PASSHE Chancellor Hits the Road, Attacks on Public Higher Ed in PA Likely to Continue

Ever since the attacks on public sector unions, working families, and public education in Wisconsin that began just over two years ago, my own writing has changed. It’s become less…well, “academic.” I find myself more interested in plowing through company SEC filings on Lexis-Nexis than some of the newest scholarship in my field. Don’t get me wrong, I am not knocking scholarship…there are days I wish I could carve out several hours to peruse the latest journals in my field of rhetoric and composition. Right now it just feels like the relentless attacks against education and the public sphere more broadly, is an exigence I cannot ignore. That’s one of the good things about being a rhetorician, I guess. There are times when you actually have to practice being a rhetor.

I posted a version of this piece earlier today on Raging Chicken Press, but very much wanted to engage in this space as well. There is something that I want to say here that is not quite fleshed out. Something about the kind of research into our own institutions that seems absolutely critical now. I will have to return to that which I do not articulate.

Today feels like a milestone for faculty in Pennsylvania, especially faculty in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, or PASSHE. Here’s why.

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The Risks Ahead

As the federal government, encouraged by the media, looks more closely at college and university sticker prices, the American higher education community must be ready to cooperate where possible and defend itself when necessary.

The polls overwhelmingly demonstrate that Americans are concerned about the cost of college education. Most of them fail to draw a critical distinction between the sticker price advertised and the actual cost of attendance. This failure to do so confuses the important policy question of how American society will educate – and increasingly reeducate – its citizens to compete in a global economy. The pace of technological change, heightened consumer anxiety made worse by the lingering deep recession, and the failure of higher education leadership to defend core values founded on the liberal arts tradition brings higher education closer to a tipping point in consumer confidence.

It would be a tragedy if some combination of political polling, dysfunctional government by anecdote, a knee-jerk defense of higher education turf by its leadership, and legitimate fears over rising sticker prices determined how we educate our citizens going forward.

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Flat Funding? Not in the Reality-Based World

It’s been a little over two weeks since Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett delivered his annual budget address. Corbett’s office signaled in advance that his proposed 2013-2014 budget would not be as draconian as the previous two. I think it would be fair to say that the governor would have to work extraordinarily hard to try to top the devastation he’s wrought since taking office in 2011.

Gov. Cut, Gut, and Punish Arrives in Harrisburg

Corbett’s first budget proposal in 2011 sought a 50% cut in public higher education funding and close to a $2 billion reduction for K-12 schools. In the end, Corbett didn’t get to cut as deep as he wanted, but he got his cuts thanks to Republican control of all three branches of state government. The PA

Chart from PSEA |

Chart from PSEA |

legislature may have balked at Corbett’s initial numbers, but they had little problem passing, in the words of Rick Smith, a “cut, gut, and punish” budget that targeted schools, general assistance programs, and health care support for low-income working families. But the biggest target was clearly education.

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The Making of an “Educational Saboteur”

Guest Blogger Mark Naison teaches at Fordham University and blogs at With a Brooklyn Accent

Through most of my life as a teacher, I have considered myself a builder. Not only have I worked hard to develop relationships with my students that last well beyond their time in my class, I have helped create three institutions at my University which hopefully have had a lasting impact on the school- a Department of African and African American Studies; an undergraduate and graduate Urban Studies Program; and the Bronx African American History Project. My students and former students have played a key role in building and sustaining all three of them.

However, in the last five years, I have had to switch gears and devote large amounts of time to protecting my profession and the institutions I have built, against powerful forces seeking to reduce teaching and learning to quantifiable “outcomes.” These forces, ironically taking their most powerful and insidious form in the administration of a President I helped to elect, have been implemented with a great fanfare, limitless financing, and virtuously unanimous media support, making anyone who dares resist them seem that they are atavistic, unpatriotic, and enemies of our national commitment to equity and economic dynamism.

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The Value Beyond the College Scorecard

In his State of the Union Address, President Obama took the unusual step of commenting on the need for rethinking accreditation.  He also touted the creation of a College Scorecard.  The Scorecard would create benchmarks – a low cost of attendance, high graduation rates, high employment rates, and high salaries – by which consumers would measure colleges and universities.

This second issue– the College Scorecard – goes directly to American’s perceptions of the value of higher education.

As the ground continues to shift underneath, most of us who work or think about higher education understand that changes are coming.  It’s something like my argument last week to candidates for admission to make their final choice on a college or university because they know when they feel it.  The climate for higher education feels different these days.  We understand that the way students learn and the value they place on that learning is often changing faster than the changes we are making to their educational programs.  Most of us also agree that as education evolves, no one individual, or for that matter the federal government, possesses a crystal ball that permits all of us to see how this evolution will play out. 

Education will adjust.  History supports this point.  If not, most of us working in the field would be educating clergy who were classically trained in Greek and Latin – not bad by itself but insufficient alone to prepare a global workforce in the 21st century.  We got it then and we get it now. 

How students achieve access, follow a route determined by circumstance, readiness, age, maturity and interest, and emerge not only as productive workers but educated citizens should be the goal established for American society.  It’s not that the economic indicators don’t matter or that we can’t support a College Scorecard.  We can.  Accountability done well and presented reasonably is usually a good thing.  But if the Department of Education is proposing to issue a Scorecard, it had best stand ready to answer how it shaped the marketing program that educated American consumers on its use. 

In the end, is education principally about the best deal out there?  Is it really a transaction that can be reduced to metrics whose applicability and level of appropriateness varies widely within a diverse higher education system where students seek access at different times in different ways for different reasons?

One of the reasons that I went into education is because I admired my father.  When my immigrant grandfather died suddenly in the middle of the Depression, my father returned home, became a postal carrier, and put aside his dreams to teach high school.  War, marriage and children compounded to limit his choice.  I can remember him returning to night school to finish his degree, taking a drastic salary drop, and working extra jobs to follow his aspirations to become a teacher, despite four children to feed and educate as he turned forty.  As much as I respected my father, I admired my mother even more who stood by him when his family questioned his sanity as she returned to work as a secretary to help make ends meet. 

They knew that sacrifices were ahead as their children headed to college.  Yet they also believed in the American dream even if the employment prospects looked difficult in a field that paid far less than the one my father left.  John Kennedy would say it best a few years later when he asked what each of us could do for our country.

What my father did – like so many other returning G.I’s – was good for him, his family and the country.  Would his decision make sense if he had first checked the College Scorecard?  Would the country have been better off without one less dedicated teacher who could inspire by example his own children to follow a similar path?

Sticker price – roughly equivalent to purchasing a new luxury car annually at high priced institutions – has always been a problem when thinking about how to create access.  The College Scorecard will help highlight the high costs associated with an industry that is labor, land and technology intensive.  It’s not necessarily a bad idea.  In fact, technology is opening new possibilities by changing the way that people, programs, and facilities relate to one another in the educational process.  The tragedy will be if the College Scorecard diminishes access and choice to a ratings game where the end decision is a purely financial one.

At it most fundamental, access is about need and aspiration, and shaped by individuality and nuance.  We need a trained workforce.  But we need an educated citizenry even more.  The two are different but happily not mutually exclusive.  In the final score, I hope we judge the ratings game by whether the first generation of college educated like my father would take pride in an educational system that prepares STEM graduates for industry – and teaching. 







A Sex Ed Ban Reversed at North Dakota State

North Dakota State University has reversed its ban on a grant involving Planned Parenthood that sparked outrage from Republican politicians. Last month, NDSU president Dean Bresciani announced that a $1.2 million federal grant to two faculty members would be prohibited because of Planned Parenthood’s participation, due to a state anti-abortion law. However, the reversal only came due to a ruling by state Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem that the law had been held unconstitutional more than 30 years ago and therefore could not restrict the university. Faculty senate President Tom Stone Carlson, who wrote a letter critical of the ban, expressed an ongoing concern about the process in the case. Obviously, the university should have allowed the grant to go forward at the start, rather than making a bad interpretation of the law before any ruling had been made.


APSCUF Tentative Contract Agreement: Victory? Turning Point?

I am a member of APSCUF – the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties – the union that represents over 6,000 faculty and coaches in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE). I am sure that many readers of this blog are aware that we have been in a two-year long contract fight with PASSHE, working 19 months without a contract. After moving steadily toward what would have been the first strike in APSCUF’s history, there was an unexpected marathon bargaining session that led to an agreement. Yesterday, for the first time in a long time, I had a little breathing room to write. I posted a version of the following post to my media site, Raging Chicken Press and my union blog APSCUF-KU XChange. And, I thought it would serve well to post it here as well as a way of introducing myself and what I think has been a significant contract fight for higher education unions.


This past Sunday morning (2/3/13), APSCUF - the union that represents more than 6,000 faculty and coaches in the PA State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) – announced it had reached an agreement on a “framework” for a faculty contract after more than two years of negotiating and 19 months working without a contract. On Monday evening, the “framework” was sent to APSCUF’s Negotiations Committee for a vote on whether or not to approve the “framework,” turning it into a “tentative agreement.” The Negotiations Committee voted unanimously to do so. The union’s representative body – APSCUF’s Legislative Assembly – voted this past weekend to send the agreement to the membership for ratification. Specific details of the agreement will be discussed among APSCUF members at membership meetings and union listservs.

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And the Wait Begins

At this time of year, college applicants struggle to find the right institution for them. In the early stage of the process, the first decision is to determine whether or not they would feel most comfortable at a large institution or in a smaller setting. I always encourage students to visit those campuses that meet their criteria, filter out the noise, and imagine themselves in the setting. At the same time, however, I warn them that the accumulated wisdom acquired during these campus visits will likely change their own criteria for selection.

Whatever happens, applicants should be prepared for an adventure. Those that see only trauma where unbridled opportunity exists miss the point of the exercise entirely.

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What Would Hitler Have to Say about This

Debe Terhar, the President of the Ohio Board of Education, has sparked controversy by posting a picture of Adolph Hitler on her Facebook page alongside a text expressing opposition to President Obama’s gun-control proposals.

Worse, when asked to explain the juxtaposition of the two items, Terhar offered the following disclaimer: “I did not compare our President to Adolph Hitler. Like millions of Facebook users, I simply shared a photograph on Facebook posted by another person. I regret the consequences of carelessly sharing that picture, and I will be more selective in my use of social media in the future.”

Governor John Kasich has accepted this explanation and has rejected suggestions that this gaffe provides ample justification to remove Terhar from her position.

My first impulse was simply to include in this post side-by-side photos of Terhar, Hitler, and Kasich and to dare Terhar or Kasich to object to the posting. Continue reading