Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, wrote more than a century ago about “the sickness that is not until death.” He did so in an essay about despair, loss, and fear.
Notwithstanding the gloomy topic, Kierkegaard was an optimist.
The sickness about which he wrote, after all, is “not until death.” The sickness until death, he wrote, would be a deeper sickness—the one that comes from the separation of one’s soul from the spiritual core that is deepest part of one’s being.
Welcome to the world of Connecticut higher education, college and university-style, circa 2017.
For me and for my colleagues in the Connecticut State College and University system, our collective soul is being wrenched from its spiritual core. The same is true, tragically, for our students
And it is getting worse.
I teach History and English at Tunxis Community College. I have been here, full- or part-time, for more than 20 years. I can attest that our students are not receiving the quality of education they did even five years ago. And they are hardly receiving the quality of education that they deserve.
This is not due to a lack of effort on the part of my students or colleagues.
We are working harder than ever —but we are no longer working to make things better. We are working to keep things from getting worse.
Kierkegaard might say that we and our students are facing the death of our intellectual souls.
The number of full-time faculty members at Tunxis has dropped. Vacancies in all departments from faculty to academic support to the library are not being filled.
Yes, courses still are offered, but they are increasingly being taught by part-time faculty members. Many of them are excellent instructors, and we are blessed to have them. Still, they are part-time, paid a remarkably small sum to teach, and only to teach.
They have other jobs and other priorities in their busy lives. That means they often are not here to offer ongoing academic and career advice that can be provided only by a full-time presence.
What about counseling and tutoring, the vital supporting services? Cuts there as well.
The library? Closed on weekends —closed to our part-time students with full-time jobs for whom Saturday is the only time to do the in-depth study and research that they need for the exams and papers that they must complete to succeed.
Are we making progress anywhere? Not really, except in the peripheral places.
We are trying —but we are pushing back against a tide of soul-eating loss. Tunxis, for instance, joined many of our sister institutions in opening a new food pantry this year to provide decent nutrition to our students and their families.
Its business is robust, which is both good and sad.
“Food insecurity” has been identified in study after study as a critical problem in higher education. The reasoning is simple: Students who are hungry, or who have children who have nothing nutritious to eat, are not likely to stay long in higher education.
So we offer food.
We are here to teach, to advise, to counsel. That is what we WANT to do, why we choose to be here. But we know that we can’t help our students to learn if they and their families don’t have food to eat. That is why we volunteer our time to make sure The Pantry (its official name at Tunxis) is open when it needs to be open.
We are doing what we MUST do.
Our elected leaders are trying to figure out how to balance the state’s budget —and every plan to date has called for devastation of higher education.
Recently, the Democratic leaders of the General Assembly, both the Senate and House of Representative, offered their own “plan” to stop the state’s budget hemorrhage: Cut the state colleges and universities (excluding UConn) by $100 million over the next two years.
Where? Don’t know. How? Can’t say. Why? Because it’s easy.
The numbers appeared on a partial spreadsheet —no supporting details, no justification, simply numbers that seemingly were plucked out of the air in order to make the spreadsheet work.
On a recent airing of WNPR’s Wednesday morning, The Wheelhouse, one of the analysts said that the “plan” looked like something submitted by a high-school student who realized at the last minute that he had to turn in an essay that he had forgotten to write.
How soul-affirming that is.
The fact is that any cut of the proportion envisioned by our Democratic legislative leaders would mean the closing of at least one community college, the evisceration of already diminished services, and ever more extraordinary challenges for our students in achieving the education they deserve.
Lest this be regarded as special pleading on behalf of my colleagues and me, I fully recognize that a cut of this proportion would mean layoffs or reductions in staff that might reach into the hundreds. So be it.
Even if that were not the case, a cut of $100 million would destroy our system.
CSCU President Mark Ojakian has proposed a strategy designed to cut our spending by more than $40 million over two years. It involves consolidation of service functions for our state universities and combination of administration for the 12 community colleges.
Some of my colleagues in the state college and university system have criticized the plan—or at least the way it was offered in April. They have offered alternatives to the plan. But the purpose of this article is not to assess either the blueprint put forth by President Ojakian or the analysis of its critics.
I would simply say this: The pain it would inflict pales in comparison to that which would result from anything that remotely resembles a cut of the magnitude envisioned by the Democratic leadership.
When we read the type of “plan” that the Democrats advance, it truly does chill the soul. That’s not quite the same as actually killing the soul, but it comes pretty close. And that’s the case for those of us who are merely trying to offer opportunities to those who might otherwise have no opportunity.
A cut of $100 million to the CSCU budget would kill the opportunities for hundreds, even thousands, of our students.
These are the students who need a food pantry to make ends meet, who have no means of transportation beyond the range of the bus that takes them to the closest campus, who will have no time to blend a minimum-wage job and a college education.
Throw in an inevitable tuition increase and the number of students shut out from the system will only grow.
So what to do?
How about this: Rather than pick a number ($100 million) out of thin air and rip it from the soul of higher education, take the time to look at the entire state budget, approaching $30 billion, and deal with the systemic dysfunctions that exist but no one wants to face.
Former state Sen. Gary LeBeau proposed in recently in The Hartford Courant a return to county government.
That may be a good idea. At least it’s headed in the right direction. A handful of counties, properly administered, could allow the state government to cut the millions that it offers annually in aid to local government.
We could have fewer school administrators, fewer local police chiefs, fewer grants supervisors, fewer bureaucrats—and services could still be provided.
Here is the bottom line:
Cut the CSCU system by $100 million and at least one community college probably will close. And maybe more. This will make life immeasurably harder for the single parent, the laid-off factory or office worker, the young person who wants desperately to succeed.
Their hopes will wither and perhaps die.
Find another way, demonstrate the courage that real leadership sometimes requires, and we may actually avoid that catastrophe.
Sadly, we will still need our campus food pantries. At least then, however, our students will know where to go for the food that they and their families sometimes need—and they will still be able to cling to the belief that is at the heart of the American dream: the belief that education is the key to a better tomorrow for all of us.
That, surely, is better than the sickness that, to Kierkegaard, led to death.
Bob Brown is professor of history and English at Tunxis Community College in Farmington and a member of the Faculty Advisory Committee to the Connecticut Board of Regents for Higher Education. The opinions expressed in this essay are his own.