Orwell Blushed

Washington Democrats should stop treating students and families as political pawns and start working with Republicans on real solutions that will move the country forward. The House remains focused on policies that promote job creation, so that every graduate who wants a job can find a job. The committee will also continue its work to strengthen the postsecondary education system through reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. The president should join these efforts, rather than stage more campaign-style events at the expense of students and families.

Education and The Workforce Committee, Press Release, Congressman John Kline, Chairman

Congressman Kline and his committee have created what could be called a perfect form of Orwellian double-speak. President Obama’s proposal is very simple and in fact very Republican: allow students to refinance their loans. If we are lucky, this might increase competition and lower loan costs at no cost to the government. That is what used to be a formula for every conservative proposal: use the market, zero-costs. We ought to be wondering why a Democrat sounds so much like President Reagan. Congressman Kline makes it seem like socialism.

That’s only the first layer of hypocrisy. The Congressman then goes on to claim that the real problem is unemployment, as if it would be fine to exploit students with outrageous loans as long as they have a good job. Even more ironically, the Republican House has not offered even a the most minor of jobs programs in many years. In fact, the Republican obsession with the deficit– a transparently self-serving obsession, of course, since it serves their masters so well– has prevented the levels of government spending that would make a real dent in unemployment.

Why You Should Be Freaking Out…

Net neutrality is dead.

At least that’s the verdict of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which today struck down a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) order from 2010 that forced Internet service providers (ISPs) like Verizon, AT&T, Comcast and Time Warner Cable to abide by the principles of network neutrality. These principles broadly stipulate that ISP network management must be transparent, and that ISPs can’t engage in practices that block, stifle or discriminate against (lawful) websites or traffic types on the Internet.

That’s the bare bones story, wrapped in ugly acronyms (FCC, ISP, etc.). But why should you care that network neutrality (“net neutrality”) may be gone for good?

Why You Should Be Freaking Out About The End Of Net Neutrality,” Betsy Isaacson

This is a piece that nicely sums up the problem, or coming problems. I think it started with the increasingly paid for Google search results. We need an open source search engine. This is worse. The only way to fix it before it gets even more messed up is to have a functioning Congress. No luck on that front.

Why You Should Be Freaking Out About The End Of Net Neutrality.

Market Myths

The US health care system is 2.5 times more expensive than the nearest competitor for inferior overall outcomes. A UK Treasury study of “private financing initiatives” showed they typically added 40% to the cost of public services. Academic publisher Elsevier’s 37% profit margins are a big reason why its articles cost 8 times more apiece than do their open source equivalents. And of course the Cameron government’s massive cut to British universities resulted in an immediate, nearly-universal tripling of fees and a likely increase of 100 billion pounds to public debt.

MOOCs and Parking Lots: Privatization on Auto-Pilot,” Chris Newfield

As a kid, I loved the Greek Myths. I am not completely sure why– I wasn’t a natural scholar or anything, and there was nothing systematic or intellectual about my interests. I think I just liked the idea of a world that included these supernatural beings. I have the same feeling now when I watch Dr. Who. I don’t have to believe in the good Doctor– literally, as my students would say– in order to take pleasure in the idea that he exists.

I think the market has a similar role in the lives of a lot of people. If you think about it, or do some reading, you quickly find out that the market is no panacea for anything. It does some things well, but even the things it does well have very high costs, many conveniently hidden. Apple brought us the I-phone, but behind the technology lies an entire world of exploited labor and environmental damage, among other things.

At some point– reading Yeats, I think– I discovered that the Greek Myths also included the rape of Leda by Zeus in the form of a Swan. It’s a freaky and disturbing story. We need a similar sort of story for the people who believe in markets. The market is comforting because we want to live in a world that sorts itself out automatically, that settle into fairness in the way a dog settles down to sleep. The market story is pleasant and utterly impossible.

Burning Platforms

Hyperbole is great fun but it tends to distort our sense of time and scale.  A phrase like “burning platform” is no exception. (Here’s a quick definition of the term; the story sounds apocryphal.)  Higher education, some might say, is (or is on)  a burning platform in the middle of the sea and we– or it– have to decide between the certain death of staying on the platform or risk the only probable death of jumping off the platform into the cold water. It’s a simplistic parable but it has a certain appeal. May you live in interesting times.

In fact, short of the fall of the Soviet Union, change, even life or death change, can be remarkably slow. The Arab Spring is entering its 5th season. Here’s how the ACTA  (American Council of Trustees and Alumni) seeks to slow educational change to a crawl. The AC TA congratulates governor McDonnell for staying out of the controversy over the firing  and then rehiring of Teresa Sullivan, President of the University of Virginia (“Kudos Governor McDonnell“). It doesn’t criticize the Board of Trustees, whose power grab created the problem.

Instead, the ACTA wags its little reactionary finger at those who now seek  “a radical restructuring of the selection process to minimize the role of the governor and to enhance the role of specific groups, such as faculty or alumni.”  Let’s not go overboard; governance is not the problem: “The challenges besetting higher education,” it says, “are considerable: costs, quality and accountability.” That business-minded administrator point of view is hardly a creative leap of faith into the future.

If  Don Tapscott’s (among others) optimistic notion  is correct, the real paradigm shift suggested by the Virginia debacle is a incremental move towards a more transparent system in which no Board of Trustees (or administrator) can make sweeping institutional changes behind closed doors. We’re watching in a new way and it matters. (Tapscott outlines his idea in a TED video, here.)  The ACTA can’t see the toothpaste that Tapscott says cannot be put back into the tube: the slow but steady shift away from rigid, centralized power.

Permanent Austerity

The adjuncts tend to teach core classes at Duquesne, and Cech noted the adjuncts’ lack job security because if their classes do not fill up, they are not guaranteed employment. Adjunct faculty members make up 40 percent of the liberal arts instructors and can earn up to no more than $10,224 in yearly salaries while full-time assistant professors within the liberal arts make a yearly salary of $65,300.

Part-Timers At Duquesne Unionize With the United Steelworkers

I’m always thinking that I sound crabby if not permanently angry so I go in search of good news. This piece, from Adjunct Nation, is in fact very good news insofar as it reports on six schools in the Pittsburgh area that are unionizing in affiliation with the United Steel Workers. It’s good news for a lot of reasons. I don’t think we’ll make any real progress until we have  a national labor movement,  and for that we need Card Check, but six schools in a city can at least begin to make a difference. Labor markets are very regional.

I like the idea of primary and secondary industry labor– the people who brought  us the weekend, ended child labor, created the minimum wage– working directly with tertiary industry people, especially education.   Solidarity is important, of course, and the traditional unions have a lot of expertise that we can all use. Even more importantly, we need a broadly representative labor movement that recognizes the necessity of a diverse economy.  Any economy overly focused on the so-called service industry is by definition a weak economy.

I also believe that these sorts of coalitions will eventually get us to the next important stage in the labor movement, which is a push to a shorter work week.  (Occupy Wall Street, are you listening?) It’s great that technology makes us more and more productive but if we don’t cut the labor week down to size this sort of progress will only lead to more unemployment. In the long run, the only real way to ensure some degree of equity will be to cut down the work week. If 20 hours were considered full-time, we’d really be on to something…

On the other hand it’s not all rainbows and unicorns…  The contrast between full-time and adjunct work at Duquesne and elsewhere illustrates a permanent state of austerity endemic in U.S. universities and growing worse each year.  These employment and salary disparities need to be widely known and ought to alarm everyone; if the austerity folks have their way our future is  an economy in which fewer and fewer workers have full-time positions while  more and more are under-employed and, of course, under-paid and over-worked.

You’ve Been Schooled: Class War, Class Struggle

A few years ago,  maybe less, the big insult from the right was to call Obama, or anyone they did not like, a socialist. It drove anyone who was literate nuts, simply because the Obama administration was nearly as far from socialist as you could imagine, at least in the traditional sense.  Arguably, something  had to be done less capitalism implode, but would a socialist spend all or most of his time saving the banks?

That doesn’t even take into account the endless wars and illegal assassinations and the cowardly abandonment of single payer health care and the endless compromises. Obama has certainly accomplished some amazing things but he’s not used the crisis to move the country in a decisively new direction. Clinton was Reagan with a (slight) difference and Obama is Clinton’s Reaganomics with a (slight) difference.

The socialist charge hasn’t disappeared but it’s been overshadowed by the latest charge: class warfare.  This too ought to drive anyone in education and anyone who’s educated nuts. It’s not simply that there’s no war, or implied violence. It’s that this idea serves is, in effect, a denial of the reality of capitalism as an ongoing class struggle over resources and power, not necessarily in that order. It’s not war but it is a struggle.

The last thirty years or so have shown that if ordinary people don’t respond to the struggle with their own struggle, resources and wealth tend to concentrate at the top.  It’s incorrect to think of this in terms of individuals, aka the millionaire’s tax. Instead this has to be thought of in terms of how resources and power are distributed and as a result what sort of society you want to create. That’s the real question.

That’s what the Occupy Wall Street reaction– it’s not  yet a movement–is about. Do we want a morally sound society in which everyone has access to food, health care, and education as a human right? If we do, we have to accept limits on the ability to accumulate resources and power.  That’s the discussion the Occupation has begun. I think the proposed limits in Obama’s Jobs Bill is a good start, but only a start.