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labor Kill Shot: Years of State Austerity Budgets Put UMass Boston in Jeopardy

Community needs to join Faculty Staff Union movement for a return to full funding.

There is only one appropriate response to the looming layoff of 400 unionized non-tenure track faculty at UMass Boston. Rebellion.
We are well past the era of shots across the budgetary bow of public higher education in the Commonwealth. We are now in the era of kill shots. It is not possible to eliminate roughly one-third of the faculty of a major research university without destroying that university. One cannot run a school without teachers, after all. Teachers who are already denied the possibility of secure, properly-paid, full-time, tenure track faculty jobs—as has become the dominant practice at colleges across America.
So, the threatened faculty, the remaining faculty, the staff, their Faculty Staff Union (Mass Teachers Association), the other campus unions, the alumni, and—most importantly—the students and their families have to essentially declare war on state government. Now. The entire UMass Boston community needs to demand proper funding for the school. Or risk losing everything that generations of Bostonians have fought for. A public university of our own with an “urban mission” to provide a top flight education to its residents with as little expense to them as possible.
The proximate cause of the crisis is a combined $22.3 million deficit that the UMass Boston administration recently announced for this fiscal year and next. Their unfortunate response is to propose: increasing class sizes, raising tuition (yet again), and savagely cutting faculty jobs.
But the ultimate cause is the long term starvation of the public higher education budget by the Mass legislature. According to the Mass Budget and Policy Center, state funding for public higher education has fallen from $1,339,713,711 in FY 2001 to $1,187,476,006 in FY 2016 (numbers adjusted for inflation)—an 11.4 percent drop. Yet it’s worse than that statistic makes it seem since the budget was well below the FY 2001 figure every year between then and now. Meaning that the system has lost more than a billion dollars over the last decade and a half.
Put another way, the ultimate cause is ideological. And that ideology has a name: neoliberalism. Its central precepts of fiscal austerity, privatization, deregulation, and union busting in the service of making the rich richer have been followed with near-religious intensity for decades by both major political parties in state governments and in the federal government alike.
In the present context, neoliberalism translates to refusing to fairly tax corporations and the rich—which would allow our public higher education system to be funded to a tolerable standard—trying to run colleges like for-profit businesses instead of nonprofit services, and transferring once-public costs to individual families. Forcing students to take out increasingly burdensome loans to stay in school. A recipe for disaster, if ever there was one.
Writ large over the entire state government, the neoliberal ideology has led to one crisis after another—in the public health system, in public K-12 education, in the public transportation systems, etc., etc. And will continue to do so until the disastrous course its political partisans have put us on is reversed by popular political action.
All signs point to a small increase (1-1.5 percent) in state spending on public higher ed in the final FY 2017 budget, but nowhere near enough to make up for the years of cuts. Or even to keep up with inflation, let alone forestall the crisis at UMass Boston.
Saving UMass Boston—and the Mass public higher ed system—is going to take a real struggle. The Faculty Staff Union and its allies are doing a fine job of protesting the cuts. But they need solidarity. Lots of it. The kind of movement required has to be statewide and systemwide. And even that probably won’t be enough. A reform of the necessary scale will need help from outside the public higher ed community. It will need the newly emboldened radicals from the Bernie Sanders campaign, #BlackLivesMatter and other rising social movements to join the fight.
That’s a tall order to be sure. But every journey starts with a first step. Here’s how you can help:
Sign the UMass Boston Faculty Staff Union petition.
Get on the “Stop the Hikes and Cuts” bus at UMass Boston on June 15 and join the UMB community in protesting the upcoming UMass Board of Trustees meeting.
Drop an email to to get more involved.
Pressure on the UMass Boston administration is already mounting. That might explain why UMB Chancellor Keith Motley told the Boston Herald this week that “he has not approved any cuts on campus and that most staff who received pink slips would be called back for the fall.” Cold comfort for the 400 faculty members currently in limbo, unsure of whether they should start preparing for classes as usual—or continue looking for new gigs in a tight academic job market. And with UMass President Marty Meehan guaranteeing that budget cuts are coming to the entire UMass system by July, it doesn’t seem like Motley will be able to avoid finalizing the faculty layoffs for very long.
Unless he proposes cutting the often-outrageous administration salaries across the board to help balance the budget as public higher ed advocates have long suggested. Wouldn’t hold your breath on that one.
For a community perspective on the crisis at UMass Boston, check out the testimonial from recent graduate Cady Vishniac.
Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.
Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.