Time for UNC leaders to get real on legislative cuts to higher education

Recently, a new dean attended a faculty meeting with the best of intentions and honestly said matters would get worse before getting better regarding budget cuts to higher education in North Carolina. The dean was asked why UNC system administrators have been so quiet in responding to these draconian cuts. He assured us they were working on the inside to move events in the right direction.

We are surprised at the underlying assumptions in this approach. I hope UNC administrators have no illusions about our current legislative majority. These are the same voices who tried to pass policies that would have brought back segregation to Wake County schools. These are the same voices who are trying to privatize K-12 education with vouchers ruled unconstitutional by the courts. These are the same voices whose new election laws to suppress minority turnout was struck down by a federal court; who refused to expand Medicaid, losing $14.8 billion in federal funds by 2021; and who told the unemployed to go fend for themselves while passing tax cuts for the wealthy, sending the state into debt. And these are the same voices who are even willing to mislead citizens about voter registration.

UNC administrators have confused access with influence. They have forgotten that real power comes from below. When schools were attacked in Wake County, an outraged citizenry packed school board meetings, demonstrated on the streets of Raleigh and committed civil disobedience. That public outcry translated into door to door campaigning and phone calling that resulted in defeating five out of five board members and returning the schools to a mainstream course. Surely, UNC administrators have advanced degrees in history and political science. Surely, they know that Social Security was not bestowed on citizens. It was won through the pressure of working people. Surely, they know that the Civil Rights Act was passed because of the sacrifice of thousands willing to risk their lives and some who paid the highest price with their lives.

The task seems harder right because of all the cynically gerrymandered voting districts. However, recent events point to a possible path to success. When K-12 teachers were going to be denied tenure, leaders of their professional organization, NCAE, tried to negotiate with insiders, and when the NCAE leaders were turned away, they made a public stand by being arrested on Moral Mondays in Raleigh. Due process rights were restored.

The salary freeze to K-12 teachers was broken by public outrage at North Carolina’s slipping to 48th in the country in education funding. Yes, the salary increases given to K-12 teachers included smoke and mirrors. However, imagine if cuts to higher education prompted a dean or provost or even a chancellor to join thousands of other professionals in publicly denouncing the ongoing brain drain from our universities and colleges.

Some faculty members believe that silence from university administrators represents their true allegiances and that coming before faculty is merely a way to placate rather than act. These perceptions are reinforced by campus administrators’ salaries in excess of most professors who have had their salaries frozen for six years. These perceptions are reinforced by cuts in courses and programs and in hiring freezes for departments while new assistant and associate deans are added every year. These perceptions are reinforced by the way administrators often move from college to college as a more transient work force. But some administrators must have a vested interest in the long term.

UNC administrators all the way up to the president and Board of Governors need to get out from behind their desks and get away from their interminable meetings. Talk to the people, not just students on your campuses. That’s preaching to the choir. Get out into the smaller towns and more rural counties. Hold town meetings. Explain to citizens the importance of higher education. Many of their sons and daughters are the first in their families to attend a college or university. Explain what this state will become if higher education fails.

Now is the time to speak truth to power. Rent a bus and, in the spirit of great civil rights activists, speak truth to power. That would be a bus we would be proud to ride.

Robert Siegel is an associate professor in the Department of English at East Carolina University. This opinion also was endorsed by ECU English faculty members Julie Fay, professor; Su-ching Huang, associate professor; Amanda Klein, associate professor; Nicole Sidhu, associate professor; and Reginald Watson, associate professor; and also by Peter Francia, professor of political science, ECU. They speak as private citizens and not for ECU.