Don’t Bring Me Down

There have been numerous articles now posted in local papers about the upcoming possibility of a state system of higher education strike in Pennsylvania.  And with that comes comments.  It has been unsettling to see the amount of ire towards educators.  I know there are a lot of conservative people in PA.  In a way PA is probably a good microcosm for the general breakdown of the country in Republican vs. Democrat.  There is a thread in attitude by the critics of the strike and I just wanted to briefly talk about it.  I don’t know what to do about it, but it does make me sad.

  1. There is of course general ignorance towards the problem.  Nobody really understands what educators go through on a daily basis, but apparently we can all easily be replaced with more qualified people at a lower cost.  For most people it’s all about the bottom line.   Dollars and cents.  Critics don’t think of whether or not changes to our contract might not cause the quality of education to suffer, we are simply greedy people who want more money and don’t care about our students.
  2. There is an overwhelming sense in these hard times that if other people are suffering we should suffer too.  One person commented “Let them not work for a year and see them struggle to pay their bills just like us.”  When did we become a country who simply wanted to tear each other down.  Shouldn’t we be trying to raise people up?  I want other people to have good health care…if mine became bad I wouldn’t be asking for others to have their health care reversed.  As we tear each other down, it seems like the only people going up are the very wealth in our society.  I saw a meme recently that was based on a Harvard Business study on perception vs reality.  Most people think CEOs make 30 times what the average American worker makes, when in fact it’s 350 times more.  Here is a video that illustration financial perception vs. reality.  It seems to me that the wealthy have done an excellent job at pitting us against each other.  In the south poor white people blame poor black people or poor Latinos for their problems.  Average workers are pitted against educators.  Teacher salaries are actually quite low compared to other countries and yet we are painted as people who are draining the system.  Poor people are pitting against law enforcement.  Yet law enforcement doesn’t pay very well, and pensions are being cut.  Law enforcement is an important job that requires intelligent and highly skilled people.  Somewhere in lost in the sea of finger pointing are wealthy people laughing at us all and distracting us from who is really
    taking away all of our money.
  3. Anti-union sentiments are strong.  I never really thought much about unions and their value.  I know unions can become corrupt.  Anything can become corrupt. Churches, government, business.  But overall I’ve noticed that when there are no unions, workers are taken advantage of more strongly.  This country has a history of workers not being treated fairly and humanely.  Unions have helped us rise out of that situation.  They have brought us child labor laws and helped workers make living wages.  And while there are plenty of examples where workers are treated well without a union, by and large this isn’t always the case.  Some companies have no need to form unions, others I think it is very important.  Our union is unique because our contract also contains important elements to educational quality.  Investing in education pays off, but when we treat it like a business and we don’t invest in that business, the quality suffers.

Education itself may need reform, but the answer isn’t to reduce quality.  Let’s look at what research demonstrates as effective pedagogy and make that happen in our schools.  Let’s make education truly affordable again.  Let’s not bring each other down, and focus on the true cause of our suffering.  People on welfare aren’t my enemy.  People who have lost their jobs, their benefits, who have had to take pay cuts aren’t my enemy.  I would support you every step of the way for you to improve your quality of life, and be treated fairly by your employer.  I’m not your enemy either.  I’m in the middle income tier in PA, as are many other professors.  Your teachers on average are in an even worse place financially.  The middle class continues to get thinner and it’s not good for our country.  There should be common ground between democrats and republicans to work together to build the middle class.  Weakening education and tearing middle class people down, doesn’t seem to be the answer.

Educational Quality in Jeopardy in Pennsylvania Universities – Why a Strike Might Happen

Dear Students,

I love university.  From the very first moment I started as a student, I thought it was great.  The buildings, old and new, housing different academic fields, knowing there were extremely knowledgeable people who were dedicating their entire lives to those fields and passing on that knowledge to students.  I was nervous my first day.  University, I think no matter how small a university you go to, it feels big.  Big ideas, a campus much bigger than your high school and anxiety filled visions of getting lost, looking stupid, and feeling small run through our minds.  By the end of the first year I realized I was in love.  I felt that after 1 year of university I had learned as much as I did my entire time in high school.  I was exposed to diverse groups of people, diverse sets of ideas, and could literally feel my mind and my values growing.  Now I know my experience is not everybody’s.  It’s not everybody’s calling to devote themselves to this institution we call university, but by my junior year I knew it was my calling.

Society is made up of many different parts, and I believe that universities play an important role.  Whether a student pursues an Associate or Bachelor degree, or chooses to specialize more deeply in their area of interest through a graduate program, the character and knowledge they bring into their new roles in the “real world”, as a result of their education, is important.  We live now in a nation where universities are under attack.  Education is becoming increasingly undervalued.  Yet history clearly demonstrates that when societies make education a priority, it promotes greater innovation and economic growth, empowers people with knowledge as an antidote against oppression, and gives us the ability to flex our minds and adapt in an ever changing and increasingly technological world.  The most current attack on universities in this nation is in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE).  If a new contract isn’t agreed upon between the faculty union and the state system by Oct. 19th, the faculty at 14 universities across the state will go on strike.  This has the ability to cause great disruption to the education of our students and because the state system is trying to spread the message that our striking is out of selfishness and desire for money, and a betrayal to the students we say we care about, I wanted to take a little time to explain why we’re striking and why it matters.

Educational Quality

wcu_rally
                             Faculty Rally at West Chester University

Several proposals by PASSHE remain sticking points in our ability to come to a fair agreement, and most of them have to do with educational quality. The state has conceded on some of the items that would have a negative impact on teaching from their initial proposal.  Some of the major ones still outstanding are as follows:

  • An increase in workload for full-time adjunct faculty. Adjunct faculty are an important part of a university because as faculty retire or move on, as programs grow, we need quality adjuncts to fill teaching roles.  When we get good ones and the position becomes permanent and tenure track, it is an easy transition for that faculty in their new role as a permanent professor.  By increasing their workload to 5 classes (a lot by any university standards) and reducing their pay by 20% the probability of attracting quality adjunct faculty is reduced.  In addition their increased workload will have negative impacts on the quality of teaching and thus the student is not served well.  The state also wants to significantly reduce the pay for part time adjunct faculty as well.
  • Increased reliance on adjunct faculty. Ultimately adjunct faculty would like a job with more security as we all would.  Adjunct faculty are only there to teach and generally play no other role in the university.  They don’t advise students, they don’t serve on committees or are required to do university service.  And why should they?  They don’t have the same protections as tenure-track faculty and can be let go at any time.  The state wants to increase the cap on the percentage of adjunct faculty at each state university.  Coupled with the last point, this means less quality teaching.  It means that since adjunct faculty are often looking for more permanent work, this will result in universities constantly utilizing less experienced lecturers who have never taught courses before.  Any student who has taken a class from a first time teacher for a course, you know it’s not as good as it could be.
  • Increased workload for those supervising internships, supervising student teachers, and teaching lab courses. Any time there is a numbers increase on supervision, the time with each student is less.  Good supervisors do a lot of work and it is a very helpful role.  The increases in workload for internship supervision is by 67% and for supervising student teachers 20%.  The most egregious one for me is the reduced value of lab courses.  This is a difficult one to explain, but basically one hour of lab used to count as one contact hour, but now they want to reduce it to 2/3rd of a contact hour.  Faculty in the state system are required to teach 24 contact hours an academic year.  So those who teach lab courses will have a greater workload even though labs have grading, and take time to prepare just as much as a lecture.  This will also discourage faculty from offering lab courses.  Lab courses are part of important hands-on experiences.  They are usually in smaller settings too, where students have more interaction with their professor.  Increased hands-on experience in the classroom is proven in research studies to be an important part of quality teaching. So why doesn’t the state system want that?  Because if I am teaching a 3 credit course with 3 lab sections, I have 6 contact hours for a 3 credit hour course.  A regular lecture course with no lab is 3 credits and 3 contact hours.  So if I teach labs I teach less credit hours.  You, as a student, pay by credit hours.  You are a dollar sign to them, and nothing more.  They don’t care how well you are taught, or what research demonstrates about effective teaching practices.  It’s about how much money they can make.  This is what’s happening all across the U.S. in public higher education.
  • Allowing administration to move faculty to different departments to teach different courses. Did you ever have a teacher in high school teach you a subject that wasn’t their specialty?  It happens in middle schools and high schools all the time.  Have the PE teacher, teach a history class, have the biology teacher, teach a couple of math classes.  This could happen at university now as well, where teachers who didn’t specialize in a particular area are forced to teach outside their area of expertise.  How much would you expect to learn or enjoy such a class?

apscuf-contract-now-670x280

Matters of Money

So you might say this is a pretty one sided discussion what about money.  Clearly faculty want more money right?  So let’s talk about that a little.

  • Well who wouldn’t like more money? But keep in mind we have already been without a contract for almost a year and a half and have been on a salary freeze.  We would also like to be treated with similar salary increases as the state has offered other unions in the state.  We would like our salaries to keep pace with inflation.  Who doesn’t want that? However, if you talk to any of your faculty, you’ll probably find that they care less about that, than impacts on their work quality, and the quality of education they can provide you.  To show you how committed the faculty are to improving education, recently the state system tried to offer faculty more money to their salary to try and have us ignore all the measures they are taking to reduce educational quality.*  The union refused to sign a contract based solely on a salary increase, and refused to be pitted against adjunct faculty.
  • Health care costs are also currently a point of contention. There are many unions who have had to take a hit in increased health care costs.  How far we will get in regards to this issue remains to be seen, but we do believe that quality health care should be something provided by employers and changes proposed by the state system would incur additional costs in range of thousands of dollars to faculty.  We have taken smaller hits in the past which have essentially negated salary increases.  This year, most faculty expect a similar result and don’t expect more net salary given the increased health care costs we are likely to incur.

The mission of PASSHE is to provide the highest quality education at the lowest possible cost to students.  The problems that we face in higher education in this country are perhaps broader than just what we are facing here, but if tuition costs are not going down and quality continues to get lowered something about the system is broken.  We have less direct say in these larger problems, but we can be advocates for the quality of education you receive as a student.  Thus, I felt it was important for students to know that your faculty do care about you.  We don’t see you as a customer or a dollar sign. We see ourselves as people who play a role in your future, and thus the future of the region, the state, and the nation, and we feel the quality of education you get is important.  We are tired of decisions being made about teaching dictated from a group of people who haven’t spent any time in the classroom.  If you are concerned about the strike, you and your family need to send an e-mail to the university president at the university you attend.  You need to contact Chancellor Frank Brogan (Chancellor@passhe.edu).  You need to write your local state congress representatives.  We faculty, still hold hope that a strike will not be necessary, and if it happens a strike is no holiday to us.  I’ll be just off the California University of Pennsylvania campus, on the picket line, every day, hoping sooner than later, I will get to walk back on the campus and give students the quality education they deserve.  You may not agree with our taking a stand on these issues, and that’s okay, but I hope you can respect my right to see this as important, and I hope that you all will take a stand for whatever you truly care about in your futures as well.
In Solidarity,
Swarn Gill
Department of Earth Science,
California University of Pennsylvania

*Note:  The article that discusses the offer made to faculty to increase their salary, states that our average salary for faculty is over $100,000.  This is untrue.  Salaries at public universities are publicly available.  Here you can find all salaries of all employees in the university system.  You can export this data to excel.  I calculated the average salaries from cell B270 to B6315 (which is almost all faculty) and came up with an average of just under $80,000.  A big difference from what PASSHE is saying.  The data is from 2013, but represents the contract we are currently under.

Profit over Education – Academic Fraud at UNC-Chapel Hill Gives Another Black Eye to Public Education

As a college professor in the United States it is difficult to know where to begin as I process the massive scandal that I have read about today regarding UNC-Chapel Hill in which 3,100 students, nearly half athletes, were shown to have taken fraudulent classes in the university’s athletic program.  I am not usually one to make extremely bold statements, but education is something I feel strongly

about, and this scandal could not make a clearer statement that this country has lost its way.  The love of money has replaced love for each other.  We have let ourselves become distracted by games so that we don’t pay attention to what’s most important.  We have become a culture of fear instead of striving to be a culture of understanding.

Before I begin I want to make it clear that I am sure that the majority of professors and students at UNC-Chapel Hill have the highest standards of work ethic and integrity and as I speak now I speak also in your name.  Those who were part of this conspiracy have brought the most shame to you and I am truly sorry for what you have to go through. Bringing legitimacy to your university is a battle you did not ask to fight, but you will have to.  This fight can be made easier or harder depending on who joins that fight.  In this essay I write I call upon those who can do the most to help you.

This year Penn State University had their ban lifted by the NCAA on post-season play 2 years early and still much controversy remains about whether this was the right thing to do given that Jerry Sandusky has been confirmed to have molested 26 boys and school officials looked the other way to avoid a scandal for their football team. As if this wasn’t enough of a blight on higher education and how sports plays too high a role in what is supposed to be an institute of higher learning, perhaps it could simply be argued away as the result of one highly disturbed individual, while several higher officials chose to brush off what seemed to them only rumors without clear evidence.  Personally the Penn State incident should have been enough for us to take a harder look at our priorities, but as the NCAA softened their initial judgment by lifting the ban it seems that it’s business as usual once again.

What has happened at UNC-Chapel Hill has been happening for nearly 20 years. It, as a result, must involve a far greater number of people ranging from personnel in the athletic program, recruiters, registrars, administrators, and faculty  This was a large conspiracy that was covered up for many years and even when the investigation was first opened 5 years ago, it took a long time for the full truth to come to light.  Even now this article is buried on the CNN website under many other less dire stories.  At a time when public education struggles to maintain adequate funding, when there is a great disparity in public education across the country, and public institutions of higher learning continue to raise tuition as their state funding decreases, the scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill will only act to lessen the trust in public education.  What we must work hard to do right now is to show that it is not public education that is the problem, that this is the symptom of a for-profit culture.  That when the money made off of TV deals, advertising, and merchandise of college sports takes precedent, that those without integrity can take a larger stake in our society and run it into the ground.  Let’s start our call to action with the NCAA.

The NCAA proudly lists on their website their core values which include:

  • The collegiate model of athletics in which students participate as an avocation, balancing their academic, social and athletics experiences.
  • The highest levels of integrity and sportsmanship.
  • The pursuit of excellence in both academics and athletics.

For those you not aware of the word “avocation”, it means “hobby or minor occupation”. Note also the words “integrity” and the emphasis of “balance” and “excellence” in not only their athletics but also academics.  These core values are great.  As a society we should value athletic achievement, exercise, and health.  There is a connection between mind and body and it can come together in sport and competition.  It is also important to remember, however, that only about 1% of NCAA athletes will be able to turn professional that means there are many more students for whom their education will be their primary means of having a stable and successful future.  Thus if the NCAA believes in these core values it must also be an advocate for integrity in the classroom and at least be partially responsible for the health of the players who suffer injuries while playing NCAA sports which they profit from (NCAA is a non-profit by the way).  The NCAA has been recently accused of making large profit off the players who are often fed insufficiently and do not take care of the players who suffer injuries and who many times suffer lifelong problems related to those injuries both physically and financially.  The NCAA has a chance here to do the right thing and make its core values be more than just words.

While the NCAA should punish UNC-Chapel Hill for not displaying academic integrity in accordance with their core values, what is the responsibility of UNC-Chapel Hill? The university is ultimately the one that perpetrated this conspiracy and they need to make sure everyone involved faces punishment; no scapegoats, no more lies, no more cover-ups.  I understand why, from a legal standpoint, they cannot lift the degrees of those students.   They are the ones who advised students to take those classes when they saw they were struggling academically.  Rather than providing them with legitimate academic support to help them improve they gave up on trying to expand their minds and said “Your only value to us is in the money you make us in the athletic program, we are not concerned about your future”.  They were supposed to show a student how the same work ethic they apply to their sport, can be applied to learning.  They were supposed to show those athletes the same way they stretch and bend their body they can do also with their mind.  Given the low chances of those athletes becoming professionals they were supposed to give them alternate avenues of success.  And even if they did get drafted into a professional league, injury can happen at any time, and they were supposed to give athletes something else to fall back on.  Instead they have left these students bereft of legitimate degrees, and employers will have a hard time trusting the value of any degree achieved by a UNC-Chapel Hill alum who was involved with their athletics program.

I would also like to point out that the fraudulent program in which these students were enrolled in was an African-Studies program. While I am sure many other scholars can talk about this with more vigor than I can, I find the choice in the academic field of this fraudulent program more than a little insulting given the race issues we still face in the United States.  I know and have known many scholars in this area and this is an extremely important field for young African-Americans to learn about their history in this country and to understand issues of race both in the past and today.   I am not sure whose idea it was to use African-American studies to house the fraudulent courses but those people have done a great disservice to African-Americans by doing so and have treated a very important area of scholarship cheaply.

Of course we cannot be naïve enough to believe that this is the only school where this is happening. This scandal will open investigations into all athletic programs, especially in NCAA division I programs, that have had rumblings of grade inflation for athletes in the past.  It will make employers everywhere wonder if perhaps the academic success of a student athlete is deserved.  At my university, it is only a NCAA Division II school. Athletics is a money drain on our university and does not make us profit.  Yet many student athletes report that coaches will not let them miss a practice even if a legitimate academic opportunity that will benefit their future, such as going to an academic conference,  comes along.  I have seen resources that could be used for academic programs go towards athletics.   We all must join the fight to maintain legitimacy of public higher education institutions and remember that the NCAA core values emphasize balance and that the sport is, for almost all athletes, a hobby and nothing more in the context of their entire lives.

What responsibility do the students themselves share in this scandal? While they were advised to take these fake courses, they knew they were fraudulent.  One student who has come forward even made the Dean’s list having a semester full of fraudulent courses and admitted to not attending one class and receiving all A’s.  These are young adults who were not completely unaware that what they were doing was wrong.  It is difficult, however, for me to judge a young mind bolstered by the fame that we as a society gives them,  and bolstered by the pride of their friends and family at making a renowned college sports team with a full scholarship.  This is coupled with the fear of losing the scholarship that saves their family or themselves financial burden should they falter midway through their degree and cannot continue in the athletic program.  I am not going to judge you for decision you made as a young adult, but I would ask you to consider the steps you take now with care.  Because now that the scandal has been brought to light, the next steps you take are yours, and yours alone.  You know what you did was wrong, and you do a disservice to every student athlete who has worked hard to balance their athletics and academics to legitimately achieve their degree.  You do a disservice to the meaning of the baccalaureate degree which is supposed to be based on a minimum of 120 credit hours of academic rigor.  More importantly you do a disservice to yourself by knowing that you walk around with something that many are in great financial debt for and that many have worked hard for, but for which you did not earn.  Though you were misled, you were old enough to know that the easy path was not the right path.  Retake those credits and demand that UNC-Chapel Hill allow you to do so for free and provide for you the support they should have during your time there.

From http://www.fiscaltimes.com

The final call to action is for the rest of us.  We must take a look at ourselves and ask ourselves some tough questions, because in the end it us who generate this profit from collegiate sports by watching and attending the games.  It us who read the articles and watch television programs of analysis.  It is us who buy the merchandise and wear the colors of our favorite collegiate teams.  So what can we do?  To start we, as parents, can make sure that the academic integrity is high at the institutions our children attend.  We can be realistic about what our child’s athletic ability really means and remember that even if they are one of the lucky ones to go professional that smart player is always better than just a player and that when the body breaks the mind still needs to be in good shape so that life goes on.  We need to ask questions, we need to talk to our children and make sure they are learning and let them always know that doing what is right is more important than a moment in the spotlight. We as the public need to make sure that we continue to fight for educational equality across this nation, to make sure that we maintain high standards in curriculum, academic rigor, and pedagogy, and vote for politicians who recognize the importance of education in making this nation great.  We must ask ourselves if it’s right that the highest paid public employee in 40 out of 51 states is a college football or basketball coach? Finally we must remember that a good life is built on a solid foundation made from love, integrity, compassion, humility, self-reflection, and learning.  Sports are fun to watch, but it’s still just a game, and the future of our children and our nation cannot rest on a game.