Where politics is personal not partisan

Bernie’s ‘College for All Act’ – A Faculty Perspective

We’ve seen students out there agreeing with Bernie Sanders and Andrew Cuomo on ‘free college’ proposals. Here are a few words from a professor.

Let me start off by saying that former Presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) ‘College for All’ is genuine progress toward closing the wage gap. And Governor Andrew Cuomo’s program at LaGuardia Community College that would offer full-rides to students from families earning less than $125,000 a year is optimistic. Based on my review of Sanders’ proposed bill, it is a legitimate plan to improve compensation and treatment of faculty. There might be differences between Sen. Sanders’ proposal and New York’s. But I am assuming that it would closely follow Sen. Sanders’ draft or at the very least have to contend with some of the issues I’ve discussed. So I wanted to stick exclusively to ambiguous aspects of Sanders’ proposal or where some of the promises may need to be carefully unpacked. Notably, from what I could see, faculty and staff improvement efforts were only addressed generally in the introduction of the bill. And it concludes with the manner in which configuration of taxes and budgetary adjustments that could also have provisions that could improve faculty’s status indirectly.

One of the primary solutions alluded to in a summary of the proposal described the desire to “hire new faculty” to match the stipulation that new course offerings are made available to students. This sounds good, but does it really understand the dynamics involved in hiring part-time faculty or the pressures on department chairs to cheaply get courses covered? In addition to this question, there are some other points where I need some clarification on regarding some contradictions and murky explanations in this ambitious effort on exactly how faculty will be treated differently than they are currently?

To what extent the distinctions in part-time and instructional faculty include substantial improvement to their pay scale compared to tenure track needs to be fleshed out; and there is little chance of realistically offering providing all faculty with “professional supports to help students succeed, such as professional development opportunities, and office space” because these are so incredibly costly and are largely dependent on the diverse needs of each department. Thus how will this money be appropriated and delivered to the right people and what structural changes need to be made in how money flows through a university’s financial system. Essentially, budgets are arranged using top-down mechanisms where grants earned by researchers and other revenue acquired from television deals with sports programs are funneled to certain parts of the campus based on greater needs and allocated at discretion of trustees, and administrators.

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As the Vice President of the chapter American Association of University Professors at small liberal arts college and this bill will directly impact my career by potentially luring students away from my school for more affordable options. Since smaller colleges rely so heavily on enrollment, it very well might have serious consequences. But I have taught for years as an adjunct and lecturer at public institutions in addition to graduating from them, the principles of worker’s rights in higher education are universal.

I cannot emphasize the significance of the willingness to continue to sharpen these aspects of the bill. In the complete version of the bill it explains that, “provide an assurance that not later than 5 years after the date of enactment of this Act, not less than 75 percent of instruction at public institutions of higher education in the State is provided by tenured or tenure-track faculty”. This is problematic because instructional personnel already exceeds less than 75%, and this would require eliminating jobs for non-tenure contractual employees. This obviously interferes with the possibility of compensation that should be provided for part time faculty holding office hours beyond their time in the classroom, while increasing full time instructional faculty. According to the proposal, “No funding under this program may be used to fund administrator salaries, merit-based financial aid, and lastly the prohibition of the construction of non-academic buildings like stadiums and student centers” is a tad harsh on Deans, or those in Academic Affairs positions, and the second half of the statement seems to conflate two facilities that couldn’t be anymore diametrically opposed with regard to how they function and what services they offer. I can assure you I fully support decreasing the disparity between faculty and high level administrative pay, but I might play the devil’s advocate to be fair. With little or no funding aimed toward even slightly raising administration salaries or giving them some boost or gesture, may injure the incentives for leadership to commit and thus reducing opportunities for effective shared governance when he the spirit of bill is centered on inclusivity so that all boats rise. I might suggest that the bill also set aside some assistance to AAUP with funds or real access to legal representation for long term shared governance complexities that arise between faculty and trustees, administration, or even students, especially in light of the recent Title IX issues. I would also like to see a comprehensive plan for healthcare insurance for adjuncts and lecturers.

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I think this proposed bill is a wonderful start to providing access to higher education to so many struggling families and young people. And I say this while employed at a private institution, but it’s the right thing to do. It is my faith in the principles of academia that stresses a larger mission, even if it occasionally runs counter to my self-interest. I worked for my Ph.D. based on a spiritual calling to serve the greater good, support community and bolster the literature for a greater understanding in my discipline. The responsibility for the ethical and intellectual enrichment of society to generate an informed public that preserves democracy should always be prioritized.

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Jason Smith
About Jason Smith 1 Article
Jason K. Smith, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Communications & Media Arts at Bethany College in Bethany West Virginia and Vice President of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) Chapter.

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