In Defense of Idealism


A las, the political season is upon us, and the mudslinging and name-calling has begun. I just didn't anticipate that it would be me they were calling names. Most recently, Rod Paige, Secretary of Education, called me a "terrorist." More accurately, he called the union that happens to represent faculty at my college, a "terrorist organization." By extension, then, I too am a terrorist. That troubles my little pacifist heart.

But the appellation that troubles me most is the assertion that I am an idealist. It is troubling not because I have been pegged for what I truly am (I am indeed an idealist), but because the mantle was thrown at me with such disdain, as a pejorative that would rank up there with calling me, well, a midwesterner, a rube, a Cornhusker (which, admittedly, I also am). My name-callers see us faculty idealists as slow-moving, self-indulgent, perpetuating the status quo. Idealists, they say, still live in ivory towers, do not understand economic realities, hold onto principles that are outmoded and cannot be afforded. As John Galsworthy once said, "Idealism increases in direct proportion to one's distance from the problem."

Fie! I say. First, we have a very genuine sense of present economic straits. There is nothing isolated about the collegiate "tower" in which we community college faculty live. We know all about "downsizing" that also occurs within our institutions, about belt tightening and rising health care costs, about the "outsourcing" of instruction that makes no progress toward 75/25 goals, or the outsourcing of faculty-driven tasks to new consultants. Though hardly on the scale of Tyco's corporate excesses, we are also aware of those few community college boards of trustees or CEOs who continue to engage in cronyism and to lavish upon themselves perks such as cars, huge insurance policies, aides, lavish offices, and other ostentatious signs of their presumed success. All the while, others suffer. Full-time faculty are not hired, part-time faculty are not rehired, classes are cut, needed purchases of instructional equipment are withheld, professional development evaporates.

Even more significantly, to use the corporate lingo some of those name-callers were so fond of a few years ago, what about the "customer"? Now where is their concern for our student "clientele"? While the critics of idealism are resistant to discuss the imposition of taxes on some of the Californians they represent, they are perfectly willing to tax our students by increasing community college fees 136% in one year, fees that are not returned to the colleges but go to the general fund to pay for prisons or underfunded social services elsewhere. Our woes may not make the pages of the Wall Street Journal, but we understand. No cock-eyed optimists are we!

In a rather retaliatory spirit then, we idealists are tempted to cast our political and corporate critics in an equally pejorative vein. We see our name-callers as cynics-corrupt, self-serving, immoral, greedy in their quotidian affairs. Or, as Oscar Wilde wrote, "Cynics know the price of everything and the value of nothing," especially, it seems the value of education.

Thus, I'd like to arm an oxymoron of my own making, akin to the concept of the Peacekeeper Missile, to lob back at my cynical opposition- pragmatic idealism. The Greek etymology of "pragmatism" comes from the word pragma, meaning action; couple it with "idealism" and we can embark upon what William James might have envisioned in his 1904 lectures on pragmatism: to "develop a [ideal's] meaning" by determining "what conduct it is fitted to produce: .conduct is its sole significance."1 In short, an ideal exists only as it produces suitable action that, as Bishop Berkeley and others argued that ideals reflecting truth and justice, that serve the greater social good are not merely noble standards but are forces that compel action.

So while I acknowledge warnings about provoking an us/them mentality, I, for one, feel under attack, and I prefer to stand in defense of my ideals. The cynics contend that there is little we can do in these economic times, thought they are not quiescent. As an idealist, I suggest engagement, resisting, outflanking, outmaneuvering. And thus begins my counter assault. For this feels like warfare, opponents are carving out territories, and someone has made faculty the enemy.

Defensive of any position requires action. To illustrate how ideals precipitate action, let us briefly survey three sets of action-provoking ideals, long articulated and sustained within our California Community colleges and by the Academic Senate: Access and Success, Fairness and Equity, and Comprehensive Educational Choices. As the cross references will demonstrate, these are intertwining principles, not isolated ideals. Armed with all the military metaphors I can muster, I will explore the context or battlefield and then try to identify the problematic struggle before us. Finally, I will suggest what some actions might be, what conduct those ideals might initiate, and how we rally the faculty troops in support of those ideals with hard empirical evidence and specific political strategy.

Ideal #1: Access and Success

The Context: We've been forced to defend the most basic tenet of access: who can enter our colleges and what barricades may turn them away. Currently, the community college system has agreed to support our budget proposal focusing on three areas that will induce access and success: fees, growth, and equalization.

The Problems:

Fees: Cynics say we can longer afford the promise of the Master Plan, that students have an obligation to pay more-and presumable taxpayers pay less. Our Academic Senate Educational Policies Committee is preparing a significant paper for adoption in Fall 2004 on student fees, our first such researched paper in 22 years. Some of their findings will also be shared at the Spring 2004 plenary session, including their attack on many of the myths regarding student fees. In the current draft of that paper, the authors note

the vast majority of community college students work and pay taxes while they attend college. But more importantly, the result of investment in their college attendance will be improved salary and a lifetime of higher tax payments. . The alternative case can be made: it is California business that is getting the free ride. Businesses pay taxes along with everyone else, including students, but they benefit enormously from the job training and skill enhancement received by community college students.

This argument counters the demand of business and industry members, including the California Business Roundtable, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), and the Community College League of California, now participating in the Campaign for College Opportunity. This newly formed non-profit coalition supports the Master Plan, but in its most recent brochure2 calls for a three-part solution to ensure its original aims: increase state support for higher education, make efficient uses of existing resources, and "match student costs more closely to ability to pay" (p. 6). This third component is a "deal-breaker" for industry participants who insist they will not do battle on behalf of the Master plan without students' willingness to assume more fiscal responsibility for their own education. Two such proposals have emerged since January.

1. General fees: We all know that the proposed increase in student fees from $18 to $26 dollars has been erroneously pegged to the Pell grants. Faculty seem to have convinced the system as a whole to fight these presumptions. especially the "high-fee/high aid" and Pell-Grant myths. Consultation Council did the math: For example, for 2003-04, if fees were raised from $18/unit to $26/ unit as proposed, the most severely disadvantaged full-time students would receive only an additional $112 in federal Pell aid. Assuming the Chancellor's Office estimate of approximately 135,000 such students is accurate, our California students would capture approximately $15 million in additional federal grant money. However, the millions of other community college students who do not receive Pell grants would contribute their additional $8/unit, or approximately $65 million, to the general fund (with no guarantee any of those dollars would be returned to community colleges). It is an inordinate burden to place on the many to benefit the few, and a regressive tax to boot.

2. Differential fees: Most baffling of all is the proposal for a return of the differential fee for holders of bachelors degrees. Unlike wine, this package hasn't gotten any better over time. Some core group in Sacramento seems unaware that degreed students most often return to community colleges because they have lost their livelihoods, or require retraining, or as with many affiliated health providers, must renew certification or acquire skills to retain their present employment.

Growth: We acknowledge the Governor's proposal to provide 3% growth to the community colleges. With it, however, we are expected to accomplish too much:

1. attract and re-admit many of the 175,000 missing students;

2. continue to offer higher education to new students in the Tidal Wave II population;

3. provide for the 7,000 students redirected from UC or CSU;

4. accommodate some of the additional 16,700 students CSU will be turning away;

5. serve our continuing, traditional students;

6. retain our students ready for CSU transfer who are being delayed or turned away;

7. accommodate students now enrolled or planning to enroll in California's private postsecondary institutes who will be unable to do so because of cuts to the Cal Grant program;

8. attract and enroll Californians-over 900,000 of them-who are without high school diplomas, a number many argue will only increase as a result of high school exit exams.

Given these demands, the system believes a growth target of 5% is not unreasonable.

Equalization: This principle is indivisible from the ideals of Equity and Fairness. Since our fall plenary session discussions, there has been growing will to address this lingering inequity, and some funding to ensure at least an initial volley. Throughout this spring, as the allocation for this purpose vacillates between $25m to $80m, and as the system continues to debate the merits of various equalization models, the Academic Senate will observe the ideals you have articulated over the years. Because allocation of this pot of money (whether as a one-time or on-going basis) may well be distributed on an FTES model, your Consultation Council Representatives have insisted that the funding must be accompanied by movement toward program-based standards, particularly fulltime/part-time faculty ratios.

Call to Action:

The Academic Senate will: continue to carry forth your perspectives expressed in decades' worth of resolutions; seek to establish written agreements among Consultation Council participants on the matter of equalization; offer testimony and provide legislators with necessary data; participate in further conversations across the state regarding equalization plans; work with the system to defeat the "Pell grant" myth; work with other faculty groups on strategies to pursue our shared ideals.

Local senates can: register students to vote; encourage students to share and publish local stories about student hardship in local newspapers, before TV cameras, and in legislative hearings; encourage petitions to be sent to local legislators; urge other groups with members on your campuses-affiliations of Transfer Center Directors, Admissions and Records Directors, EOPS directors-to issue statements and send letters to legislative and administrative groups (with copies to the Academic Senate, of course) to correct misstatements or misunderstandings they observe in print or in proposed legislation; make presentations to local civic groups to explain the promise of the Master Plan and the role of Community Colleges in California's post-secondary schema; research the local impact of fees-differential and other increases-on your students over time (e.g., what were the losses, when/if they returned, etc); research the impact differential fees may have upon employees of local industry, businesses, and health and safety providers; anticipate how the presumed loss of students as a result of differential fees will impact particular courses or programs.3Ideal #2: Fairness and Equity

The Context:

Cynics have publicly argued that in these economic times, institutions will have to make "hard choices," including who is "worthy" of being educated! This elitist remark seeks to divide our students into phalanxes of the "worthy" and "unworthy." We would be able to turn those comments aside were it not for the following very explicit maneuvers. Targeting fees and funding, our opponents may pay lip service to ensuring student equity, but their actions contradict their words.

The Problems:

The Prop 98 Split: Since the early 90s, we have been denied our constitutionally guaranteed 10.93% portion of Proposition 98 funds. We would be able to provide equitable distribution of funds to ensure that the poorest and those historically non-college-going populations were protected, if legislators didn't cynically play fast and loose with this voter-approved division. The bottom line, if they honored the law, we wouldn't have to worry about these matters:

1. Increased fees, including differential fees (see Ideal #1 above).

2. Sustained 03-04 cuts in matriculation funding-as we approach a year of increased demand for these services, demonstrably linked to student success.

3. Continued loss of backfill for the health fees waived under BOG waivers. Ironically, as the need for BOG fee waivers increases, so does the loss of revenue to maintain campus health centers and their health education offerings. In some areas of California, where reductions in state or county social and health funding have decimated services, the campus health service is the last refuge for students to receive immunizations, TB and other health screenings. For some campus centers, the possibility of closure is very real.

Eliminating Categorical Distinctions: While we understand the Governor's interest in reducing the number of categorical programs community colleges must account for, we do not experience the plethora of categoricals that K-12 must control. The system opposes these shifts of categorical programs into general apportionment.

1. Telecommunications and Technology Infrastructure Program (TTIP): The Governor's budget proposes allocation on an FTES basis rather than according to its current per college model. In fact, this particular categorical program, if it does not retain its current allocation model, will negate other principles espoused by this administration: economies of scale, regional and local control. De-categorizing these funds would work to the decided disadvantage of smaller, rural locales.

2. Part-time Faculty Equity Package (for salaries, benefits, and office-hours): The system does not support this shift; even the CEO representative argued that such a shift would reward districts that have not acted in good faith to reach agreement with their faculty's bargaining unit, while penalizing districts that have. The current categorical state of these funds continues to be useful to all-especially, we hope, to the legislators who initiated them.

Waiver of Fees. As an inducement to those UC and CSU students to attend community colleges for their first two years, the Governor proposes to waive their community college fees, regardless of their financial need. "Worthiness" in this instance seems to be predicated upon collegereadiness, not economic need. Though idealists need to focus on the empirical evidence, it's hard for me not find this proposal morally repugnant and antithetical to the ideals of equity and fairness.

Call to Action:

The Academic Senate will: continue to lobby, provide information and advice as called upon; respond to other groups similarly challenged by proposed budgetary provisions (EOPS, Librarians, etc.).

Local senates can: research and publicize the health services provided; identify for all campus faculty the local benefits of TTIP funding; educate your legislative representatives in Sacramento on the loss your college might endure if TTIP funding is shifted-a suggestion particularly appropriate for more remote colleges where local voters strongly supported the recall of Gray Davis and the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger; educate students about the impact increased fees will have on them and encourage them to speak with others; work with the local bargaining unit representing part-time faculty to ensure their interests have been negotiated.

Ideal #3: Comprehensive Education and a Full Range of Educational Choices

The Context: We aspire to provide and our students expect the best educational experience possible. Our multiple missions offer our students-new, continuing or returning-a wide variety of educational offerings, including the opportunity to discover new interests and to explore other career or personal objectives. Those latter options are under siege, however, assaulted by legislative and segmental proposals and, most regrettably, by the decimation of vocational programs viewed by cynics as "too costly." To paraphrase a line from a Delbert McClinton ballad, "we were reaching for a life-line and they threw us a noose."

Our advocacy for life-long learning is under explicit attack when the Department of Finance sets priorities for allocation of our funding.

Students' ability to change majors or take additional courses of personal interest that enrich their understanding and expand their cultural or civic awareness may be deeply curtailed if CSU establishes a 60-unit threshold AND ceiling for transfers into its system. This proposal, once described as a minimum for acceptance, seems soon to become the sole package: 60 units of coursework, including general education appropriate for the selected major, some lower division major preparation, and other coursework locally negotiated. No longer would coursework "unnecessary to the major" be accepted as part of the transfer package.

The proposals for "redirection of students" remain beyond our predictive ability: will UC and CSU-eligible students turn our direction once refused by those systems? Will they come-or will they, as suggested at a recent Board of Governors meeting, see the promise of a fee-free community college education4 offer as a "consolation" prize after working hard to meet UC/CSU eligibility? If they come, will they overwhelm our traditional students' ability to secure classes for themselves? Within the classroom, will they inspire or intimidate others? Will the redirected students' demands for transferable courses shift our pattern of course offerings? Will we need to reduce or add to the basic skills offerings? Will we be able to sustain our full complement of vocational and certificate offerings in the face of this new demand? While the UCs have begun to turn away new students, we are unlikely to know until fall how many of them amass before our portals.

Rhetoric in Sacramento acknowledges that (1) community colleges contribute significantly to economic growth and workforce preparation, and (2) we offer genuine opportunities for economic stability to the less academically prepared students. Unfortunately, legislation now in the hopper belies that. Our career ladders approach enables our students to pursue lateral and vertical goals; but current legislation would restrict the students to whom we offer chances. Federally, actions and words don't align either. President Bush' s affirmation of community colleges in the "Jobs for the 21st Century Program" would seem to deposit $250 million; however, those funds would be taken from the Perkins programs and from the Workforce Investment Act (WIA)-both existing programs that serve low-income or displaced workers.

Call to Action:

The Academic Senate will: work with ICAS to strengthen intersegmental planning rather than unilateral actions; will work with CoFO partners to present a unified faculty voice on these issues; try to remain civil in the presence of idiocy. [Sorry-I just wanted to see if you were actually reading this far.]

Local senates can: educate state and local legislators regarding the need for increased rather than diminished funding if new jobs are to be created and a new workforce is to be fully employed; debate the strategies for accommodating new students while protecting our traditional base; support the full and continual training of counselors, articulation officers, and transfer center directors who must to cope with the ever-shifting landscape of transfer; initiate discussions with local CSU faculty to explain these impact proposed changes will have on students now in the trenches with us.

We pragmatic idealists must continue to articulate our ideals, according them influential weight and influence over our actions, and affirming the world that ought to be-and can be-rather than the constricted world the cynics would impose upon us. I have indicated my willingness to act on behalf of our stated ideal; over the coming weeks and months, I hope you will share with us, through your Area Representatives or other Executive Committee members, your own crusades.

1 William James (1904). "What is Pragmatism" (Lecture II in a series of 8); compiled as Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking: Popular Lectures on Philosophy (1907). Rptd. as Pragmatism (1925). New York: Longmans, Green, 1925.

2 Campaign for College Opportunity. (2004). "Turning College Students Away: The Consequence of California's Broken Promise."

3 For example, a Vice-President of Instruction recently commented to a Consultation workgroup that in one distance-education accounting course, 80% of the students enrolled already held a bachelors degree.

4 Note that this concept, appearing in the Governor's proposed January budget, has not yet been debated by the Legislators, but has aseemingly been adopted as policy by the University of California whose press releases tout the claim that fees will be waived at community colleges for freshmen students turned away from UC for Fall 2004. No one, however, seems to have asked our Community College system about this proposal! As noted above, it is patently unfair to our traditional students whose fees are waived only the basis of demonstrated need.