Thrown Under the Bus

Thrown Under the Bus
This month’s extended column by Stephen Berk addresses the recent personnel cuts at Clatsop Community College.

I write this piece as a concerned citizen who has spent most of his life connected with higher education, now as board member at Clatsop College. In that capacity, I have gotten a close look at the conditions that have now forced severe retrenchment on our local college just after we rebuilt our campus, celebrated our fiftieth anniversary and looked forward to an expansive future. As a board member I need to say that the argument and opinion I put forth here speaks only for me and not the Clatsop Community College Board as a whole.

On Wednesday, November 2, I awoke to a phone call from a friend who teaches at the College calling my attention to an email stating that fifteen full-time instructors would be laid off and listing who they were to be. Clatsop College is a tiny school compared to the community colleges in the I-5 corridor, where most of the state’s population resides. Like all the state’s rural community colleges, it is in a relatively isolated environment marked by small population. Clatsop is in many respects a unique school, having, for example, at its MERTS campus, one of the few maritime academies in the country. We are also well known for our outstanding nursing school and high quality art department reflective of the large number of accomplished artists who have migrated to this picturesque corner of Oregon.

But Clatsop College works at constant disadvantage and has frequently had to do without or dismiss important areas of study and the faculty representing them because of two main issues. One is an odd, rather technical arrangement which goes by an Orwellian name called the “equalization formula.” During times of economic downturn, such as the current Great Recession, community college student populations have traditionally grown, because out-of-work or underemployed people tend to return to school to learn new skills that may be in greater demand. This indeed has happened at Clatsop College, whose student population has grown by more than ten per cent since the recession began. Despite this impressive growth, it does not compare to that of the more urban areas in the state such as Portland and Eugene, where colleges have seen much greater percentage increases due to their much greater populations. The “equalization” formula says you give the lion’s share of the state’s rapidly shrinking community college budget to the bigger schools that are growing at a faster pace. That wouldn’t be so bad if our appropriation at Clatsop College remained the same. But in effect the money given the urban schools is subtracted from the rural ones.

Clatsop College’s high point of full-time faculty since I taught Western Civilization there in 2006-07 has been thirty-eight. By anyone’s standards, in a college that supports a substantial variety of vocational training programs and a general education curriculum sufficient for one to earn an associate of arts suitable for transfer to a university, this is a barely adequate sized faculty. However, Clatsop has been able to thrive partly because of the very excellence of that faculty. As one who spent my career at a large university, I have grown to have deep respect for the breadth of subject matter and availability to students that our hard working community college instructors provide. They are required to be master generalists, mentors, and counselors to a much greater extent than the more specialized and research oriented university professors need to be. Yet, even with the tremendous demand on them to be on campus and available to students and to do five class preparations per ten week term, a sizable number of instructors at Clatsop College manage to fit research and writing into their crowded schedule and have published scholarly books and articles and read papers at academic conferences.

Last year, the first when we were hit with the dire effects of the recession, mostly staff and administration absorbed the cuts, with one key administrative position, the dean of learning eliminated. But we also lost a talented young instructor in social science. This year we are slated to lose fifteen instructors, forty per cent of our full-time positions. This almost indescribable hit reduces social science to one full-time instructor, a psychologist. We will lose, among others, an accomplished historian, a creative young chemist, the only automotive instructor, a renowned ceramicist, our full-time business instructors, a popular, gifted Spanish instructor and our sole criminal justice instructor. Last year our head librarian was laid off, and this year we will now subtract the remaining professional librarian. The only way we will continue to have a librarian associated with the College is if we make the highly unusual move of merging with the Astoria City Library.

Why has this extreme situation been forced upon us just as we were starting to fill out much needed positions and after we had rebuilt our campus so that students had become proud to say they came here? The problem does not come, as some in the community think, from campus mismanagement, or from spending too much on our physical renovations. Our books are open to the public and have been regularly audited by impartial accounting firms. We also passed a rigorous accreditation procedure conducted last year by distinguished representatives of the Northwest Regional Accreditation Association. The rebuilding of our campus to meet seismic standards, to make it accessible for people with disabilities, and to replace antiquated facilities with modern ones was demanded of the College in the previous accreditation report.

PrisonThe second reason why we have just been decimated lies in larger political priorities in Salem, as in other state capitals, and in Washington. For the past thirty years, our statewide and national politics have been dominated by an anti-tax fervor. Along with this trend we have seen a mania for incarceration, characterized by “mandatory minimums” often passed in voters’ initiatives. The result has been augmented state expenditures on imprisonment and shrinking ones for education. Reflexive imprisonment throughout the country mostly for nonviolent drug related crimes largely among society’s lower orders has now led to over two and a half million Americans being imprisoned. This is a higher percentage than in any other country in the world, including authoritarian China and brutal dictatorships like the one in Myanmar (Burma). These two overriding policies, cutting taxes and locking up offenders, have worked together to vastly decrease opportunity for a majority of Americans and to turn us into a society domestically devoted to punishment and diminishment of opportunity.

If we simply consider costs, without even thinking about the quality of life we seek to create, our state and national policies are cockeyed. It costs anywhere between thirty and fifty thousand public dollars to incarcerate a person for a year, while it generally costs between two and five thousand to educate one. Even if you spend thousands more per student, as some localities do, with very beneficial effects, supporting public schooling pays off by producing an educated, resourceful public, who can adapt better to rapidly changing needs in a smaller world beset with ever larger problems such as climate change, pollution, overpopulation, mass poverty and disease. And there are much cheaper, more effective ways of dealing with offenders than costly imprisonment. We can spend public money on rehabilitative programs for drug offenders, and we can require varieties of community service – building, planting, and restoring infrastructure – whereby offenders can learn useful occupational and people relating skills. Organizations like the Western Prison Project have been researching, writing and agitating on this issue for many years. Supervised outside programs for offenders, carefully monitored by highly sophisticated tracking technology, are a lot cheaper and more constructive than creating gang ridden prisons mostly composed of people from poorer backgrounds, many of them African American and Latino. Rich criminals, like the bankers who bought the politicians who deregulated banking and legalized the theft and usury that characterized the subprime lending debacle, don’t do time for their crimes, because they paid to make what they do legal. Yet, they did a great deal more damage than the street criminal who gets twenty-five to life.

The anti-tax fervor that has accompanied massive spending on incarceration has squeezed all public education, from grade school through universities. This is part of a long time conservative movement to shrink taxes with particular attention to the ones that are used to help the lesser privileged gain greater equality of opportunity. The movement to privatize education and compel people to pay dearly for services governments have previously provided free or at very low cost for the public at large has been sponsored by billionaire funded propaganda mills with euphemistic names like Americans for Tax Justice, Americans for Prosperity, and the Club for Growth. In their fixation with punishment, and with national power projection in relentless militarism, these wealthy conservatives have gradually closed off opportunity to the masses by drying up support for education, the basis of social enlightenment.

In Oregon, a powerful anti-tax lobby now keeps emergency funding from being proposed for higher education. We have a lopsided tax structure in this state that relies on county property taxes and timber revenue to finance public education. In 2000, the “kicker,” which rebates surplus revenues above budget to voters, became part of the Oregon Constitution. Governors Kitzhaber and Kulongoski have tried to no avail to get the kicker transformed into an emergency fund to be used in recessions. But conservatives would have none of it. Instead, we now get the state holding back three and a half per cent of this year’s operative budget to apply to next year’s expected shortfall. This is what put Clatsop College from minimal to maximal layoff mode. The state now assists our community colleges at the level of sixteen per cent, down from thirty-three. Resistance to tapping new sources of revenue prevents consideration of measures such as a temporary limited sales tax, renewable yearly, and earmarked for the public education institutions most affected by the recession. The lack of any sales tax has long deprived Oregon from reaping tax benefits from its burgeoning tourist industry.

I believe Clatsop College will eventually find the means to recover. In the mean time we have some well seasoned professionals who can stand in the gap as part timers. But this bloodletting did not need to happen. The larger truth is that a generation which refuses to invest in its young, instead burdening them with debt, low wage jobs, and irreparable war injury is a generation that has lost its vision. And as the biblical proverb states, “Without a vision the people perish.”

By Stephen Berk

Steve is a retired history professor from California State University at Long Beach. He's currently on the board of directors of Clatsop Community College, and teaches classes in the ENCORE program. He's written extensively on social, political and religious issues, and has been writing a column in HIPFiSHmonthly for over 5 years.