May 19, 2014

Coalitions key to higher ed successes

Author: Darryl McGrath
Source: NYSUT Communications
campaign for the future of higher education
Caption: A meeting of the minds on "access, equity and quality" higher education. Photo by Karen Mattison.

Coalition building is the new power in higher education, as unions, student groups and community organizers unify with increasing frequency to improve conditions at public colleges and universities.

Whether it's an effective all-out community effort to keep a public hospital open - as with the so-far-successful fight to save the State University of New York's Downstate Medical Center or student groups seeking advice from labor on how to organize on campus - a coalition can both address a crisis and lay the groundwork for future successes, said dozens of participants during the recent national gathering of the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education.

The gathering was hosted by United University Professions, the NYSUT affiliate that represents 35,000 academic and professional faculty at the State University of New York's state-operated campuses. This year's theme: "Building Alliances for Access, Equity and Quality," which drew nearly 100 faculty, unionists and students from all over the country and from Canada.

UUP President Fred Kowal touched on that theme in his opening remarks, when he described a recent victory by NYSUT and its two major higher education affiliates - UUP, and the Professional Staff Congress, which represents 25,000 faculty and staff at the City University of New York. The unions, working in conjunction with faculty, students and even parents of affected college students, recently achieved a two-year grace period in a new assessment for student teachers (edTPA), in which the exam will still be given but will not be required for certification until 2015.

"The success we had was due to one factor: the ability to build a coalition," Kowal said.

The Campaign for the Future of Higher Education is a grassroots national effort started by faculty members at a handful of public colleges and universities. It has expanded to include partners from a number of progressive groups that are aggressively challenging the national disinvestment in higher education - especially public higher education - and the increasingly high cost of a college degree.

The gathering also heard an insider's view of the campaign to keep SUNY Downstate in Brooklyn open, public and accessible, as told by local clergy who worked with NYSUT and UUP on the community-wide effort. Representatives of student groups from a variety of public colleges described attempts on their campuses to reduce or eliminate student fees and to challenge their administrations on runaway costs.

Chris Hicks, organizer for the Debt-Free Future Campaign at Jobs With Justice, discussed the growing national movement to slow student debt - which some estimates put at $1.3 trillion - and to reduce the corporate influence in higher education. He outlined several ideas for reducing college costs and freeing up more money for students, including the reduction of administrative costs on campuses and the redirection of student debt interest payments back into funds for students.

"Every year, $100 billion in interest is paid on student debt," Hicks told the gathering. "States are saying, 'There's just no money for education,' "but clearly there's a lot of money moving through the system. We need to get that back into the system."

Video courtesy WNYT 13 and CBS 6