Will campus advocates spark a rebellion for proper funding or cling to failed politics as usual?
Hot on the heels of the UMass Boston administration issuing pink slips to 400 Boston non-tenure track faculty last month comes this month’s announcement that the entire UMass system will almost certainly face tuition hikes for the second year in a row. Capping a quarter-century of relentless increases in tuition and fees at state colleges and universities that have made the Massachusetts public higher education system the ninth most expensive in the nation.
Locally, according to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, UMass Boston students “will likely see the biggest increase because that campus projects a $22.3 million shortfall in the coming fiscal year.”
The UMass Board of Trustees will vote on the matter on July 14. But given the Commonwealth’s worsening financial position in the wake of the Brexit crisis, and an expected additional deficit of up to $950 million for FY 2017, there will be significant budget shortfalls that UMass leadership plans to deal with by jacking up tuition on already overburdened students.
My basic response to the looming layoff of one-third of the UMass Boston faculty was to call for a rebellion by students, faculty, staff, alumni and parents at that school. So it should come as no surprise that my response to news of this latest tuition hike is to call for a systemwide rebellion at UMass. And at the state universities and community colleges of the Commonwealth’s three-tiered public higher ed system as well.
As to the specific form of the necessary uprising, I cannot say for sure what will be most effective. But something like the campus walkouts that Boston Public School students pulled off this spring, plus a general descent upon the State House and the establishment of an Occupy-style encampment as a base of operations would be an excellent start. Because if the politicians don’t feel major pressure very soon, public higher education will begin to disintegrate in the Bay State as regular budget cuts get worse and worse.
To those who might suggest that a typical lobbying strategy will be more effective than an extra-parliamentary strategy at this moment in history, I would say that the burden of proof is on them to demonstrate how playing nice in a state political arena dominated by monied interests is getting public higher education advocates — or advocates for any public good — anywhere of late.
As it happens, campus activist groups and labor unions have tried that approach for over a decade but no major positive changes have occurred in state higher ed policy. The general political trajectory has been for the legislature to continue decreasing state support for public colleges and universities causing administrators to raise tuition and fees to fill the budgetary gap. Gradually transferring costs from government to individuals — changing higher ed from a right for the many back to a privilege for the few moving forward. A reversal of nearly two centuries of democratic education reforms.
Power accedes to nothing without a demand. But such a demand needs to fit the circumstances. If the problem involves savage budget cuts, big tuition hikes— 5 to 8 percent at each UMass campus and similar amounts at the state universities being currently projected for FY 2017 alone according to UMass President Marty Meehan — and an existential threat to public higher ed then one can’t improve the situation by proposing good but relatively minor reforms that barely begin to touch the crisis at hand.* Including the “fair share” constitutional amendment that may be on the ballot in November 2018 — which will raise taxes on individuals making more than $1 million a year and target some of the estimated $2 billion in resulting funds annually to higher ed.
A lot of damage can be done to state colleges and universities in the minimum of three fiscal years that it will take to see such a millionaires’ tax operationalized — assuming it’s not defeated by the usual business-led coalition of anti-tax voters. And it’s still no substitution for the progressive tax regime that is needed to end the Commonwealth’s financial woes.
So Mass public higher ed activists face a crucial decision. Will they play an inside game that has not worked before and is therefore highly unlikely to work now without the mass support they have been unable to generate with carefully scripted rallies and lobby days? Or will they try something new? Something bold that might generate the required popular support. Something that will inspire all the tens of thousands of students and alumni being sentenced to a lifetime of debt bondage by short-sighted politicians that refuse to raise taxes on corporations and the rich — even when the very things that have traditionally made Massachusetts a great state, like our public higher ed system, are in danger of being destroyed. All while emboldening faculty and staff to fight for their jobs with the fury a deteriorating political economic situation demands.
That remains to be seen.
*On July 11, the Boston Globe reported that community college tuition would be increasing as much as 10 percent in FY 2017.