Our students at Connecticut State Colleges and Universities, often first-generation college students, often study full-time and work full-time. Some students are food and housing insecure, and carry crippling debt. They get sick because of the constant stress and demands made on them.
In spite of these burdens, they come to class with hope for their futures, and commit to their studies with energy, intelligence and creativity.
Yet the Connecticut legislature would once again try to blight these students’ ambitions and impose even more difficult life conditions on them by slashing the budget for our state public universities. This would cause universities to potentially raise tuition by 10% each year for the next three years. According to CSCU President Terrence Cheng and others, universities would also have to eliminate at least 650 jobs, consider letting go another 1,000 part-time employees, shutter departments, close campuses, and slash course offerings.
Our students, in their precarity and exhaustion, have much in common with the majority of professors in the Connecticut State University System — contingent faculty who also labor in tenuous work conditions. Part-time lecturers, estimated at close to 70% of the academic workforce in the CSCU system, have been called “the canaries in the coal mine” in the 40-year history of increasing corporatization and gutting of public education. Long before public education in Connecticut came to this current crossroads, part-time adjunct professors have worked long hours without job security, with little or no benefits, subject to the whims of administrators in terms of hiring and firing from semester to semester.
Part-time lecturers are unpaid for course preparation, office hours, administrative work, grading, writing recommendation letters and virtually everything they do for their courses and students outside their hours in the classroom. In order to make ends meet, some teach at multiple universities and some resort to food banks. Our students may have professors who, like them, are living hand to mouth, trying to make ends meet and to hold it all together. These exploitative work conditions exist because universities need to cut corners in their personnel decisions in order to reduce costs.
Neither the students’ situation, nor the professors’, however, make for good learning and teaching conditions. For the moment, against all odds, the students and their professors persist in their work. Under adverse conditions, adjuncts continue to teach with inspiration and creativity, while increasing numbers of students don’t enroll in college or drop out because they can’t afford to study. Under these individual and collective burdens, public education comes closer and closer to collapse. The canaries have been dying for a while. This latest budget cut seems intended to bring the whole structure down.
Yet these privations need not be the situation, nor should they be. Until approximately 1980, a public university degree in Connecticut was reasonably accessible and didn’t require students to go into debt. To this point, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Article 26 says, “Everyone has the right to education. …[H]igher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.” While once public higher education was affordable for all, the proposed budget cuts will effectively eliminate the accessibility of higher education for many students in our state.
Proponents of the proposed budget argue that maintaining public education funding at its current level is not sustainable, a claim that simply doesn’t hold up in a state with so much wealth and with a current budget surplus of $4.3 billion. Ethically it doesn’t hold up against an inalienable human right.
Why is it that a state that is one of the wealthiest in the country “cannot afford” to fund public education and by doing so widens the state’s wealth gap, already one of the largest in the country? The unvarnished answer is that this thinking is driven by corporate and individual greed, a thirst to pay less taxes and the desire to invest as little as possible in our young people. It has nothing to do with actual financial resources in our state, which are plentiful. Of course we could afford to appropriately fund our public education system if we had the political will.
A healthy democracy needs an educated citizenry. By undermining public education and attempting to cut off the educational aspirations of our most vulnerable, Gov. Ned Lamont and the legislators behind this proposal seem intent on destroying our democracy.
A public university education should be financially accessible to all again. Fund public education at the levels of earlier times, rather than continuing to devastate it. Parents, citizens, students, professors: call your legislators. Tell them to fund higher education the way it should be funded — fully, for our children’s future, for our state’s economic future, and for democracy.
Alice Emery is Associate Professor in the World Languages, Literatures and Cultures Department at Central Connecticut State University. She is a member of the Equity for All Part-Time Faculty Caucus of CSU-AAUP.