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.