Fighting financial crises for education

By Terry Epperson
Social Science Librarian
and Nagesh Rao
Professor of English

Governor Chris Christie wants to raise funding for higher education, but aid to colleges and universities could shrink before things are improved. (NJ.com).
Governor Chris Christie wants to raise funding for higher education, but aid to colleges and universities could shrink before things are improved. (NJ.com).

From the depths of the Great Recession it is easy to despair about the state of education. Nationwide, tens of thousands of K-12 teachers have lost their jobs since the beginning of the current “crisis.” Layoffs and furloughs have hit higher education hard and union leaders have done little to resist cuts and givebacks. However, the current moment demands not surrender, but resistance. For the first time in our history, public sector workers account for over half of union membership, and while all workers are vulnerable in a recession, we are well positioned to fight against budget cuts and layoffs.

Although N.J. leads the nation in per capita concentration of millionaires and has the second-highest median household income, state funding for colleges has fallen more than 50 percent since 1990, while in-state tuition has more than tripled. As we move away from need-based student aid at a rate higher than the national average, budget cuts disproportionately hit lower-income families. With the highest proportion of students leaving the state to attend college elsewhere, N.J. also has the dubious distinction of leading the nation in “outsourcing” higher education.

In August, our union leadership, the AFT Council of New Jersey State College Locals (CNJSCL), agreed to reopen our contract and accept furloughs and deferral of our negotiated pay raises with the hope, they said, of averting future layoffs. Between furloughs, increased healthcare costs, and deferred pay raises (that may never come), we are now at least eight percent in the hole. While there was discontent among the faculty at these cuts, some of the reaction had an (elitist) undertone of “How dare they treat us like workers!” There was also a current of hopelessness among some of our co-workers who seem to have convinced themselves that “the public” hates state workers, and that no one understands what professors do, or why our work matters. Having resigned ourselves to the inevitability of givebacks, we seem to have gone back to business as usual, even though all signs point to further state demands for pay cuts, givebacks and tuition hikes in the future.

However, grassroots opposition is emerging on some N.J. campuses. In early December, we were invited to speak at a student-organized “Defending Higher Education” teach-in at New Jersey City University, aimed at rallying the campus against the attacks on higher education, tuition hikes, furloughs and financial aid cuts. We were impressed and inspired by the vibrant debate and discussion amongst students, faculty and staff at this teach-in, as it gave us a glimmer of a spirit of resistance that is sorely needed on our campus.

Such grassroots efforts can help reframe the debate about public funding priorities and, in the process, demonstrate our value to the N.J. tax (and tuition) payers by exposing the lie of “shared sacrifice” that all workers — public and private sector alike — are being fed in this age of bank bailouts, on one hand, and job losses and home foreclosures on the other. What we need today is an engaged, and enraged, grassroots movement that builds solidarity among faculty, staff, students, parents and campus unions. Such a movement can stem the bleeding in the short term, but also widen and deepen public support for higher education in the long term.

Sources: cnjscl.org, njpp.org, online.wjs.com