Faculty Groups Kick Off Campaign to Promote College Accessibility and Defend Higher Education

May 17, 2011

Representatives of faculty organizations and groups devoted to promoting college access on Tuesday announced plans to develop a new policy-oriented "virtual" think tank as part of a national campaign to defend government higher-education spending from what they characterize as a long-term political assault.

More broadly, their "Campaign for the Future of Higher Education"—first organized at a meeting held in California in January and officially kicked off Tuesday at a news conference at the National Press Club here—seeks to have higher-education organizations work together to promote the idea that the nation's future depends on making an affordable college education available to all segments of American society.

"Folks are hungry for this kind of campaign," which is about "bringing together faculty and other groups who are passionate about higher education and deeply distressed at its current direction," said Lillian Taiz, who has played a central role in organizing the national effort as president of the California Faculty Association, the union that represents 23,000 faculty members at California State University.

Barbara Bowen, the president of the Professional Staff Congress, the union at the City University of New York, argued at the news conference that the campaign is needed to counter those think tanks and foundations that, in the wake of the 2008 economic downturn, have been encouraging cash-strapped states to adopt policies that "amount to asking students to pay more for less."

Unless public support for higher education is shored up, Ms. Bowen said, "the great experiment of mass democratic higher education that distinguished this country since 1945 and supported the development of a thriving middle class is in danger of collapsing."

Arnold Mitchem, president of the Council for Opportunity in Education, a lobbying group representing the federal TRIO programs, argued that the federal appropriations bill that President Obama signed into law last month "shredded the opportunity infrastructure of this country" with its cuts in spending on programs for students who are low-income or otherwise disadvantaged.

The think tank that the campaign plans to set up will seek to produce research leading to new legislation and new state or campus policies, the efforts' organizers said. Rather than consisting of a new facility housing newly hired researchers, it instead will seek to bring together researchers who already do work related to college access but have had little interaction with each other, and previously did little to promote their work beyond publishing their findings in academic journals.

"We are smart about doing a lot of work on a little bit of money," Ms. Taiz said.

Among the organizations participating in the campaign and represented at Tuesday's news conference were four of the main organizations involved in unionizing college faculties: the American Association of University Professors, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and the Service Employees International Union. Also involved in the event, which was broadcast online to distant college campuses, were faculty union leaders from California, Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia, as well as representatives of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the California Community College Association, the Institute for Higher Education Policy, the New Faculty Majority, and the United States Student Association.

It remains unclear how many other higher-education groups the campaign will be able to enlist. Absent from Tuesday's event were representatives of several Washington-based associations representing college administrators, and some of the faculty leaders on hand complained that the rapid growth in spending on college administrations is diverting money that would be better spent on faculty members and students. "There are simply too many administrators making too much money," said Howard Bunsis, treasurer of the Michigan conference of the American Association of University Professors.

With the involvement of the New Faculty Majority, which represents adjunct faculty members, the campaign does appear, however, to have united sometimes-adversarial advocates for tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty members behind a common cause.

Maria Maisto, the New Faculty Majority's president, announced at the conference that her group plans to stage a one-day national event in Washington in January to discuss issues raised by colleges' growing reliance on non-tenure-track faculty members. The Ford Foundation and Marguerite Casey Foundation have provided the New Faculty Majority with about $75,000 in grant money to organize the event, tentatively called "Confronting Contingency."