The War On Class And Education
by Evan Knappenberger
Evan Knappenberger has an Associate of Arts & Sciences degree from Whatcom Community College and is a veteran of the Iraq War. He has been published previously in various local and international media, and is currently working to start a Whatcom Veterans Court. For more information, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s Note: The opinions in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Whatcom Watch.
Campus Class Dynamic: Politics, Power and Money
On March 4 at Western Washington University, students gathered on campus in solidarity with thousands of their peers across the world in direct action to support public education. They confronted WWU president Bruce Shepard in his office, and gathered support from across racial and political lines.
Weeks before, thousands of students converged on the capitol steps in Olympia to rally for public funding. Busloads of Whatcom County students were among them.
A plethora of new advocacy groups and student political leaders are emerging from the ashes of a budget crisis with deep ideological roots. But aside from the encouraging aspects of renewed student involvement in the community—aside from the issues students face and the oppressive inequalities at the heart of the debate—there is a key dynamic of great concern developing on campuses: class struggle.
According to Dr. Bill Lyne, an English professor at WWU and leader of the Washington State Faculty Union, class is the motivating factor behind what has been described as the looming demise of public education. Dr. Lyne spoke at a forum hosted by a student-led group, Bellingham Socialist Alternative, on February 23 at WWU. Also speaking at the event were Morgan Holmgren, the founder of Western Votes, a student advocacy group; Ramy Khalil of Socialist Alternative; and Provost Catherine Riordan.
The backdrop of the February forum and the March rally were deep state cuts to higher public education, the biggest issue to face students in a generation. Facing a $2.8 billion budget deficit, state lawmakers are cutting budgets, employees, student financial aid , public services and the work-study program. Tuition is being raised 17 percent this year, on top of an equivalent hike last year. More than 400 work-study jobs at WWU and 100 at Whatcom Community College are being axed in a race to bottom out budgets.
This is seen as a trend toward what Holmgren describes as the “privatization of state universities” and what Lyne’s union describes as “the end of public education as we know it.”
According to Holmgren and Lyne, Washington State ranks 48 out of 50 states in the country in public university spending and accessibility. Washington also rounds out what they describe as “perhaps the most regressive tax structure in the nation” with no state income taxes and loopholes for many wealthy businesses and individuals.
The importance of these standings becomes clear in context of the employment and economic structure of the state. Holmgren said that Washington ranks third among states that import jobs, and most of these are for privately educated people.
“Because of the high quality of life of our state,” Holmgren said, “we can attract people with degrees from outside.”
Lyne was quick to point out the implications that it is easier for the state to “outsource” higher education to other states through job-importing than it is for the state to pay for public universities. This does not mean, however, that Washingtonians are not committed to the idea of college education.
Holmgren went on to describe the Washington state community and technical college system as “far and away the best in the country.” The notion that state legislators are willing to spend money to pay for technical certification for local Washingtonians reinforces the power of large companies to hire a technocratic working class while simultaneously hiring an autocratic, well-educated ruling class of administrators from out of state.
“We believe in Washington that citizens are entitled to two years of college—and no more,” Lyne said.
The class economics of simultaneous tuition hikes and dramatic cuts to financial aid for poor and working students is indeed one of autocracy. Wealthy citizens can afford to send their children to school even with large and repeated tuition increases. Working students, though, are forced into debt and poverty while completing schooling. (Student loans are, incidentally, one of the only types of debt that cannot be forgiven through bankruptcy.)
As state funding plummets, the percentage of university funding from tuition increases. Provost Riordan is quick to point out that WWU is now slated, for the first time, to receive a majority of its funds from private tuition. This means that WWU is actively enrolling students who do not have to rely on financial aid as a way of ensuring their budgeting priorities are met.
This is counter to the principles on which public education was founded, and is symptomatic of free-market capitalism’s stranglehold on public institutions, according to Ramy Khalil, founding member of Bellingham Socialist Alternative and a grad student at WWU, who spoke at the forum.
A New Generation of Student Leaders
Kristina Blake is a work-study student at Whatcom Community College (WCC). She performs secretarial duties and organizes the office of student life at WCC for $10 an hour. She also works several jobs in the private sector and attends class.
“This [college] is the only way I have to better my life. I am first-generation [to go to college],” Blake said.
If the 2010 budget passes in its current state, more than 500 people in her position at colleges in Whatcom County will lose their jobs. Services such as veterans’ assistance, financial aid offices, student activities, theater, music and facilities maintenance will be lost. Dr. Lyne said that WWU is the single largest employer in Whatcom County, and that cuts there will hurt the local economy in immeasurable ways.
What is encouraging in all this desperate talk of layoffs and losses is that young people like Blake are speaking out. Until February 15, Blake had never given an interview or attended a rally. But she unexpectedly found herself organizing a bus full of students and signs for a trip to Olympia, and she has appeared on KGMI and other local media to speak out against budget cuts.
“I just want this to be over with, honestly,” Blake said in reference to budget cuts. “This whole situation is ridiculous.”
Ramy Khalil said that issues like this are very powerful in motivating people to act. As an example, he points to recent student demonstrations in California that drew tens of thousands of people.
“As socialists, we put these issues first, not some hidden political agenda. We stand for workers’ and students’ rights,” he said on February 23.
Morgan Holmgren, an undergraduate at WWU, has stepped into the role of organizing a new group called Western Votes. The group advocates for public education and student issues. Holmgren organized an event on campus on February 5 that drew more than 400 people interested in learning about budget cuts.
Leon Scott, a student and veteran at WCC, attended the Olympia protest and is challenging what he sees as an ineffective and inept student leadership at WCC. See his letter to the WCC Horizon at http://www.whatcomhorizon.com.
Part of the success of the new student movement is its broad base of outreach. A partial list of groups that have contributed to the coalition against cuts to the budget includes Veterans For Peace, MEChA (El Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano/a de Aztlán), Whatcom Peace And Justice Center, Socialist Alternative International, Public School Employees Union, Washington State Faculty Union, Service Employees International Union, and Associated Students WWU and WCC.
Ideological Roots and Economic Crisis
Because times are tight and purse strings are tighter, some moneyed conservatives are trying to leverage institutional priorities to their benefit. The espousers of free-market capitalism, having become rich off of environmental exploitation, cheap labor and student debt derivatives, are now trying to capitalize on public misfortune by privatizing public education and a wide range of other non-private institutions. They are exploiting issues of race (via a black president and resurgent white nationalism, not to mention immigration), homophobia, terrorism (via record military spending and privatized military contractors) and class.
A common conservative view is that leftists use public universities to “brainwash” American youth into perpetuating leftist thought. Because of the conservative bias against higher education, coupled with the conservative hatred for public spending, the public education system has become a target for their cause, both financially and politically. Through this roundabout way, class warfare is being introduced anew to a fresh generation of students, with various results.
According to a former employee who declined to be named because of concerns of personal affiliation, a recent donor wrote the WWU college radio station KUGS (89.3 FM) a check for $100,000. After the check was deposited, it became clear that the donor wanted KUGS to start playing evangelical Christian rock music on a regular basis. The dispute ended with the station returning the money and revising its donation policy.
Another example of conservative power-brokering is the recent demise of Bellingham’s premier private school, St. Paul’s Academy, which lost its religious affiliation and funding due to concerns about hiring openly gay employees.
These are examples of a growing trend of conservative economic power-holders trying to buy ideological assimilation with their capital. Conservatives are now a minority in both state and federal government, but have managed to push their agenda through crafty use of money and ideology. Because of the economic recession, high unemployment and a dismal outlook for the nonprofit and public sectors, they feel that it is time to retake the power in those areas, and to privatize public interests.
Many conservatives see public education as a bastion of socialism and communism, between which they fail to distinguish. For a better account of recent local political alienation of students from conservative groups, see the Sept. 2009 issue of Whatcom Watch “Campus Activism: A Report from Western Washington University and Whatcom Community College.”
According to WWU Provost Dr. Catherine Riordan and President Bruce Shepard, WWU is trying hard to educate the community at-large of the benefits of higher education. Fifth graders are being brought to campus on a regular basis from city schools, and $80,000 has been allocated for a Seattle-based company to “rebrand” the university.
But are these programs enough to save WWU from strangulation at the hands of angry TEA-partiers? Because of concerns about conflicts of interest, President Shepard told protestors outside of his office in March that he is personally unable to engage in politics even to save his institution.
The blossoming reality is a clash of cultures: private versus public, taxes versus private contributions, exploitation of the working class by those in power. As the budget knife cuts deeper and deeper, these conflicts will rise to the surface. It falls then to the students and the workers to give voice to the injustice of privatization.
As members of society, we need to prioritize education. For now, it remains our task to empower the young to speak up for their institutions, and their rights. §