Editor’s Note: Later today, PA Senators Tomlinson (R) and Dinniman (D) are expected to unveil their proposal to allow PASSHE universities to secede from the state system and become a “state-related” university like Penn State or Temple. Raging Chicken Press was the first to report on Tomlinson and Dinniman’s plans last month. Following our story, Tomlinson and Dinniman have slowly unveiled portions of their legislation in preparation for the PA State Senate’s return to session on Monday, March 10. Last week, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the legislation is slated to be introduced later today. The following “Open Letter” to West Chester University faculty was submitted to Raging Chicken Press late yesterday. While the letter is written to members of the West Chester University community, we felt that it deserved a wider audience given the implications Tomlinson and Dinniman’s legislation will have on high-quality, affordable public higher education in Pennsylvania.
The Purpose of West Chester University
Over the past forty years, public universities – and the students and faculty who define them – have been poked, prodded, threatened, starved, and coerced into capitulating to the redefining of the purpose of public higher education. Here at West Chester University we have all witnessed the incessant commodification of our campus, our curricula, and our students. We have all sat in meetings where we are told that our students are now ‘customers’, our classrooms are now ‘delivery mechanisms’, our teaching is now a ‘product’, and even our public university itself is now a ‘brand’.
We are told that these transformations are inevitable and that this is all necessitated by a never-ending economic crisis – “the new normal” – in a country, paradoxically, overflowing with so much capital investors struggle to find new investment opportunities. American workers, including professors, are therefore constantly reminded that we shouldn’t let our idealistic and antiquated perspectives on the value of public education, and the necessity of an educated citizenry within a democracy, stand in the way of ‘progress’. The latest version of that ‘progress’ is the proposed ‘opportunity’ for West Chester University to become a ‘state-related’ brand so that we might realize the real opportunity of selling a more expensive, and therefore more profitable, ‘product’.
We are certain that over the coming weeks and months we will engage in many debates over this grand opportunity. We will undoubtedly argue over the potential effects such a change might have on faculty rights, collective bargaining, our union, our students, our sister campuses and our campus. These are all valid and critical concerns – even a casual evaluation of tuition and fee rates at the current state-related institutions offers clear evidence of what such a change would mean for our students, and thus a betrayal of PASSHE’s historic purpose, that is, “to provide high quality education at the lowest possible cost.” However, what we would like to make clear is that what is being proposed here at WCU is not merely a different path to the same destination. This agenda emanates from a very specific valuation of what we do here and the very purposes of public education in general. In short, the efforts to privatize West Chester University are not value-neutral, nor are they unique to West Chester. This movement towards the privatization of public spaces can be seen in every aspect of contemporary society. Such trends are typically captured within the term “neoliberalism.”
Neoliberal theory is manifested in both economic policy and political ideology, which in concert disperse formidable effects and transformations of the socio-cultural realities of society. This neoliberal culture praises entrepreneurialism, self-reliance, and rugged individualism; equates unimpeded materialism and the pursuit of self-interest with human freedom and social justice; venerates the stockpiling of personal wealth; degrades collective and public responsibility; and equates any government intervention on behalf of a collective social welfare as counterproductive to human progress. David Harvey (2005) describes it well:
Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political-economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong property rights, free markets, and free trade… there has everywhere been an emphatic turn towards neoliberalism in political-economic practices and thinking since the 1970s (pp.18-19).
Arguing that self-interest and an unfettered free-market are the best, if not only, path to progress, equality and a supposedly merit-based version of social justice, public institutions are viewed through the lens of neoliberalism as, at best, social distractions and, at worst, antiquated seeds of Bolshevism. For the advocate of neoliberalism, therefore, anything that operates outside the for-profit model, whether it is a public school, a library, or a post office, is actually counterproductive to human progress. For a participatory democracy, such a retreat from all things public means, in effect, a retreat from democracy itself. As Noam Chomsky (2010) declared, “The very design of neoliberal principles is a direct attack on democracy” (p.75).
History clearly evinces that making visible the circumstances and power relations undergirding any form of hegemony, by way of the development of a critical and dialectic lens within the people, has always been the most fundamental ingredient for counter-hegemonic struggle. Neoliberal advocates recognize this threat inherent to popular education and, in maintenance of its agenda, seek to nullify and obliterate any such form of democratic resistance to the expansion of private power and free market religiosity. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the destruction of public education has been a goal of neoliberal advocates wherever and whenever they have found opportunity to unfurl their flag.
When taking such goals into account, the decades long effort to destroy public education, and offer private, for-profit alternatives – designed by neoliberal think tanks, funded by right-wing political action committees, and championed by conservative politicians – should come as no surprise. We have witnessed the anti-democratic results of the neoliberal program for public universities in places like Wisconsin, Michigan and multiple other public universities across the country and around the globe.
We recognize that the positions we take here will be labeled by some as idealistic, antiquated, and out of touch – we can live with such scrutiny. We also recognize that not every faculty member on this campus made a conscious and political decision to be a part of public education and, therefore, may not have made our same connections between the existence of public education and the health of participatory democracy. However, we sincerely hope that our colleagues, regardless of their political orientation, will come to realize that we did not arrive at this crossroads of our own volition; we were systematically delivered here. The continuous budget cuts, draconian systems of oversight, marginalization of students and faculty, have all served as a cattle prod driving us to the point where we might be willing to abandon the promise of public education and the promise of West Chester University as a public good.
In spite of their fear mongering concerning an inevitable economic crisis, the values of those who promote the neoliberal agenda are clear, and we do not share these destructive values. We believe the question for us as faculty members of West Chester University is this: Do we believe in the concept of a public good and its critical role within democratic society – and, if so, what responsibility do we have in defending the public good in which we have been entrusted? Will we defend public education or will we submit and become the latest example of its demise?
We should not allow ourselves to be distracted from this core question.
John Elmore, Curry Malott, & Rob Haworth
Professional & Secondary Education