For What It’s Worth

What have I been up to, nobody asks? For an hour or so yesterday morning, here’s where I was:

The protest took place across the street (in an Approved Protest Zone, natch) from this:

The “grand opening” of this $200-something-million dollar building–planned on the promise of state funding that largely never materialized (the absence of which necessitated a giant loan that drove up the cost of the building considerably) and with hopes that it will be a model of the kind of partnership with business that is supposed to save universities from the precipitous loss of state funding (a decline actually only made steeper by privatization, but that’s another conversation)–provided the occasion to protest a just-expired-with-no-request-from-upper-administration-for-the-board-to-vote-on-an-extension classroom mask mandate: no masks and no vaccination requirement in the middle of a pandemic does not exactly seem like Precision Health. Of course, stuck far across the street thanks to rules restricting protest created after the campus protests of 2015 got nationwide attention and not the good kind, the Coalition of Graduate Workers and a few fellow travelers were easily ignored by the administrators, state politicians, and local businesspeople celebrating this future white elephant, back-slapping while they schmoozed on the grave of public higher education.

The state politicians who were asked to stand and be recognized would not characterize the occasion in this way, just as the members of the administration and the local business community wouldn’t. Who wouldn’t support advances in medicine (though of course many of them didn’t)? What could be better than private support, for everything, always? And many of them would hear the protests and commentary such as this, should it ever reach them, as ingratitude and disloyalty and more evidence of why, as in 2015, faculty and students can’t be trusted to have a say in the way public universities are run. And not a few of those would have feelings best expressed by some of the vocally disapproving who drove by, including the young gentleman who gunned his engine after shouting “this isn’t California” at us and the slightly older truck driver who tossed his paper mask out the window with a laugh. The politics that have contaminated public health and resulted in untold additional unnecessary deaths and long-term illness, like the politics that have so harmed the standing of higher education and the treatment of workers–this way of seeing the world, this morphing of the already unjust country-club conservatism into the deadly far right we have today–has become a pandemic. And if it doesn’t kill us, there’s no escaping that we will be seeing long-term effects.

Among these effects we can count last week’s passage of a bill that would effectively gut tenure in the Georgia state system and the new addition to the collected rules and regulations of the Missouri system, snuck in under cover of the alleged COVID-caused need for pay cuts, that essentially strips away the protections of tenure. We can also count the astroturf “movement” noisily imposing itself in state houses and school boards across the country, fighting against critical race theory, which they don’t understand and don’t care to, as long as they can paint those who want to teach the unsightly history of race in this country as, well, disloyal ingrates.

I wrote this tweet the other day, thinking not of my university administration’s decision not to protect its workers and students because (we are left to assume) the political cost would be too great but of all of the other ways in which the educational and scholarly missions of higher ed were being undermined and faculty pointing that out were being made to feel disloyal and ungrateful:

For what it’s worth, the same goes for countries. (And, as was pointed out to me, this is true for students and alumni, staff and retirees, librarians and university press workers.) Under the current ideological undertow we’re experiencing, in which the outgoing tide of the far right attempts to pull us under as it goes, there’s no such thing as loyal dissent. “If you don’t like it here, leave” is somehow still a thing people think and say. What if we said, with patience but with volume, If you love it here and don’t like what’s happening, work to change it. If you value the university and its workers and feel they are being undervalued and mistreated, fight for them. If you love the country and don’t like what it’s becoming, fight for it. We can say these things. We should say them as often as we can, in public. We should speak up for public goods–for public education, not just higher but primary and secondary. We should speak up for all of the things that should be public goods–health, education, workers’ rights. Because really, it, all of it, is about public health in the end.

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