I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…

It’s a lazy Sunday afternoon, and as I sit here online I am having trouble settling the butterflies in my stomach. No fears, readers, I’m not ill. Rather, I’m pretty excited. For tomorrow is the first day of school.* Since childhood, I’ve been excited for the first day of school. I loved all of it: the new “school clothes,” all the equipment and books, spending time with friends, but also the chance to learn. I have always loved going to school and learning new things. And when I finally started college, I loved it all even more: choosing a major, selecting classes, discovering everything available to me.** I truly love learning, whether it’s opening a new book to discover what’s inside or starting on a new research project that will engage me for months, or longer.

My excitement for the first day of school has not diminished. I have a different role now, but I still enjoy being in the classroom. I no longer get new clothes for the first day, and I’ve known about the books for months (having ordered them from the bookstore the previous semester). But I still enjoy spending time with my friends. And while I do enjoy seeing the many colleagues I have not managed to spend time with over the summer, by “friends” I really mean my students, who are the without question the best part of teaching.

One of the great joys of teaching at a small university is that I get to work with students multiple times. Because I teach Introduction to Literature as often as possible, I teach many freshmen. A fair number of these students will again study with me (some because that’s how the scheduling works out, but others because they actively seek me out again). Most of my advisees began their studies in the major in my Introduction to Literature class, as has every student who has come to me for a letter of recommendation. And in my Modern American Poetry class this fall, 17 out of 25 students have worked with me before (11 of whom began their freshman year studies with my Introduction to Literature course). I’m happy to be working with these students again, and excited to meet the ones I haven’t met before.

There are many frustrating things about working at a small state university, most of which have to do with funding. But the one frustrating aspect of university development that bothers me most of all is the slow and steady devaluing of the students by the system. Let me be clear here: the vast majority of faculty and staff I have worked with (from my undergraduate studies to my own career) have been devoted professionals who truly wanted to do the best job they could by the students. However, there are systemic problems that need to be addressed. These problems need to become the subject of conversations on college campuses, in state legislatures, and in the homes of the students who are finding it increasingly difficult to get a college degree.

This article (which some of my friends have helpfully reposted today on Facebook) provides the 5 steps that have been taken to destroy public education. These steps are:

“Step I: Defund public higher education.
Step II: Deprofessionalize and impoverish the professors (and continue to create a surplus of underemployed and unemployed Ph.D.s).
Step III: Move in a managerial/administrative class that takes over governance of the university.
Step IV: Move in corporate culture and corporate money.
Step V: Destroy the students.”

The piece is interesting and worth reading. What I will add to this piece (making clear what the author suggests), is that the first 4 steps are also contributing to step 5. All 5 steps are destroying the students. And once you have destroyed the students, you no longer have any reason to work with them.

Step I: Defund public higher education

When we fund public higher education, we do so because we recognize that our citizens are worth investing in. Education is not the end; it’s the means to the end. The end, of course, is an educated citizenry that is equipped with the background knowledge, critical thinking skills, and ability to properly research and evaluate materials to contribute to society. These contributions will differ: some will become doctors, lawyers, teachers, and politicians; others will repair cars, work retail, build furniture, or farm. But we all benefit from a robust, well-rounded education. Society improves when we are all educated, when we can all understand the complex social and political issues we face, when we have a healthy appreciation for arts and culture and can express ourselves clearly to others. So when we defund public higher education, we do so because we believe that students are no longer worth investing in. Because we believe that people are no longer worth investing in.

Step II: Deprofessionalize and impoverish the professors (and continue to create a surplus of underemployed and unemployed Ph.D.s)

One of the ways we invest in our students is to invest in the faculty, those who do the primary work of the university: educating the students. While there are many aspects to university life that are valuable, there is a reason we call many of them “extracurricular”; the curriculum – the education – is the most important part of the college experience. And those who provide that education – those who work with students daily – need the support of the administration and the legislature. And what’s most frustrating about this is that everyone knows it. University administrators know that, in order to properly do their work, they need support: upper-level administrators have associate administrators, dedicated secretarial and office management staff, and expense accounts to complete their work. Faculty, on the other hand, are increasingly told to “do less with less,” as one former dean at my university put it when asked how we were to do our jobs under increasingly onerous budget cuts.

Step III: Move in a managerial/administrative class that takes over governance of the university.

In my opinion, the single biggest problem with a managerial/administrative class for college and university administration is that this class is largely shielded from having to work directly with students. Yes, the ever-rising administrative salaries (especially when compared to the ever-decreasing faculty salaries) is dangerous and works counter to the needs of the students. However, I believe that one reason for this trend is that such administrators are separated from the students and the daily work of educating – or supporting the education of – the students. Administrators read reports, and deal with the student body as a whole; and this is not unimportant: we need big picture thinking if we are going to design curricula, work with the state legislature, and do community outreach. However, we cannot serve the big picture when we lose sight of the individuals. There needs to be a better balance. Just as faculty need to be involved in the decisions to change the general education program, or defund programs, or create new administrative offices (all of which have happened in the past few years at SUNY Potsdam), administrators need to know about the students who cannot afford books (because of financial aid problems), students who miss classes because they are juggling multiple part-time jobs, and any of the other various day-to-day difficulties faced by students. Shielding administrators from students is dangerous because it allows administrators to make decisions that run counter to the best interest of the students. No to repeat myself, but when you make decisions that run counter to the best interests of the students, you do so because you have decided to stop investing in those students.

Step IV: Move in corporate culture and corporate money.

There are ways to work productively with the corporate world, engaging in partnerships that benefit both the universities and the corporations, while remaining focused on the importance of investing in students. Of course, many – most, I would say – students go to college for the express purpose of finding work upon graduation. And as I alluded to above, a well-educated citizenry is important in part because that citizenry will engage their peers as (among other things) professionals. However, this does not mean that we can or should reduce students to cogs in the larger corporate machinery. As this article helpfully yet frustratingly points out, corporate involvement in public education often leads to thinking of students as a product, not an investment: “The business community is the consumer of the educational product. Students are the educational product. They are going through the education system so that they can be an attractive product for business to consume and hire as a workforce in the future.” As state legislatures strip funding from universities, universities seek other sources of funding, and when you want money, you look toward the corporate world. That’s where the money lives. And corporations are not investing in students; they are investing in their own future.

These various moves all stem from the same cause: a devaluation of the importance of the students. Colleges and universities exist to educate students. Colleges and universities do other work of social importance, certainly, but their primary purpose is to educate students. All decisions must be made with this goal in mind. Yes, sometimes tough choices must be made. But they must be made with the students in mind. Because students are the reason higher education exists.

So tomorrow morning I will be teaching again, working with new students as well as familiar ones. And I can’t wait, because the students are the single best part of the job. And that’s because they are the most important people at the university. We all need to remember that when we design curricula, create policy, and spend money. Because if we are not investing in the students, we are failing them.


*I’m so excited, I will refrain from using this post to complain about having to start the school year on Labor Day, a day that many state employees and members of labor unions – including state employees and members of labor unions at my institution – will have off. No worries, though, as I will address this later. Perhaps in my post next semester about how we also start the spring semester on a federal holiday: the one honoring Dr. King.

**By the time I graduated from Northeastern University with a BA in English, I was one course shy from 4 different minors. I finished with a minor in Linguistics, but was tempted to stay another semester to finnish my minors in Philosophy and Religion, Russian, and a music minor that now appears to have been split into two different minor programs.

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