By: Bobby Gallagher, Red Phoenix Correspondent Ohio
Bobby Gallagher is a union organizer and member from Youngstown, Ohio.
Across the country, there are issues regarding the integrity of our schools and universities. Education in this country remains an imperfect system, and improperly funded and managed institutions of learning will not provide us with the best possible outcomes. In a nation where 54% of adults read below a 6th grade level, it is no exaggeration to say the education system has already failed its citizens. It is beneficial to the hyper wealthy and those seeking that nothing will fundamentally change, that it either stay this way or get worse. To better understand the dangerous direction our education system is headed, understanding the policies being implemented at a local level is vital. Not only are books being banned by school boards across the country, which is not a new phenomenon, but many of our universities face harsh outlooks due to cost saving measures being implemented by their respective administrations.
Youngstown State University is one of the many publicly funded institutions where we can see the attacks on education play out, though these trends are not just limited to the public sphere. YSU is not a massive institution, but it is marketed as a place to receive good quality education and more attention from professors, for one of the cheapest prices per year among comparable Ohio public universities.
However, recent cuts to YSU’s academic budget, balanced out by an increase in funds for athletics have shown an issue of priorities from the administration. The decision to cut academic spending, which resulted in the loss of 9 full time faculty and 26 programs, were deemed “…necessary to further position us for success in the post-pandemic era” by President Jim Tressel[i]. But how does cutting full time faculty do anything to position a university for success? While the administration claims these are proactive cost saving measures, questions arise about some of the faculty impacted. YSUOEA, the union representing the faculty, has expressed concern that some of the cuts have a different purpose. Susan Clutter, YSUOEA President has highlighted a point of concern- several of the faculty who received dismissal notices were key leaders in contract negotiations as well as strikes in 2020.
Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, Gabriel Palmer-Fernandez, who also serves as chair of YSUOEA’s grievance committee also expressed concern with how many of the disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic are being solved, and how universities who are transitioning more to online modes of education are harming academic institutions. He also pointed out that while 9 faculty were dismissed, “some 30 new faculty were hired, but only one of them is a tenure-track post. The remaining are one-year renewable positions without the opportunity for tenure: step out of line and you will not be renewed.” It is no question- these cuts also diminish the power that YSUOEA can wield on behalf of the remaining faculty. YSU’s administration continues to claim this is with the future of the university in mind, even though they concede it is not a sustainable strategy. They claim that the programs and professors done away with in the name of efficiency will not have any long-lasting effects on students or the quality of education they provide. However, the strategy of cutting programs and academic funding, while increasing funding to an athletic program which the university operates at a loss is laughable.
The decision to cut these 26 programs was made after an efficiency study conducted by for profit agency Gray & Associates, a business analytics firm specializing in curriculum analysis and planning. When corporate strategies like this are applied, important programs are cut in favor of “efficiency”, despite the importance of the work they perform. Two such programs which provide important work for the university and area but are still being cut, are the Center for Judaic and Holocaust Studies and The Center for Islamic Studies. These programs will cease to function, as the professors who run them are two of those impacted by the budget reduction. Because of the loss of these institutions, the issue has already received international attention from religious media. Local religious leaders have also expressed disapproval of the loss of these programs. Students, professors, and local grassroots organizations have already held demonstrations against the removal of these professors and programs and they will certainly continue- the administration is adamant that more cuts are necessary and can be expected to be announced by March. Islamophobia, antisemitism, as well as holocaust misappropriation are all on the rise throughout the nation, the removal of these programs only inflicts further harm and accelerates these backwards ways of thought into the mainstream. While school boards banning books from school libraries may make slightly it harder for students to access these resources, universities cutting programs and dismissing professors like Dr. Jacob Labendz and Dr. Mustansir Mir will only lead to less honest teaching and research about the fields in which they are experts. With more cuts coming, the future of many programs and professors at YSU are uncertain and the university’s academic integrity seems less and less existent.
The instances we see at YSU are just at one institution, but the trend is national. Any educators noticing similarities at their own institutions can stand against these trends through unions and faculty senates and should fight to stay true to the purpose that the schools they are employed by should serve- one of research and education. It becomes difficult for true learning when important programs are cut in favor of athletics, full-time faculty are replaced with part time lecturers, and enriching programs are tossed aside. Programs which do not serve capital done away with, curriculums that train students for to be squeezed for their labor. It seems administrators are seeking ways to employ professors who will do the same. This trend must be stopped, universities and colleges must act as institutions of learning and research instead of an anti-academic, anti-intellectual model of industrial efficiency. The current struggle, in higher education as well as our public K-12 schools, remains one with great potential implications for our future. But Gabriel reminds those across the country involved in the fight against such cuts- “…the response needs to be local: remain vigilant; protest faculty cuts; disrupt their plans.”
A Further Statement From Dr. Gabriel Palmer-Fernandez regarding the current situation at YSU
Most faculty recognize that our colleges and universities are not democratic institutions in which they share governance with management/administration. Private or public, they have embraced a corporate model that displaces academic values through efficiency models of industrial production and Neo-liberal privatization of our common good of education. Unionization is one way to combat such trends, so too faculty senates that uphold the core mission of teaching and research. The COVID pandemic has brought a number of dangerous disruptions to our colleges and universities, including, for example, the change in teaching modality to on-line education and retrenchment of faculty positions. Both are evident at Youngstown State University. Faculty there have already suffered one cut and a second one is expected before March 1, 2022. Meanwhile, some 30 new faculty were hired, but only one of them is a tenure-track post. The remaining are one-year renewable positions without the opportunity for tenure: step out of line and you will not be renewed. Labor discipline by fear. None of this is particular to Youngstown State University. It is a national trend but the response needs to be local: remain vigilant; protest faculty cuts; disrupt their plans.