Making it happen: Our New Deal for higher education

With the historic affiliation between the AFT and the American Association of University Professors, excitement buzzed among higher education members at their divisional meeting around the ambitious AFT/AAUP legislative and policy agenda aka the New Deal for Higher Education.

Higher Ed divisional meeting

Harking back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s transformative New Deal—but focused on the future—this agenda sees education as a common good: promoting equity, democracy and a better life for all. Goals include state and federal reinvestment in higher education, affordable access for all students, job security and equitable pay for all faculty and staff, creating academic environments free from bigotry and protecting academic freedom.

We’re not there yet—or, as guest speaker Jasmine Banks framed it (quoting science fiction writer William Gibson): “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.” To chart the path, the meeting focused on inspiration plus examples, such as Banks’ moving journey to activism and concrete success stories from three higher education locals.

An incest survivor whose family lived at times in their car, shelters and parks, Banks credits two things for keeping her “from being a statistic”: her family’s time at Charles Page Family Village (an Oklahoma housing program for single mothers) and her public school teachers. “They helped me overcome childhood trauma. They told me that I was somebody.”

A first-generation high school graduate, Banks went on to earn her master’s degree and become executive director of UnKoch My Campus, a nonprofit campaign dedicated to pulling back the curtain on dark money donations and their undue influence on higher education and our democracy. The crises of the past few years made her realize that recreating higher education in a diverse, inclusive, democratic mold “is a necessary and worthy endeavor that can lead to a more just world, if we are brave enough.”

Bethany Letiecq, an associate professor at Virginia’s George Mason University (and incoming president of the AAUP’s Virginia Conference) described how GMU’s chapter made donor transparency a key organizing issue. (GMU is one of the largest recipients of Koch funding in higher education.) The GMU chapter is now 120 strong—no mean feat in a “right to work” state—with the eventual goal of a wall-to-wall unit.

Seija Rohkea also knows the power of issue-based organizing. Two years ago, Rohkea became involved in their local (Adjunct Faculty United/AFT in California’s North Orange County Community College District). An arts educator and “freeway flyer” (or part-time college professor who teaches in multiple districts), Rohkea described how, in the early days of the pandemic, “I lost my career, my healthcare and loved ones” with their healthcare coverage suspended in the midst of a medical procedure. “Who took me in? My union. They gave me a voice.” Rohkea is now the newly elected president of AdFac, and the local is a leader in the California Federation of Teachers’ part-time faculty campaign for equitable healthcare coverage, which earlier this year was instrumental in winning $200 million for a part-time faculty healthcare program.

Panelist Dante Morelli, president of the Faculty Association of Suffolk County Community College in Long Island, was candid about his local’s inspiration: “If your state or national affiliate puts money on the table, take it.” With $35,000 in a 2020 Back to School grant from the AFT, the local founded the JEDI Institute. With enthusiastic support from SCCC’s administration, JEDI is aimed at finding concrete ways—from more inclusive course content to managing difficult dialogues—to make the college more just, equitable, diverse and inclusive. (Though Morelli admits that he has never seen a single Star Wars movie!)

[Christina Bartolomeo/Photo by Pamela Wolfe]