02/01/2013 12:11 pm ET Updated Apr 03, 2013

An Open Letter to Governor McCrory: Students Aren't 'Butts' -- They Are People Trying to Better Their Lives

I wrote a short piece yesterday about Pat McCrory, the governor of North Carolina, and his comments on higher education. Still, I can't let this one go because of just how deeply insulting and infuriating his comments were, not just to me, but also to my students.

See, I am an instructor at a community college in North Carolina. I teach German and, yes, women's studies classes. During an average year, about 150-200 students go through my classes. The student body at the college is very diverse -- from average college-age students to older students, including veterans, single mothers, and those who decided to pursue a college degree later in life for various reasons. Many of them put themselves through college working several jobs. None of them comes from a privileged background and all of them, and I mean all of them, are there because they want to improve their lives.

In my German classes, we focus on learning, not only the language, but also the culture. Along the way, we also talk about the differences between German and American cultures. I have never had a student complain to me that the class was a waste of time and that they did not learn anything. I hear more often how much they enjoyed the class, how much German and English grammar (imagine that!) they learned, how much their perspective has changed as a result of the class.

The responses I get in my women's studies classes are a lot more personal. Many students tell me that the class is life-changing; that they feel more empowered; that they recognize the whys of the world better. Most importantly, they tell me that they gain a sense of self in the wide world. They tell me that the range of topics in class, from patriarchy to women in combat, from the Olsen twins to pornography, opens their eyes to women's status in society, both seen and unseen. To me, such comments are validations of my effort to teach the students to see and think of the world in a way they never have before, and to relate to the world in a more informed and critical manner.

Then on Monday, the governor of my state, Pat McCrory, said on a talk show hosted by a conservative pundit, Bill Bennett, that he had instructed his staff to draft legislation that would shift the way state funds are distributed to the institutions of higher education. He would like to see money distributed according to how the institutions place students in jobs. In his own words:

"And I'm looking at legislation right now, in fact I just instructed my staff yesterday, to go ahead and develop legislation, which would change the basic formula on how education money is given out to our universities and our community colleges. It's not based upon how many butts in seats, but how many of those butts can get jobs."

He criticized classes that he considered didn't lead to jobs and stated that an "educational elite" had taken over the universities and community colleges, offering courses like women's and gender studies. He singled out UNC-Chapel Hill, the flagship UNC school and the oldest public university in the nation, to make his point. Furthermore, he advocated that, should a student be interested in taking women's or gender studies, he or she should do so at private institutions, not at the taxpayers' expense.

Two days later I asked my women's studies students what they thought of the governor's comments. First, they were deeply offended by being called "butts" rather than students. The word was not only insulting and demeaning, it also betrayed his uncaring character. He seemed to care more about state expenditures than students themselves. They also unanimously said that the class is very helpful to them. It may not lead directly to a job, but they were sure that they were thinking more critically because they sure were asking many more questions about issues affecting them than before. They also pointed out that the governor seems to be thinking that the jobs are there just waiting for them if they take the right classes. But where are the jobs, governor? Would the jobs magically appear if the college were to teach only job training classes? Well, shouldn't the governor be focusing more on creating jobs than fiddling with what classes students should be taking at the college? Furthermore, what kind of education would they receive if all they could take were what he thinks would lead to jobs? Isn't higher education about more than just jobs?

I was happy to hear these responses from my students. What I emphasize in my classes is this: life is full of variables. One never knows what is going to be helpful later in life, so one's education needs to be broad. The simple fact is that one may have excellent training in a certain area, let's say furniture making, but then the whole industry goes overseas. Or like in some areas of IT, they become obsolete. Those skills shift all the time, but the ability to think will always remain. And this process of learning to think may come in a form that one did not expect. Today's world demands adaptability, and there is no single linear trajectory to a job. There are, and ought to be, many pathways to success and higher education should prepare students for all of life's possibilities.

Governor McCrory, I don't know why you think you have a crystal ball. When students are well-rounded, the whole society benefits. Well, I guess, it is far easier to jump on the bandwagon with all the Scotts and the Perrys than to come up with your own innovative ideas, is it not? You have managed to offend, not only the teachers, but also the students with your comments.

And DO NOT EVER, ever call hardworking students "butts." Your political career may depend on it.

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