Panel discusses the crisis in higher education

By Nancy Pierce

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.


Email This Story






Whether it was the recent tuition fee hikes, increasing student debt or the elimination of staff positions, a number of University of Massachusetts students and faculty alike have felt the bite of the economic crisis in America.

Wednesday in the Campus Center’s 10th floor Amherst Room, several UMass faculty members held a panel discussion called “‘They’re cutting…what?’ Challenges and Opportunities in the Funding Crisis in Public Higher Ed for the ‘New’ Social Justice Fields.” .

Sophia Zaman, the undergraduate organizing director for Center for Education Policy and Advocacy (CEPA), spoke first, criticizing budget cuts in programs such as women, gender, and sexuality studies. She called these cuts a real risk and said that it fosters the acquisition of job skills as opposed to critical thinking.

“We need people who are agents of change,” she said. Zaman also asked the audience to consider that a tie between nationwide hardships and a lack of critical thinkers may exist, saying people should ask, “‘Why isn’t the system working?’ rather than ‘What can I do within the system?’”

She began her address by recounting UMass’ history of funding for higher education with the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 which she said helped establish public higher education as a common good for the public.

Zaman said in the past, students were able to work 15 hours a week during the school year and 40 hours a week during the summer to graduate with minimal debt. She said today, a student would have to work 52 hours a week all year round to be able to accomplish that same goal.

She then spoke about what she saw as a shift in higher education during the administrations of both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. She said during these two presidencies, tuition sky-rocketed, funding was slashed and the cost was transferred as a burden to the students.

Zaman said the college-aged generation has a lot at stake in terms of assuming the nation’s debt. asking rhetorically how to create a system that doesn’t generate $40-50,000 in student debt.

She added that average student debt is $23,000 and is scheduled to collectively reach $1 trillion this year. “Clearly it’s time for a change,” she said.

Max Page, professor of art and architecture and co-author of “The Future of Higher Education,” spoke on behalf of Donna Johnson, president of University Staff Association and Massachusetts Teacher Association (USA/MTA) because she was not able to attend the panel discussion.

Page said Johnson wanted to speak about her attempts to meet with UMass President Robert Caret about contract extensions, and also discuss funding and classism.

Johnson is president of a union that is 80 percent women and has an average salary of $36,000, according to a statement that Page read for Johnson. In that statement, Johnson said faculty members are at times treated unfairly by the University chancellor and president, often having to cope with bullying and classism.

After speaking on behalf of Johnson, Page spoke about the modern architecture of UMass and the vision set out by the University upon building these structures. He said after World War II, the state decided to construct modern buildings that would house many young people. He described the period after World War II as “the golden age of investment of higher education.”

Page emphasized what he saw as the transformation from state funding of public education to privatization.

“Now students and their families spend more to run the University than the state contributes.”

He said there is an exponential growth in students with $40,000 plus in debt.

Page also expressed concerns about what he sees as a limited opportunity in higher education because of decreased funding. He said there has been an increase in students attending universities, but that the increase is from students in the top half of the economic scale. He said because of this, colleges may be reinforcing an economic inequality gap when, in his view, higher education should bridge such a gap.

Page discussed how he thought the University is moving away from a model of a democratic institution as it shifts to a business model, marketing to students who can pay the full tuition and garnering a greater focus on recruiting out-of-state students.

Laura Briggs, the newly appointed chair of women, gender, and sexuality studies, spoke about the effects of the public education crisis on studies like African-American and women’s studies. She spoke about the varying degrees of success programs in these fields were experiencing in higher education across the nation.

She expressed optimism about the survival of women’s studies because of its link to activism and of the democratization post World War II. She said people within that department have experience in building support and political organization, which she said is essential to survival in higher education.

Nancy Pierce can be [email protected]