play a larger part in funding North Carolina universities. A proposed 2 percent reduction in the operating budget for 2015 through 2017 shows exactly where the board of governors’ priorities lie and where they stand—16 percent of the cuts were administrative while almost 50 percent were instructional cuts.

Of course, these changes could not help but create tension between faculty and the administration. Increasingly, to cut costs, universities have moved away from the tenure-track positions and adopted a contingent employment strategy. This new class of adjunct instructors are paid by the course, and often they are kept just short of the courses necessary to count as full-time staff. Effectively, this leaves them to teach at multiple institutions scattered across the state without the benefits bestowed upon more secure faculty and administration. Their marginal status, more often than not, leaves them open to overwork, disciplined to accept deteriorating work conditions, and with little or no voice in the direction where higher education is heading.

Sadly, for me, this state of affairs in higher education could not be more real. This is not dealing with some abstract concept analyzed in an economics or political science course, but rather a concrete dilemma that has seriously affected my life. There is a colloquial phrase that amounts to “teachers don’t do it for the money,” which is true. From my own experience and that of most educators I know, none of us expect to get rich teaching, but we do expect to get paid a living wage for our job. I have actually had to put my life’s goal of becoming an educator on hold because I knew that I would not be able to make ends meet on an adjunct salary. One institution offered a position that would amount to $160 a week, but I was assured that I would receive “professional enrichment.” My soon-to-be born son cannot eat “professional enrichment” and neither can I. It’s as if I have been given the option to teach or provide for my family, which is really no choice at all. While I still intend to return to postgraduate school to work toward my doctorate, it is with a heavy heart and an eye toward the future and what it may hold.

Regardless of the outcome, there are signs the contradiction between the goals of administration and that of faculty are coming to head in a power struggle for the heart and soul of the university system here in the United States. Mere weeks after the National Labor Relations Board granted graduate students the right to organize at private universities, the administration at Long Island University–Brooklyn began a faculty lockout, which ended in capitulation by the union. Rather than the end of a struggle, these events represent the beginning of a fight between two antithetical tendencies in higher education. For the administration, it means safeguarding their control over higher education, and for the faculty it means regaining lost autonomy despite the fact they represent the very backbone of the university system.

Connor Harney recently graduated from Appalachian State University with an MA in History. His Master's Thesis examined the relationship between Cuba and the United States in the decades following the Cuban Revolution. He hopes to begin work toward his PhD in the fall of 2017. Until then, he works countless odd jobs and this winter he is expecting his first child. Over the summer, he became involved with faculty organizing efforts and hopes to continue to contribute to the struggle of faculty and graduate students as they try to obtain better working conditions in higher education.

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