First They Came for the Undergraduates
Dear AAUP Member:
Driving from Jackson State University in Mississippi last April, I passed a sign, “Mississippi: Birthplace of American Music,” as a blues program played on the radio. There was no better time to be reminded that Mississippi was the birthplace of Robert Johnson, B.B. King, and Elmore James—whose brilliant “The Sky is Crying” can move me to tears, too. Thanks to the efforts of Jim Bell at Jackson State, I’d just had the opportunity to meet with faculty members and presidents of historically black colleges and universities in Mississippi. My visit followed meetings in Louisiana, where AAUP investigations would lead to censure for Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge; Northwestern State University and Southeastern Louisiana University. During a visit I made with AAUP staff member Jenn Nichols to Southern University in Baton Rouge, cuts to programs and faculty positions were announced, which would lead to yet another investigation in Louisiana.
As I drove, I thought about how Mississippi’s great musical and literary legacy failed to prompt stronger state commitment to higher education funding, how the de-funding of higher education had had a disproportionate impact on the historically more vulnerable HBCUs, as well as how many white people I’d met who didn’t even know what an HBCU was. As I recalled my work for the AAUP over the past year, I thought of how often those who had the power to transform the course of higher education refused to act out of fear of losing their small advantage over the less fortunate among them. I’d watched as tenure-track faculty hesitated to stand up for their non-tenure track colleagues, and as the percentage of contingent faculty climbed to 75 percent. I’d watched as university administrators multiplied like jackrabbits, even as funds for instruction fell proportionally. I’d watched as state funding for higher education declined nationwide, leaving students with higher tuition that they could manage only by taking on lifelong burdens of debt. During the same year, of course, events unfolding at Penn State were reminders of just how willing those in power are to ignore the victims of the powerful.
Martin Niemöller’s World War II poem, which begins, “first they came for the socialists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a socialist,” and ends with, “then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me,” had been running through my head more and more often, as I repeatedly witnessed the powerful ones in higher education do little or nothing to speak for the powerless. Meaning no disrespect to the horrendous historical context of the original, I reached the point that I was troubled enough by the analogy to pull off at the next exit and write the following:
First they came for the undergraduates,
saddling them with debts they could never hope to repay,
and I didn’t speak out because I’d already graduated.
Then they came for the graduate students,
reducing the number of tenure-track positions and leaving them jobless,
and I didn’t speak out because I already had a tenure-track position.
Then they came for contingent faculty,
non-renewing them for even cheaper labor,
and I didn’t speak out because I already had tenure.
Then they came for the Oklahoma faculty,
introducing a bill that would outlaw tenure for everyone but university presidents,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't in Oklahoma.
Then they came for the Louisiana HBCUS,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t in Louisiana
and I was not a person of color.
Then they came for me, by which time I was a full professor,
but there was no one left to speak out for me.
Since then, "How the American University was Killed, in Five Easy Steps" appeared, with its sobering account of the process by which conservative elites de-funded higher education because of its potential to create a more empowered, democratic, and multiracial middle class. The process has resulted in the deprofessionalization and impoverishment of those who teach at universities, as contingent ranks have swelled to 75 percent of faculty; the rise of a managerial/administrative class that has robbed the now largely disempowered faculty of its traditional role in university governance; and the potential impoverishment of vast numbers of students for whom American higher education—that once democratizing enterprise—had originally been intended: college has now become “so insanely unaffordable that only the wealthiest students from the wealthiest of families can afford to go to the school debt free.”
Thanks in large part to the AAUP for keeping tenure alive in spite of this process, many of us are still in positions to speak out on behalf of our students and colleagues. As to students, Jeff Williams has eloquently addressed the current student debt system, likening it to indentured servitude and urging the AAUP to address the issue. As to our colleagues: as increasingly corporate-minded administrations retaliate against faculty members who challenge them, we can speak out in solidarity. At Mississippi Valley State University, represented at the April meeting I attended, faculty members who had participated in a vote of no confidence on their president in November recently received notices of dismissal. In these and other similar situations, if we don’t speak out, who will be left to speak for us?
--Donna Potts, Chair, AAUP Assembly of State Conferences