March Forth

Peter Wood

Today is March 4th—a day to march forth. Thousands of students at universities around the country and especially on California campuses are rallying to protest budget cuts to public higher education (see map of events). Today has been proclaimed a “national day of action to defend education” by a long list of progressive and socialist groups. There’s a sit-in at Syracuse University in New York and a strike, teach-in, and rally at Louisiana State University. At San Francisco State University, protesters formed a picket line this morning and will continue protesting up to tonight’s “massive rally.”  

March 4 may not be the most auspicious date for such a protest. It’s the anniversary of the deposition of King Henry VI in 1461, which ignited the Wars of the Roses in England. It’s also the date in 1519 on which Cortez landed on the coast of Mexico to launch his fateful march on the Aztec empire. In 1791 Vermont was admitted to the United States as the fourteenth state—setting in train circumstances that would lead eventually to the election of Bernie Sanders as a United States Senator. Nor was that the last catastrophe. In 1918 the first-ever case of the Spanish flu was reported, marking the onset of the worldwide pandemic.  

Not all the omens of March 4 are bad. In 1824 on this date the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck was founded in Britain.  

So will the student protest against budget cuts save American higher education from shipwreck? Or will it doom the Aztec empire of our imperious public universities?  

Students are evidently upset over rising tuition costs and what they call “privatization” of higher education. In other words, the aim is to protect state funding for public institutions. The American Association of University Professors echoes their goal. In the most recent AAUP newsletter, General Secretary Gary Rhoades expressed the AAUP’s solidarity with the protests.  

Mr. Rhoades offers a serious-sounding explanation for why faculty members should endorse this protest. He seems to see this as an occasion to advance the AAUP’s own diagnosis of what ails the university. To that end, he outlines three ways in which his organization can build on the discontent of the students. First, he characterizes the cutbacks in state support for public colleges and universities as an attempt to “privatize” them. Second, he declares that “our challenge is to reverse patterns of resource allocation within institutions.” This means, “Give less money to administrators and more to faculty members.” Third, he calls for faculty members to reassert their role in “shared governance.”  

These don’t exactly sound like the grievances that have brought traffic to a standstill at the University of California, Santa Cruz or prompted a “daylong symbolic occupation” at the University of Oklahoma. But we can’t blame the AAUP for getting on the bandwagon.  

The bandwagon itself appears to have been set in motion by a group called the California Coordinating Committee. This is one of those ad hoc radical blossomings familiar to anyone who pays attention to leftist organizational tactics. The Committee has a vague name, mysterious antecedents, and lots and lots of dubious friends. Its call for the March 4th protest has been endorsed by 186 groups including BAMN (By Any Means Necessary, the frequently lawless group that promotes racial preferences), the zombie-like Students for a Democratic Society that has returned from its crypt, the oxymoronic Freedom Socialist Party, the New School in Exile, and such lovely-sounding groups as FIST (Fight Imperialism, Stand Together).  

To us this sounds like a typical exercise in socialist agitprop. Large numbers of students are concerned about tuition increases at their colleges and universities. Radical groups are attempting to capture this fear and apprehension for their own purposes by misleadingly framing the problem as one of class struggle. The California Coordinating Committee depicts the budget stringencies as an attack on “working people and people of color.” It urges students to see a conspiracy that serves the interests of “the financial institutions that caused the recession in the first place.”  

In short, today’s demonstrations are an instance of socialist rabble-rousing. It indeed speaks to a profound weakness in American higher education that so many college students are susceptible to such demagoguery. The endlessly repeated declarations by college administrators that their institutions equip students to “think critically” come down to this. In a moment when critical thinking is actually needed to distinguish between real issues and exciting propaganda, all too many students succumb to the lure of the latter.  

In our view public higher education across the country does face some deep financial problems. Those problems are rooted in vast overexpansion of colleges and universities in the last several decades. We in fact agree with at least one part of the AAUP’s diagnosis: “institutions have increased their relative investment in administrative positions and expenditures, and decreased their relative investment in educational positions and expenditures.” There has been a bewildering expansion of supernumerary administrative positions, including diversity officers, identity group deans, directors and staff of women’s centers, sustainability officers, residence life curriculum developers, outcomes assessors, and campus therapists of every conceivable brand. It is not clear that the AAUP realizes that it has wandered into the territory of agreeing with the NAS. But if the AAUP is serious about the problem of administrative bloat, it will need to take on all those fashionable PC annexes to the basic educational mission of the university.  

We may also have some common ground with the AAUP in its worry about “a restructuring of the academic workforce from a largely full-time tenure-track faculty to one that is overwhelmingly contingent on managerial discretion and whim.” Some of what is indispensable to a genuine liberal arts education depends on having a faculty that is full-time and fully dedicated to the students in its charge. The danger, however, doesn’t come from “managerial discretion and whim.” It comes from scaling up university enrollments past the point in which it is financially feasible to sustain the curriculum on the basis of a mostly full-time tenured faculty.  

These are important issues and ones on which we would welcome reasoned debate with the AAUP. The March 4th student protests don’t look to us as an occasion where reasoned debate on anything stands much of a chance. We said we can’t blame the AAUP for jumping on this mass protest bandwagon—we can’t blame it but we do regret its choice. What’s amiss in higher education today isn’t going to be set right by demagoguery, chants, and rallies. Now more than ever we need serious foundational thinking about the role of colleges and universities in our society. It serves no good purpose to continue to pretend that higher education can grow its way out of its difficulties. We need to find ways to educate Americans that America can afford.  

Incidentally, March 4 was also the date in 1778 when the Continental Congress ratified the Treaty of Amity.   

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