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by Mary Ellen Flannery

As this 2011 issue of Thought & Action heads to the printer (union, of course) higher education faculty and employees in Ohio are knocking on the doors of their neighbors, rallying widespread public opposition to what just might be the most anti-faculty labor law ever. Unless voters overturn the measure at the polls on November 8—and let’s hope you’re reading this with a smile of knowing relief—Senate Bill 5 will crucify collective bargaining at public colleges and universities. 

And it’s not just Ohio. It’s also Alabama and Arizona, where state legislators passed laws this year making it more difficult for educators to join their NEA-affiliated unions. Famously, it’s also Wisconsin, where 14 state senators fled the state in early spring, holing up across the border in a defiant attempt to halt passage of a bill that would gut collective bargaining in the very state that first guaranteed those rights to workers. Eventually, state Republicans would cast their votes of approval in the dark of night, in a near-empty state house in Madison, as tens of thousands of shivering protesters stood vigil outside its locked doors.

One hundred years after Ambrose Bierce published The Devil’s Dictionary, his definition of politics still rings true: “A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.”

Indeed, the private advantages have grown very large. Could Bierce have predicted that two brothers with billions of dollars would invest in the rapid election of right-wing governors who would aim to kill unions and blame public employees for almost every ill of society? Similarly, would he have imagined the growing corporatization of public higher education, and the influence of the Almighty Profit on academics as noted in this issue of Thought & Action by University of Connecticut professor Gaye Tuchman.

“‘An academic plan is just a business plan,’ the last president of my university told the faculty,” Tuchman writes.

Meanwhile, some folks with money (and degrees) loudly proclaim that they could have gotten plenty of the first without the benefit of the latter. In his January column, “8 Alternatives to College,” which has received more than 3,000 “likes” on Facebook, finance writer James Altucher suggests that spending four years on “mastering a game,” such as ping-pong or poker, would be a better use of the post-diploma years than college.

Venture capitalist and PayPal billionaire Peter Thiel actually is paying smart kids not to go to college. Take a look at the open letter to Thiel from United Faculty of Washington State president Bill Lyne also in this issue of Thought & Action. Lyne is a wickedly funny man who delivers a dead-serious message about the intrinsic value of a well-funded public education to this country.

This is all to say that these are crazy times we work and live and persevere in, perhaps the craziest yet. But they are not completely unfamiliar. In “The University Besieged,” Jeff Lustig, professor emeritus at Sacramento State, reflects on his role in the Free Speech Movement of the mid 1960s, recalling “years of conflict, of charge and counter-charge, committees and counter-committees, bulletins from above and pronunciamentos from below.”

He writes, “One day a critic of what we activists were doing took the podium and declared that parents sent their kids to college to study, not to do politics. An older student, maybe a grad student, responded, saying that a public education was not just an education funded by the public, but an education that prepared students to be parts of a public—to be citizens.”

Lustig’s Plaza is a place of thought and action, where students and faculty not only ponder the university’s central mission but also direct it. This journal serves the same purpose. It is a Plaza of written words, where faculty must not simply lament the profit-driven corporate takeover of their classrooms but also spell out their plan for collective action. Says academic historian Diane Ravitch in a Q&A in these pages, “We can’t give in to despair...professors and teachers must get involved, inform themselves about what their governor and legislature are doing, what their Congressional representatives are doing, and participate. Use all the tools of our democracy to defend your profession, your students, access to education, and the quality of education. Do not despair. Do not give up. Stand up for what you believe and let your voice be heard.”

Mary Ellen Flannery is Thought & Action's editor. She has worked for the National Education Association as a senior writer and editor since 2004. Previously, she reported on education for The Miami Herald.