By Nadene A. L’Amoreaux
INDIANA – Next week, faculty members and coaches at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and our sister universities across the commonwealth will vote on whether to authorize a strike. We will vote in the face of a threat to college education in the state of Pennsylvania.
We grow increasingly discontented with a Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education that has failed to implore the General Assembly to adequately fund higher education. That has allowed tuition increases across the State System to place greater financial burden on students and their families, thereby making the possibility of higher education to become further out of reach for our students.
Pennsylvania ranks third highest in the nation for student loan debt. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, funding cuts are accompanied by tuition hikes and cuts in campus staff and programs, which in turn lead to decline in the quality of education. Cuts to our higher education system are making college less affordable and are threatening the quality of education students receive at the state’s public four-year and community colleges. Per-student funding for our public colleges and universities is 33 percent below 2008 levels, while tuition costs have increased more than $2,200. Only five states have cut higher education funding more than Pennsylvania (Arizona, Illinois, Louisiana, South Carolina and Alabama).
THIS IS personal for me. I am a first-generation college student. I grew up in small town in Ohio. My great-grandfather died in a coal-mining accident in West Virginia. Neither of my grandmothers finished high school.
I was a member of the working poor class, and higher education was a dream that my parents had for their children, but the reality was very unlikely. Vocations that were likely to be my path included unskilled labor. Although manufacturing seemed stable at that time, there was little to no economic growth, including new jobs available for high school graduates. Within six months of my father’s retirement from GE, the plant in which he spent his entire working life closed.
Soon most, if not all remaining manufacturing and industry followed GE. This left the area desolate with no substantial economic resources outside of the local public school system, a privately run prison, and a hospital. My hometown exists on service-related jobs, and it has experienced the trappings that come with no hope and limited resources: increased crime and poverty, which in turn deters businesses and families who can contribute to the local tax base from moving in to the area. Now, the town I grew up in is not able to sustain a grocery store.
If it were not for higher education, I would have few prospects to exist or to raise my family. Higher education was the path out of poverty for my brothers and me. Higher education enabled us to expand our dreams, and create futures for our children that my parents and grandparents could only imagine. It provided opportunities that I never knew existed, and it forced me to consider perspectives that I had not encountered in my limited experience with the world.
WHEN we do not demand that public education and higher education be adequately funded by the state, we are complicit in creating a situation in which we contribute to furthering the economic divide between those who have and those who do not. We perpetuate poverty in our state by failing to provide future generations with opportunities.
And we become morally bankrupt by limiting the social and economic opportunities that keep our citizens uneducated and untrained — unprepared for the work opportunities that our communities need to be vital, vibrant, relevant. If students are not able to afford a quality education, if they are unable to show up in our universities, we educators cannot do what we do. Our colleges and universities cannot be vital, vibrant and relevant. We will not be able to grow and adapt to the changing needs of a global economy.
It is beyond reprehensible that the State System’s chancellor has failed to demand adequate funding for higher education. Worse, he perpetuates an erroneous belief that the faculty who work for him work only 17 hours per week, are under-worked and overpaid, and that this erroneous belief has gone unchallenged.
The problem with higher-education funding does not rest with the salary and benefits of the faculty; it rests with complacency in an underfunded State System of Higher Education. It rests with state legislators who are short-sighted in their vision for the commonwealth and who believe that state-owned universities operate like grocery stores and vineyards: They see our students as commodities rather than as the hope for our future.
While citing faculty payroll as a contributing factor to rising tuition costs, the State System seems to have overlooked the proliferation of administrative positions that far outpace faculty positions over the past 10 years. The State System has ignored substantial salary increases that have been granted to some administrators, while faculty and coaches are entering a second year with essentially a salary freeze.
THIS IS why I am willing to go on strike, this is why I am ready to take a stand. It is not merely about my salary and benefits. It is about the salary and benefits of my children and their generation, of the doctors, lawyers, scientists, mechanics, plumbers and school teachers in my community, now and into the future. It is about the quality of their training and education, and the integrity of our educational institutions. It is about the possibilities.
I do not want to strike. But I will, if needed to ensure the opportunity of quality higher education for current and future generations.
Nadene A. L’Amoreaux, Ph.D., has been a faculty member in the Indiana University of Pennsylvania Department of Counseling since 1999. In spring 2016, she was elected president of the IUP chapter of APSCUF, the statewide union of faculty members and coaches. This article is adapted from her remarks at the university’s Aug. 26 opening-day ceremonies.