On Monday, I joined Trish and her fellow graduate students at Binghamton University to protest an administrative decision that would increase pay for incoming graduate assistants while keeping current graduate assistantship pay the same. It’s all part of a plan to attract a “higher caliber” of graduate student by increasing stipends to levels similar to premier universities around the country, which is great, but, in order to save money, the university is refusing to give its current students the same pay increase, thus creating a massive wage gap (between $2000 and $7000 per year depending on the department) between students doing the exact same jobs. It’s another example of the corporatization of the university, in which higher-paid faculty positions are on the decline, existing faculty are asked to do more for less, and low-paid graduate students and adjuncts are used to make up the difference. If we value education – and I think most people do – then we should be treating it as a public benefit, and making sure that the faculty and graduate assistants (not to mention all of the support staff) are being paid enough that they can do their work without having to worry about debt, health care, paying rent, buying food, etc. This fight for equal pay is one part of the struggle for comprehensive higher education reform.
Taking part in the protest yesterday and reading some of the comments (I know, just don’t) on an article posted to the local news station, I’m realizing how little the general public actually knows about what universities do and how they are run. I’m afraid this makes any kind of university reform a serious uphill battle. This highlights to me the need for all of us to be more engaged with the communities in which we live and work. Not to place the blame on faculty and students – it is certainly the responsibility of the administration to ensure that universities have a good public image and do their part within these communities – and I don’t want to undermine the excellent work that faculty and students already do. But too often, I think, we just think of these communities as temporary residences where we have to live for a few years while we get our degrees – whatever level of degree that might be. Having lived in college towns almost my entire life, I know that universities bring a lot of benefits to the cities and towns in which they live, but these benefits are often invisible to the people who live there whereas the costs are often explicit and highly publicized. This can create a tension between the university population and the general public. I think this is behind a lot of the anti-intellectualism we see in public discourse today – academics are seen as an elite, and any requests for reform look like privileged whining. This makes it all but impossible to convince members of the public that our concerns are valid and the dismantling of higher education affects them too. It’s something that will need to be addressed if there is ever going to be comprehensive higher education reform in this country.
As academics, I believe that we have a responsibility to use our knowledge and skills to work towards a better life for everyone. There’s no better place to start than in our local communities. Rather than using the resources we have access to (grants, university infrastructure, etc.) to go off and do research in remote and exotic places (something anthropologists are notorious for doing), let’s direct some of those resources to the people who live nearby and who often need help just as much as the people in those remote places. I don’t expect everyone to do this, and I don’t think it should be a mandate, but think of it as an ethical practice – something to do when planning research projects. Just ask yourself, how can I make this research involve people in the local community? How can I make it direct some of these resources to them? Obviously, there will be a lot more to addressing anti-intellectualism than this, but it’s part of the solution and something we can do now to build solidarity within our communities.