Wednesday, April 04, 2012


Tear Gas? Really?

There must be something in the water in California.

A few months ago, the world saw the viral video of campus police tear gassing protesters at a UC campus.  This week, students at Santa Monica College -- a community college -- were tear gassed when trying to enter a public meeting to protest the proposed two-tier tuition plan outlined here.

No, no, no.

I don’t know enough about the logistics of the event to know whether the students were out of line in the moment or not; I’m content to leave that to the people on the scene.  And I have to wonder why California colleges have forgotten how to “use their words,” as they say in daycare.  But I have to wonder at the protest itself.  

A college’s funding is cut, so it responds by attempting to make some of its programs self-sustaining.  Quick: who do you protest?

If your answer is “the college” or “the college’s administration,” you’re missing the point.  

Faced with severe and ongoing state cuts, a public institution has very few choices.  It can cut its offerings -- the ‘enrollment cap’ solution that most of California has adopted.  It can water down its quality, as many colleges have.  It can narrow its focus and do fewer things, but commit to still doing them well.  And it can raise prices to maintain breath and quality.

I can imagine arguments on behalf of any of those.  The enrollment cap maintains quality while controlling costs, but at the expense of access.  Across-the-board dilution lets everyone in and maintains range, but defeats the purpose of education in the first place.  Narrowing the menu of options maintains quality and cuts costs, but it sends students who want certain programs to other places.  Or you can raise prices enough to cover costs, which is what has been proposed at Santa Monica.

Candidly, among those choices, I find the third and fourth far less objectionable than the first two.

The problem is that the third and fourth tend to lead to much more intense political pushback.  Shut down a degree program, and you make the national news.  (Just ask SUNY Albany.)  Raise prices significantly and students storm your board meeting.  But slowly adjunct-out the English department, and the worst you get is some cynical grousing.

The moves that are the easiest politically in the short term do the most damage in the long term.  If we don’t fix that, we’re in for collapse as an industry.  That means that we all have to be a lot smarter in deciding whom, and when, to attack.

The right way to handle this is to pressure the state to fund the colleges at a level where they don’t have to make these awful choices.  If the state comes through and the colleges act boneheaded anyway, then sure, protest away.  But storming the local barricades when the local college made a choice to make its programs sustainable in a hostile environment makes no sense.

And California, lay off the tear gas.  Seriously.

Maybe they missed the point because they had heard an administrator describe one of the two better alternatives as "just jacking up costs for students". Hmmmm?

That said, I agree 100% with your analysis and offer my suggestion about to be smarter about whom to attack. The problem is that the students have no idea how college finances are structured in their state. I'll be they don't even know that their tuition doesn't go to the college! (Until various discussions in this blog over the last few years, I had no idea anyone had a system as insane at the CA CC system.) They need to be taught something about it before they can be expected to respond appropriately.

So, who does this? Do all of the college's faculty all know how their system works? Do all of yours know how yours works? One of the strengths of my CC's response to the recent depression was an open presentation about our finances and how, in detail, we were going respond to it. That was actually the first time I saw a clear description of how our budget was built, and it made a huge difference.

That administration needed to run a good old-fashioned "teach in" for both faculty and students if they wanted to avoid the problem that developed. That assumes, of course, that the board and President wouldn't face political difficulties by being too clear about who is at fault.
You expect gen Xers and millenials to hear "two-tiered" and read this as anything OTHER than prelude to screwing over people more in the future? Have you been paying attention to what boomers do in union negotiations all the time?

This is not another case of higher ed having multiple costs for different people for what is the same education (status quo). It's not about the 'luxury' of 'express shipping'. This is a fundamental admittance, at least by Santa Monica College, that the CCs in CA can NOT do the job they are asked to by the people in the state. They are abdicating their responsibility to educate people, because they can't do it under the constraints they have. If creating the shell nonprofit allows them to get around the all-monies-go-to-the-state nonsense, perhaps it will force CA to reform that. But rest assured the shell-nonprofit will be more effective to run (because if it isn't, they will raise tuition until it is), and it will eventually replace the original school.

I strongly suspect the average student has no freakin clue how the budget goes together (they certainly didn't at any of the institutions I've attended). And that's a failure of those entrusted in educating them. But the students are right to protest the people who have decided to give up.
Students might be missing the point if the point is to agitate for effective change for the college and its present and future student body over the long term...but that sounds more like an institutional perspective than a student perspective. Their interest is in paying their tuition next semester. Protesting the state of California's budget cuts just doesn't seem like it could have any effect at that level; protesting a local meeting might, maybe, or at least I can see why they might feel that way. Their point is self-interest, not long term institutional health, and I'm not sure why we should expect current students to prioritize the latter. (And yes, that makes compromises like this really tough even when they are not the worst solutions, which is too bad. But it's understandable, right?)
Shifting the blame to Sacramento is a classic dodge, a great way to pretend that institutional admins have no power, no responsibility, and (therefore) that no oversight of them is necessary. Given the title of your blog, it's not surprising, perhaps, that you lean towards that perspective. But it's less than convincing to those who aren't, themselves, working as administrators.
Protests aren't aimed merely at one group; protests are attempts to change the discourse about something. To say that this protest was aimed only at the college is to misunderstand how protests work.
For years, people in California have been sold the lie that somehow, by cutting taxes, we could have more money and lots of services because "inefficiency" was what made government not work. Starve the beast. Cut pensions. Furlough state employees. That’ll teach ‘em.

This strategy has not worked out. You cannot be a high service medium-low tax state. You can be a low service, low tax state. You can be a high tax high service state. But what we are doing is not sustainable.

These students are feeling the effects of decades of this nonsense and are rightfully pissed. The solution has been made politically unpalatable - hold the line on any more regressive tax increases (my sales tax is now 10%) and revise the property tax rules (prop 13) that have allowed some commercial properties to escape reassessment since the 1970's (over 40 years for those of you watching at home.) It would also be nice if we could pass a budget / new fees and taxes with a 55% majority and didn't have unassailable legislative districts that resemble drunken amoebas or bird poop splattered on a car window.

DD – your suggestions have merit but they miss the larger point. California’s current path is unsustainable and we don’t have a narrative that allows us to generate revenue to get out of the mess. We are held hostage by a few extreme zealots and a 40 year old law that has long outlived its usefulness. We need change – either through dismantling the infrastructure that was our pride for many years or a real “come to Jesus” moment with regard to taxes and fees.
In line with what Anonymous @7:56 said, I'm not too upset that the students were protesting at the college rather than a state lawmaker's office. If it makes the news, the lawmakers will find out; if not, the college administration at least has some evidence for arguing that it needs more money because the cuts they'll have to make are too painful.

The college board meeting was at night, and I suspect it was on or near campus, in a location the students were all familiar with and could travel to easily. If you ask people to show up at an Assembly Member's office during business hours instead, your protest would probably be a lot smaller.

Some of those who stormed the meeting may have only a hazy idea of how the college's finances work. They may have shown up simply because someone said "hey, if you're mad about the tuition hike, show up at Campus Hall at 7pm and tell them we're not gonna take it!" Some of these protestors will now feel energized enough to identify as a fair tuition activist, and that will make them more likely to read up on the issue -- or listen to an administrator or faculty member who explains the underlying problem is inadequate state funding. And a couple of these energized students may then write to their representatives or newspapers, or show up at an Assembly Member's office or in Sacramento.
There was a blog-worthy howler in a short note that appeared in IHE today. "[Chancellor] Scott said he told [Santa Monica President] Tsang that [the two-tier plan] could deny access to some low-income students."

I'd respond that the Chancellor's plan, which is also the Legislature's plan, already denies access to low-income students. Every high-income student that pays extra to get into the new classes should reduce enrollment pressure for those who can only afford the subsidized ones.
"The moves that are the easiest politically in the short term do the most damage in the long term"

Sadly, you've just described the decision-making process of our entire political system.
Since the administrators reacted by teargassing them, they were obviously right that their administrators are deranged.
As a recent MS graduate of a CA CSU school, and an enthusiastic user of CCs for continuing ed before my dive into graduate school, I can verify that ALL the higher ed institutions in CA are being asked to do more than is possible with the money they have. The U.C. system is sufficiently esteemed that they could charge the entire cost of tuition to the student and still fill their campuses, albeit with mostly foreign students. For the rest of us, who are limited by less-than-superlative pre-college performance, geographical issues, or simply money issues, the crush on the CCs and the CSU system are heartbreaking. I had to take a lot of undergraduate courses to get my MS degree, because it isn't my undergraduate area of expertise; my fellow students, mostly undergrads, were invariably struggling with money issues. My faculty thesis advisor served for some time as the graduate advisor, and he found it quite painful as accepted students turned us down, one by one, for graduate positions in other colleges that had more grant funding.

The financial condition of CA higher ed is frightening.
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