WMU-AAUP on State Divestment From Higher Education

The following comments were delivered to the Western Michigan University (WMU) Board of Trustees on March 23 by WMU-AAUP President and AAUP national Council member Lisa Minnick.  They are reposted from the WMU-AAUP blog.

One thing everyone in this room has in common is our shared investment in higher education as a public good. We can all agree, I hope, that students benefit when faculty and staff are equipped with the tools we need to provide the quality instruction, individual attention, and opportunities for learning and growth that our students need and deserve.

State divestment from public education impacts the lives of students as well as the health of our society. As we speak, one of the jewels in the crown of American public higher education – the University of Wisconsin System – is being deliberately and methodically dismantled before our eyes.

And in Illinois, universities have seen no state funding since July 2015 and are bracing for layoffs and, in the case of Chicago State University, even possible closure – at a cost of 900 jobs – while the governor and legislature posture and draw lines in the sand. Eastern Illinois University announced on March 11 that it will lay off 177 employees.

While the total harm that these actions will visit upon Illinois students is incalculable, some of its costs can be quantified. This year, 130,000 students in Illinois are losing need-based financial aid as the state’s Monetary Award Program, which provides grants for low-income students, remains frozen as the budget impasse continues.

These examples, extreme though they are, should not be considered unimaginable in Michigan. Sadly, they are all too imaginable in a state that has itself seen significant cuts in public funding for higher education and for other programs and resources that serve the public good. There was a time not long ago when we all would have found unimaginable the idea that the population of an American city could have been drinking poisoned water for over a year while officials in the governor’s office knew about it but did nothing.

But this is the kind of thing that happens when private profits are valued over the public good. The situation in Flint is a particularly horrific and tragic example of what can happen when state governments ill-serve the people whose well-being they exist – and are paid – to protect.

What’s happening in Wisconsin, the hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to their public university system and the attacks on tenure, is not an accident. The higher education crisis in Illinois is not an unintended consequence. Neither is this year’s billion-dollar budget shortfall in Louisiana, where universities and other state services have been decimated by years of funding cuts along with massive corporate tax cuts.

Some might suggest that these examples are simply the logical conclusion of a spontaneous outpouring of public sentiment in recent years against the funding of resources that exist to serve the people. But that is disingenuous. What we are seeing is the result of an orchestrated nationwide campaign to shift public resources into private pockets. Well-fundedthink tanks” and interest groups push for legislation across multiple states, with defunding public education, dismantling social safety nets for our most vulnerable citizens, and weakening unions among their top priorities. Our states are unwitting participants in a political experiment to reduce or even eliminate public resources as we know them.

In Michigan, the governor and the legislature threaten to withhold state funding and punish the institutions whose students are among the least privileged to begin with. Do they not realize that these measures affect students of color and lower-income students disproportionately? Or do they not care?

Governor Snyder recently announced a plan to “increase” university funding in Michigan, to “increase” it back to where it was five years ago when he took office, before he cut higher education funding by 15 percent in the first place in his first budget as governor.

The cuts we’ve endured at Western and other universities in the state have had real costs, including to students who have not been able to continue their studies but also to the ones who stay with us here at WMU but find fewer resources available to them.

The governor cut our budget. And the university has suffered as a result. What a surprise. When you starve the beast for five years, you don’t get to blame the beast for starving. Yet that is exactly the kind of thing we keep hearing from Lansing.

But worse, it’s also what we are hearing from our own senior leadership at WMU. President Dunn has rightly spoken out against the zero-sum measures favored by the governor and the majority party in the legislature. I appreciate that. But then his provost imposes the same kinds of measures on us. Retiring faculty are not replaced. Programs and even entire departments are targeted for closure, although we don’t really know because that whole process seems to be conducted in secret. We are called incessantly to account for ourselves, for our time, for our credit hour production, in new and creatively time-consuming ways. Worst of all, we are being pitted against one another – faculty, staff, departments, programs, and colleges – in a battle for resources in which none of us have been filled in on the rules of engagement.

Enrollment is down, enrollment is down, enrollment is down. That is what we keep hearing, and most of us are in fact seeing the effects of that first hand. When we will talk openly and honestly about why that is and what we can do about it? When will we talk about why enrollment continues to be robust at Central Michigan and Grand Valley but not here? At what point will the senior leadership of this university be called to account for what is happening to our enrollment numbers on this campus, not to mention what has happened to faculty and staff morale?

Last month marked three years since I first stood before you, ladies and gentlemen of the Board. Since that time, I have been moved around the agenda and finally moved off it entirely and into public comments, as of course you know. Although I have been given a variety of vague explanations for why that has happened, I think we all know that the real reason is that some of you would prefer not to hear some of the things I have to say. I have been silent for over a year about the disrespectful and unprofessional treatment I have received in this venue. But I have seen first hand the debilitating effects that a culture of secrecy and silencing can have, not only on members of the university community but on members of the human family. I cannot be complicit in that any longer.

I am asking you today, as I have asked you many times before, to take seriously the things that I and other faculty, staff, and students have to tell you, regardless of how you feel about the messenger. Step out of the carefully controlled environment you spend most of your time in when you are on campus and really listen to the people who work and go to school here. Stand with us to protect this university from external forces who want to see us fail. We are on the same side of this battle.

At least I hope we are.


Click on image to enlarge and visit the Young Invincibles Student Impact Project for more information about state investment in higher education.Image of Young Invicibles 2016 Report Card: Michigan Budget Support for Higher Education

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