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Cannibalizing the Campus

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Things are out of whack on our public college campuses. There was a time when students and faculty could assume that a wide range of courses would be offered, courses that would prepare students -- both undergraduate and graduate -- for their entry into professional worlds -- teaching, social and scientific research, medicine, law, engineering and business. There was a time when colleges and university administrators made sure that class size was reasonably low and that faculty had the time and space to mentor their students. Until recently, we all saw the college years as an important time for intellectual, social and cultural growth.

Those days seem to be over.

Colleges and universities have been profoundly politicized. State legislatures of all persuasions have been cutting substantially the budgets for state universities and colleges. Even the most prestigious public universities have not escaped the budgetary meat cleavers of anti-education legislators. The unmistakable result of these actions is that class sizes have grown, department course offerings have been reduced, programs have been eliminated, and the number of permanent faculty has dwindled.

These politically inspired moves, all which have reduced the quality of education on our campuses, seem horribly misdirected. Who knows what will happen if Mitt Romney, who wants to reduce or "consolidate" the Department of Education, finds his way to the presidency? Perhaps the aura of a "President Romney" will encourage our elected public officials to wreak even more havoc on our public system of education, shredding it into an irredeemable tangle of scraps. As for public officials like Mr. Romney, why worry about public education when you can afford to send your kids to elite private schools that feed into Harvard, Princeton or Yale?

In my neck of the woods, Pennsylvania, our governor, Tom Corbett, has quickly made a mess of the world of public education. Last year, he proposed that Pennsylvania higher education be cut by a whopping 54 percent. Even the Republican controlled legislature balked at such a drastic measure. Even so, they still cut the budget 18 percent! In his February 2012 budget message, Governor Corbett proposed to cut the Pennsylvania budget for higher education by an additional 20 percent or $82.5 million. If these cuts are not amended, Governor Corbett's total proposed cuts for Pennsylvania higher education will amount to a stunning $264.5 million.

In addition to these cuts, Governor Corbett appears determined to reconfigure public higher education in our state. He has appointed a 30-member commission that consists mostly of business leaders and college administrators. Their charge is to make recommendations to shape the future of Pennsylvania's system of public higher education. Only one faculty member and one student will join the commission's deliberations. In his charge to the commission, Governor Corbett recommended a massive program for job-training oriented distance education. His charge suggests that he has little interest in cultivating public universities as places where middle class and working class kids learn how to think and function creatively in 21st century social life. Rather, he would prefer to cut public higher education to shreds and replace it with job-training programs in which students learn technical skills. Such a program may seem reasonable to some segments of the public. But after more than 30 years of teaching public university students it is clear to me that possessing a set of skills will not prepare you to solve problems, bring forth innovative solutions, or, God forbid, think creativity.

What is truly disturbing about Governor Corbett's draconian proposals is that they will drastically limit the educational opportunities of middle class and working class kids. Why should they not have the same opportunities as those enjoyed by children from more affluent households? Why should they, just because their parents are not rich, have to settle for programs of study that only teach a narrow set of skills? What about their dreams for the future? Would Governor Corbett want members of his own family to take distance learning job-training programs in lieu of a fine higher education?

It seems that Governor Corbett, among other Tea Party Republican governors, is attempting to transform public higher education into a system in which the rich follow one educational path and most everyone else learns a set of technical skills. Such an approach has the potential to widen the ever-expanding social cleavages in our society.

Governor Corbett somehow thinks that his drastic cuts and his unimaginative program for college and university job training will bring us "back to the future" -- a prescription for growth and prosperity. No, these kinds of programs, which reinforce social inequality, slide us back into the muck, a space of hopelessness, hardship and suffering.

These issues, of course, are not limited to Pennsylvania, which means that the war on education, like the war on women, is quite real.

For the sake of our future, students and faculty need to fight back.