Monday, March 5, 2012

NEA Higher Ed Conference

I spent last Friday and Saturday at the NEA's Higher Education Conference in Chicago and thought I'd post a report here while it was still fresh in my memory.

I suppose blog readers curious and/or critical about the NEA (I remain curious, being a relative newcomer) may first want to hear some general characterization of the attendees and tone of the conference. Compared to the academic conferences I usually attend (in classics and, strangely enough, political science), one striking feature was the range of institutions and hence range of faculty represented: not only research faculty, but community college faculty and faculty from four year schools without major research missions were naturally to be found, as were many non-tenure track faculty. Less tweed, more egalitarian. The sessions I attended were well attended and well presented, though it struck me as a bit odd that many presentations rehashed articles published in the most recent NEA Almanac of Higher Ed (here's a link the the NEA's site for this publication, though the most recent volume there is from last year). Questions and comments from the floor ran a gamut--as they do at academic conferences--from insightful to self-absorbed. In the last comment at the conference, for example, a faculty member made the excellent point that the Obama administration's plans for higher ed didn't seem to call for much in the way of faculty input, while going on and on about her own personal expertise, experiences, and credentials in a way destined to lessen anyone's interest in getting such input.

Several panels focused on the well-publicized efforts by faculty and students in the California State system to fight back against massive cuts they have faced in recent years. A California Faculty Association activist and staffer shared a panel with the SIUC FA reporting on our strikes from last year, strikes which rather differed. The CSU strike managed to generate massive media coverage, and to completely shut down the two (out of 23) campuses they targeted, but was a festive, symbolic affair, which was only going to go for one day. They may well end up trying for more disruptive collective action this year, however.

More newsworthy, perhaps, were presentations given at various plenary sessions. I missed the opening plenary, but heard that NEA President Dennis Van Roekel gave an important speech calling upon the NEA to more thoroughly identify itself as a progressive union, not merely a service union representing the interests of its members. The IEA has recently moved in this direction by endorsing the Occupy movement. One thing that kept coming up at this conference (more in personal conversations than in formal sessions) was the perennial tension between more activist and ideological side and the more interest based side of the union movement. The very word "union" was once somewhat anathema, presumably on ideological grounds (whence "association" rather than "union" in FA, NEA, etc.), but has become a matter of course. There are similar tensions between members who identify more as activists and those more focused on the nitty-gritty of contractual gains.

On the other hand, the NEA remains interested in working with legislators from both political parties. At Saturday's luncheon we were addressed by two rather different Illinois members of congress, united mainly by their proximity to Chicago and new-found vulnerability due to redistricting: Democrat Jesse Jackson Jr. and Republican Judy Biggert. The NEA has endorsed both Biggert and Jackson.

Jackson gave a passionate speech calling upon the NEA to endorse his longstanding idea to adopt a constitutional amendment calling for equal access to "high quality education" for all Americans. He's been pushing this, without success or much notice, since 2003 but it was news to me and apparently to many in the room. Jackson made a passionate and intelligent case for what must be a quixotic proposal. He is a rousing speaker, and claimed to be speaking impromptu rather than using the speech he had written for the occasion (a ploy that goes back in its essence to the first democratic orators, those of Ancient Greece, who pretended to be giving ex tempore speeches when they had in fact carefully memorized their work). He was well received, though my discovery that he's been pushing this idea since 2003 rather diminished my appreciation. He said he would leave the speech he'd written behind--I wonder if he did, or if there was in fact any such speech, written for our meeting in particular, to leave behind.

Biggert is not a rousing speaker, but if her speech was dry and rather poorly delivered, it was at least not a speech she's been giving since 2003 but rather an update on the latest moves in Washington. The House, on partisan lines Biggert deplored (probably truthfully, given her reputation as a moderate), has recently approved changes to No Child Left Behind. I don't understand the details but the result, while seemingly moving in the right direction, obviously didn't go far enough for Democrats. Biggert spoke of education solely in terms of its economic value, emphasized STEM fields, and showed herself out of touch with the realities at most colleges by remarking that she hoped that no families would need to have to experience having children take six years to graduate. 

The solely economic understanding of education was seconded by the final speaker at the conference, James Kvaal, a long time democratic staffer who had been working, briefly, on Higher Ed issues as undersecretary of education and is now the "policy director" for Obama's re-election campaign. It is clearly passé to think of education as doing anything other than promoting "competitiveness", economic growth, or job creation. Kvaal outlined the progress made under Obama, articulately if dryly defending Obama's success at defending and improving federal support of student scholarships despite the fiscal and political climate. Kvaal was less successful in the question period, where various NEA faculty, after first noting that they were all-in in support of Obama (compared to the ruinous opposition, which would slash education spending), questioned the approach Kvaal et al have been advocating. In responding to Rick Santorum's recent rant about Obama's higher ed snobbery, for example, one questioner smartly noted that Obama's response--that he didn't only mean 4-year liberal arts programs but 2-year technical ones-- essentially bought Santorum's premise, that traditional 4-year liberal arts education is snobbish nonsense. Others, as I noted above, called for more faculty involvement in determining policy, rather than limiting the administration's contact to, well, administrators. Kvaal is smart, but wasn't very simpatico, and he struck me as a good example of the smart staffer who believes that Harvard types (as he and Obama) can come up with technical innovations that will solve our problems. He showed the audacity of hope, or perhaps arrogance of the technocrat, to say that there was lots of "low-hanging fruit" among the problems confronting graduation rates. A little bit of performance based funding will identify new approaches that can be scaled up to solve our problems. On some level this may be right, but if adopted too broadly, it strikes me as a potentially disastrous example of elite managerial hubris.

And he's the good guy. More conservative readers of this blog (if they've gotten this far . . .) will not be surprised to hear that the overwhelming majority of participants at this conference were progressives. But I was also struck by their interest in defending a broader view of education than either Obama or his more conservative opponents are interested in speaking of. This defense need not, of course, be liberal or progressive at all--it is just as easy to defend "liberal education" from a conservative as from a progressive standpoint. I'll try to end this lengthy post on that note, which I hope will unite many readers & commentators.

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