PA State Universities in the Crosshairs – Again: On Communism, Grocery Stores, and “Wal-Mart Majors”

Photo credit: CSIRO_ScienceImage_6897_Worker_honey_bees. WIkimedia. Cropped. CSIRO [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Editor’s note: Corrected 6:13 PM. See strike-through below

Faculty at the fourteen university Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) have been without a contract since June 30, 2015. Despite high-hopes that the election of Gov. Tom Wolf in 2014 would help stave off another drawn out contract fight, there is no end in sight for this round of negotiations.

Students at PASSHE schools are being faced with yet another year of program cuts and historically unprecedented tuition hikes. Faced with a Republican-dominated legislature that managed to reject Gov. Wolf’s pro-education plan in favor of a fifth straight austerity budget, university presidents are moving toward “pay-per-credit” tuition schemes that will result in tuition increases between 15 and 25 percent. Last year, we reported that two one PASSHE universities – Millersville University and Clarion University (a reader sent us a correct. Clarion HAS NOT gone to a pay-per-credit model. We apologize for the error) – had quietly managed to shift to a pay-per-credit model. However, plans to do so at Bloomsburg, Indiana University, and Kutztown University were thwarted thanks to pressure from students, faculty, and some media outlets.

In his first budget address and in talks with the PASSHE Board of Governors, Gov. Wolf proposed to restore the funding slashed by his predecessor as long as PASSHE agreed to not raise tuition for the 2015-2016 academic year. Following a drama-filled Board of Governors meeting in April 2015, the Board narrowly agreed to Wolf’s proposal. Republican legislators were having none of it, however. After refusing to consider Gov. Wolf’s budget, favoring another year of deep budget cuts, the deal was off and the PASSHE Board of Governors instituted a 3.5% tuition increase.

Now that PA Republicans have been successful in forcing another austerity budget, university presidents have little choice but to pursue quasi-privatization schemes to significantly raise tuition under the radar. As we discussed on last week’s Out d’Coup podcast, Indiana University (IUP) is already pushing forward with a pay-per-credit tuition model that will result in  a 16% tuition increase if the university follows the model it planned to implement last year.

So, it’s pretty clear that faculty and students are going feel the full weight of budget cuts, lay offs, and spikes in tuition once again.

But this year’s attacks on Pennsylvania public higher education are not limited to balance sheets. It seems that PA Republicans – especially the right-wing “freedom caucus” – have decided to wage an all-out assault on faculty, the humanities, and public higher education in the Commonwealth.

During PA Senate Appropriations hearings last month, Republican State Senator Lloyd Smucker and PASSHE Chancellor Frank Brogan performed what seemed like a rehearsed public relations pitch in support of the pay-per-credit tuition model. Their discussion highlighted how the tuition increases have boosted revenue and caused students to be more savvy consumers. While we can look at the hard numbers when it comes to increases in revenue, the claim that students are now more “savvy consumers” is pure market fundamentalist ideology with no evidence in support of their claim. Both Smucker and Brogan were completely silent on the fact that pay-per-credit models result in students paying significantly higher tuition bills. Again, the cost of austerity is being born by students and their families. That is of little concern for politicians who are interested in undermining public investment in higher education.

Not to be outdone, Republican Senator Mario Scavello decided to not-so-subtly call for shutting down Cheney University, again with the tacit support of Chancellor Brogan. But Brogan was not willing to stop at Cheney, inferring that other PASSHE universities might need to be shut down too. Scavello went into full market mode, basing his education credentials by comparing universities to grocery stores. So, follow through the logic on this. If universities are like supermarkets, then university classes are like…what?…Toothpaste? Ground beef? Toilet paper? And faculty are like…Cashiers? Line cooks? Greeters? Students are…Shoppers? Club members? Coupon-clippers? Ah, yes, the logic of the market at work.

My personal favorite was wing-nut Republican State Senator Richard Alloway’s testimony. Alloway began his time by saying that the state system is a “communist style system.” He invited Chancellor Brogan to interrupt him if he was off-base. Brogan did not interrupt. Alloway continued:

This system is designed as one unit. Right? One unit. And the motto is: From each according, to each according. That’s the motto, right? That’s how it is. So, what I found a little shocking through many of these dialogues with some of my colleagues [is when] they become indignant about the fact that money is taken by the central office from a “have,” as school that “has,” and is given to a school that doesn’t “have.” It blows my mind because what do you think a socialist style philosophy is? That’s what it is…and resentment grows between the haves and the have-nots.

Let’s not forget that Alloway’s discourse came on the heels of Scavello’s call for shutting down Cheney University – the oldest historically Black institution of higher education in the United States. And there you have it, the barely veiled racial politics of the right-wing. Yup, this is the level of the conversation…one that mirrors the national, Tea-Party infused, market fundamentalist, racist ideology that made its way from extremist message boards to the halls of our state Capitols. The kicker? Alloway is both a graduate of Shippensburg University – a PASSHE university – and a member of the Board of Governors. Nothing like having a guy like him at the helm of PA’s public higher education ship.

The direct attacks on public higher education were not limited to the Senate Appropriations Hearings. Thanks to some old-school investigative journalism from Angela Couloumbis of the Philadelphia Inquirer, we now have a window into just how much disdain Pennsylvania Republicans have for public higher education – especially those in their right-wing caucus that appears to be calling the shots for the entire state party these days.

Couloumbis got a hold of a cache of emails of Republican legislators planning their strategy to undermine the next round of budget negotiations. According to Couloumbis, Rep. Brad Roae, offered the most detailed plan to go on the attack. In the midst of a GOP wishlist of slashing public services, privatizing state assets, and austerity, came even more extreme calls to shutting down state-owned residential facilities for people with mental disabilities and stripping away Medicaid benefits recently expanded thanks to Gov. Wolf.

Roae also took aim at public higher education too. Or, I should say, he took aim at the very core of liberal arts education as a whole. Will Bunch’s recent column on the emails, “PA GOP Wants State Churning Out Poorly Educated Worker Drones,” echoed what many faculty, weary from the constant attacks on their profession, felt in response to reading Brad Roae’s email.

Couloumbis reported that Roae wrote that “arts grants and even the state meteorologist may have to go. And he proposed ending higher-education grants for students studying “poetry or some other Pre Walmart major.”

Here’s Bunch’s response:

When I read this quote this morning, I can’t describe how offensive I found it. I might be in the minority on this, but while we certainly do need to train the next generation of scientists and mathematicians, a society that only trains scientists and mathematicians is no longer a civilization. And there are a lot of engineers who’d agree that a world without poets isn’t much of a world.

Can’t say it much better than that.

Roae’s comments have also deepened the anger and frustration many PASSHE faculty are feeling as contract negotiations drag on under the darkening clouds of further layoffs and program cuts. This weekend, the faculty union, APSCUF, will hold its final Legislative Assembly of the academic year. Faculty union representatives from all 14 PASSHE universities will meet in State College, PA to discuss negotiations and where to go from here.

In his remarks before PASSHE’s Board of Governors this past week, APSCUF President Ken Mash, laid out the mood among faculty ahead of this weekend’s meeting:

Next year will be the 80th anniversary of APSCUF’s existence. Throughout those years, my association has been partners with the legislators, governors, and administrators in turning normal schools into colleges and then into great universities. It seems the reward for that endeavor is now to demean our work and to ridicule our members. It seems we can expect no adequate defense from our System.

We have been working without a contract for nearly a year. We were surprised to learn of the System’s concerns with our contract expressed during the hearings — items that have never been raised during this past year of bargaining.

This weekend, delegates from each of our universities will be attending our legislative assembly. We will learn together what steps my Association may be willing to take in reaction to the lack of respect demonstrated toward our members.

We may be on the precipice of a new era in the fight for public higher education in Pennsylvania. We shall see.

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  1. As Historic Strike Deadline Grows Near, PASSHE and APSCUF Negotiators Go Media Silent

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