Currently, I teach at one of Pennsylvania’s 14 actual state schools (Bloomsburg, California, Clarion, Cheyney, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Indiana, Kutztown, Mansfield, Millersville, Lock Haven, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock, West Chester), not to be confused with Pennsylvania’s semi-state schools, who rely on state funds for a significantly smaller portion of their operating budgets (Pittsburgh, Penn State, Temple, Lincoln). Needless to say, in this Defund Education Now! political climate, all of these schools have suffered a recent betrayal of the public trust. Governor Tom Corbett announced a budget that cuts funding to the 14 state schools by 50%.

You probably know this. You’ve probably heard about this.

As you might expect and hope, there has been some (though hardly enough) public outcry about this asinine proposal. A few public rallies in my university’s quad, for example, have drawn small crowds enjoying the opportunity to chant in the open air. And education supporters on the campuses have begun a postcard campaign, with the hopes of flooding the governor’s office with physical representations of our outrage. I guess the idea is to produce some kind of Miracle on 34th Street moment, when a stream of postal workers carry in bag after bag of postcards and dump them on the governor’s desk.

I believe. I believe. It’s stupid but I believe, says some little girl when thinking about her future public education in our state.

These aforementioned postcards have been distributed at the aforementioned rallies. Which leads me to side two of the betrayal LP. An email came across our faculty list the other day, within which a professor wondered where he might get such postcards, since he hasn’t been able to make it to the rallies. You see, he wrote, I only come to campus on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

So much, so wrong there.

A financial crisis looms, and a faculty member wants to get involved! Activate! Protest! Send those postcards! But, um, I really don’t like to come into campus more than three days a week. Can’t make any exceptions there, to attend a rally, lend my voice to the protest. So could you just send me something, which I’ll just kind of limply send on?

I dare say, there aren’t too many successful revolutions that would have worked out if the participation was similarly (un)motivated.

All’s quiet in Egypt on Tuesday, but expect more street protests Wednesday. Thursday is, of course, a “grading day,” so the streets should be fine again.

Could probably lend out the guillotine on Tuesdays and Thursdays, because the revolt will be quiet then.

Tea on Thursday? Sure. I only fight the British Empire on my M-W-F schedule.

Now, I’m fully aware that professors who “come into campus” on a limited number of days often use the other days to work from home, do field work, visit archives, and generally practice all sorts of legitimate, important academic work. But I’m also fully aware that most non-professors totally don’t get this. They see someone feverishly defending a M-W-F on-campus schedule as someone only working three days a week. Untrue, unfair, but that’s the reality of perception. And I think when the time comes to, say, curry public favor in support of education, it might be time to think about what we look like to people on the outside. Perhaps drive into work on a day we’re usually not there, so we can pick up that postcard.

But in Pennsylvania, where a faculty union defends our rights (and is currently negotiating a new contract — wonder how that’s going?), the battle for public image doesn’t fare so well. A couple of years ago, the union exacted its greatest public victory in overturning a system-wide smoking ban by invoking a meet-and-discuss technicality. It was a matter of principle, union reps said, conveniently ignoring the fact that the ban was exceedingly popular among faculty (the, um, union part of the union) and the public. That victory came at great cost, I think. It offered clear proof of the petty contract-waving the union could do. There was no moral victory despite the invocation of principle, because that “show of strength” by the union did nothing to make the state wary of, say, cutting a budget in half. It only made people outside of academe roll their eyes. Again.

Let me be clear that I’m not blaming faculty and educators for the current state of affairs. Without a doubt, the education cuts across the nation are a function of idiotic, misinformed Tea Party types who fail to recognize the definition and necessity of public service. But I do think we in education need to do a better job of reaching out to non-academics. We suffer under the cloak of stereotype, but our actions often inadvertently reinforce those same stereotypes.

I’ll offer local examples:

*My campus is located in a small town, which is itself about the size of the student population at the university. We might ungenerously call this town “provincial.” As a result, many faculty choose to live in Pittsburgh and maintain an hour-and-a-half commute. Not a big deal, since most of those who do so can firmly defend their M-W-F on-campus schedule. But it is a big deal because of the message it sends. Those faculty who live in the city are physically abandoning the community of the town where they work. Sure, there can be no argument against the increased cultural opportunities in the city, but I would wager that most who live there attend such events without the kind of frequency that would make the living arrangement transportationally efficient: they spend far more time on their work commute each week than they save by living close to the museum they visit once a year. The real reason people live in the city, I think, is because they don’t want to stand in a grocery line next to one of the locals. They don’t want to be part of this small, ex-coal community that suffers daily economic strain. They’d rather hang out in Squirrel Hill coffee shops and be all aristocratic. That, I think, is a betrayal of the public trust almost as vile as the slashing of budgets for political gain. Academics should be part of their communities, plain and simple.

(There are plenty — a majority — who do stay local. And there are many who are actively local. So I am not trying to offer wide castigation. But even though fewer in number, those who refuse to live in the provinces send a very loud message with their absence.)

*The pay-scale of our faculty, which is the same across the 14 universities, is un-freaking-believable. Our campus happens to be a doctoral institution, but the general profile of the state system is clearly regional, as is the student population of our own locality. Compared to major doctoral institutions, our pay scale lags behind a bit, and that’s a comparison many on our campus choose to make. But compared to the actual profile of the system — for which the contract is written — remuneration is higher than average, sometimes 20k to 30k better at a given rank. Full professors with seniority are pulling 100k under this contract, and they do this living in smaller towns with low costs of living. The effective salary of faculty at my institution is extremely competitive on a national scale. Further, the average faculty salaries far exceed the average incomes of local residents. Faculty build giant houses in exclusive neighborhoods, outfit them with Swedish saunas and wine cellars, then complain they’re not being paid enough. It is, of course, expensive to commute to Pittsburgh three days a week.

* I just can’t write a specific example about this one efficiently, but suffice it to say: we’re located in Appalachia, and many faculty choose to think of Appalachians (i.e. their neighbors) within the exaggerated and uncharitable stereotypes of popular culture. Faculty are superior. The locals are backward and ignorant. This does not engender a good town-gown relationship.

*Our union celebrates its strength and unity, but when the campus cafeteria workers formed a union that the contract food service company refused to recognize, the faculty union did nothing. A show of support there would have seemed morally imperative. And standing up for the low-wage earners on campus who were simply seeking a fair shake was both the right thing to do and, y’know, good p.r.

There’s some ungainly looseness to this post, I realize, but I’m seeking to connect it with a simple underlying idea: as academics, we moan a great deal about how the greater public doesn’t afford us the respect we deserve, while at the same time our actions often do not return respect to those outside of academe. Our professional activities are not the problem, even if those aren’t always easily communicated to those unfamiliar with the biz. The real problem is that we sometimes forget that we are members of the communities where we live (local, state, national). We are not voices above, outside, or lateral from the public. We are the public.

Faced as we are with tremendous political attack, it’s crucial that we start thinking about the coded message we send. A proper professoriate will always make waves, challenge standard thinking, and push a culture forward. But we need to do so with an inherent consciousness of image. I truly believe the “public” has no problem with academic culture as a culture of intelligent debate, but I think everyone rankles when confronted with apparent elitism. We can’t afford to positions ourselves as aloof, above, distant, different, any of those things. We can’t afford to do it even by accident. We need to clearly communicate how we are both vital to the public interest and, in fact, part of that public.

The slogan bopping about campus right now is, “United We Stand, Underfunded We Fail.” As academics, we need to parse that “united,” make sure that is clearly being defined as a public unity and not merely professorial privilege.

Advertisements