If not us, who? This was the resounding question at the AFT/NEA National Higher Education Conference March 13-15 in Orlando, Fla., where nearly 600 members from the two unions united to find ways they could advance equality in public education and beyond.
Through speakers, panel discussions and workshops, conference attendees explored a broad spectrum of strategies designed to advance equality and make higher education more accessible and more sustainable in the face of increasing corporatization, privatization, and exclusion of middle- and lower-income and minority people from the very resources they need to excel.
AFT President Randi Weingarten rallied the group with a call to action, noting that “there’s no more challenging time than right now.” Listing wage stagnation, an increase in the number of contingent workers, disinvestment in education and threats to academic freedom as among the challenges we face, she urged members to work together toward solutions. “Things like high-quality, affordable higher education and a robust labor movement are so essential because they are a road out of poverty, they are a road to the middle class,” Weingarten said. “They are the pillars of our fight for economic justice for all.”
Keynote speaker R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy, an AFT member and professor at the City College of New York, inspired attendees with his call to eradicate racism and other forms of exclusion that still plague our institutions and our nation. “We’ve spoken about equality over and over and over again,” he said, but equal treatment does not take into account the disadvantages that some people carry—and those people need more. Opportunity should be given according to need, Lewis-McCoy said, in a way that serves justice, not just equality.
“We have to be intentional about inclusion,” he added, and listen to all stakeholders. “Sometimes we’re so busy organizing we fail to listen,” he said. “As activists, as laborers, … we must make sure that every time we come to the table, we fight for the folks who are in the room and fight for those who haven’t had an opportunity yet to make it to the table.”
Noted scholar Henry Giroux roused the group with his detailed description of the corporatization of higher education. Decrying the adoption of a business model for university campuses, he said higher education has become “increasingly commercialized or replaced by private spaces whose ultimate fidelity is to increase profit making.”
“As the role of higher education as a center of critical thought and civic engagement is devalued, society is being transformed into … a spectacular space of consumption and financial ruin,” he said. “All of civil society is at stake.”
“Resistance is no longer an option,” he concluded. “It is a necessity.”
In conference panels and workshops, members considered how best to resist, sharing strategies that covered everything from inspiring apathetic colleagues to advocating for education-friendly state legislation, diversifying our unions and workplaces. helping students navigate debt relief, and leveraging federal and state legislation to create more fair and just higher education policies. Other sessions focused on contingent faculty working conditions, tips for bargaining effective contracts and other crucial issues. An especially popular set of workshops dealt with organizing-related issues.
Closing out the conference on Sunday, a panel including student activists as well as union leaders considered higher education in the wake of the Ferguson movement, examining the resurgence of the civil rights movement. The panelists stressed the importance of seizing this moment to knit together a united movement for justice on our campuses. They urged attendees to think hard about how faculty and students can work together to commit to advancing equality—not only in higher education but in our lives as Americans.
Photos by Gregg Matthews