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Last night the Republican Governor of Tennessee, William E. Haslam, announced his intention to make community college free for all residents of his state. The plan, revealed in Haslam’s State of the State address and dubbed “The Tennessee Promise,” would be funded through an endowment supported by lottery proceeds. Haslam’s proposal, if implemented, would make Tennessee the first state in the country to guarantee free community college to its residents.
Actually, I should rephrase that. Tennessee would be the only state in the country to make such a guarantee, but it wouldn’t be the first. Free higher education is almost non-existent now, but it wasn’t always. If Tennessee makes community college free, it will be a welcome return to a practice that existed for much of the 20th century in a number of states.
There are some downsides to the plan. Because it would only cover community college, students who intended to pursue a four-year degree would only be able to take advantage of it if they began at a CC and transferred later. Studies have shown that students are more likely to complete a bachelor’s degree if they don’t have to switch colleges, and there are all sorts of less-tangible benefits to getting all of your college education in one place.
The fine print of the plan creates additional pressure for new students to choose community colleges over four-year schools, too. Under Haslam’s proposal, the state’s existing Hope Scholarship program would be cut from $4000 to $3000 a year for first- and second-year students, while Hope Scholarships for juniors and seniors would be raised to $5000 a year.
The model of community college as a component of the standard path to a four-year degree is one that I have qualms with as a matter of big-picture higher ed policy, and in that sense the Tennessee Promise isn’t quite everything it might be. But that’s a quibble, really. This is excellent news.
Free public higher education is a worthy goal, and it’s a policy proposal that’s beginning to get some traction in the public discourse. For a whole raft of reasons, I think free community college is an excellent place to start.
Community colleges serve a student body that is poorer, on average, than four-year colleges do, and at higher risk of leaving college without a degree. Money spent on easing access to CCs is money spent on the students who need the most support.
And as Kevin Slavin of Cooper Union wrote recently in a different context, “free” is not merely an extension of “cheap,” but an entirely different way of thinking. By taking funds that had been previously targeted toward reducing the cost of higher ed and diverting them to making an entire sector of public higher education free to all comers, Tennessee would instantly change the nature of the college funding debate not just in Nashville but across the country.
More as the story develops. I’m going to be following this one closely.
Cooper Union, as it has existed for the last century and a half, is dead.
“As we work together to find new ways to get The Cooper Union onto stable financial ground,” the board chair wrote in a statement released after yesterday’s unprecedented vote to impose tuition, “we will also work together to develop a contemporary mission for the institution.”
Got that? The old mission has been retired, but the college still exists, so a new mission must be found.
“Despite the changes, our admissions will continue to be based strictly on merit,” the statement said. And that will certainly be true, in a narrow sense, for now. But applications have already begun to fall — early admissions requests dropped by a third this year. The imposition of tuition will degrade the applicant pool, and it will change it. The students who apply, and the accepted students who choose to attend, will become both richer and less talented.
How did this happen? There’s a lot we don’t know. Despite the statement’s promises of inclusiveness and transparency there was no specific discussion of the board’s process in the statement — not even a vote count, much less a list of who voted which way. The Cooper Union board of trustees are not, in this sense, accountable to the Cooper Union community. One wonders how the process would have differed if individual trustees had known from the start that they would be voting and defending their votes in public.
The one trustee who did vote in public was Alumni Trustee Kevin Slavin. He published an essay laying out his intentions on Thursday, and a Facebook post discussing the meeting and the vote last night.
“By now you know that the Cooper Union that was around for 150 years is really over. No way round it.” That’s how he began last night’s post. The trustees voted to impose tuition, and the vote, he said four or five times in different ways, wasn’t close. “The consensus was a very broad one,” he said. “Broader than you think.” The crisis in Cooper Union was a deep and old one, he said, and the alternative to tuition offered by the Working Group plan was not sufficient. He went into the meeting hoping to prevent a murder, he said, but when he arrived he found a corpse.
The delay between the vote and the announcement of the vote, he explained — seven or eight hours of delay, if I’m remembering right — came in part because he wanted to be sure that the statement, “if it was going to say something terrible, that it try to acknowledge the terribleness as respectfully as possible.” But there are limits to what a murderer can say to the family of the person he has just killed.
Felix Salmon summed up Cooper Union’s new dilemma well last night. “Something which is romantic and beautiful when it’s free,” he wrote, “becomes simply shabby if you start trying to charge tens of thousands of dollars a year for it.” As the country’s most celebrated free university, Cooper Union was a unique and astonishing institution. This fall, with the imposition of tuition, “it becomes a second-choice college in the most expensive part of the most expensive city in the world.”
There are plenty of second-choice colleges on this planet, but there was only one Cooper Union.
And now there’s one fewer.
Today is the day.
Today is the day that the Cooper Union trustees will hold their final vote on whether to impose tuition on this fall’s incoming class of undergraduates, or to, by adopting some other package of financial reforms, maintain Cooper’s status as the country’s most prominent and well-regarded tuition-free university.
The imposition of tuition at Cooper has been years in coming, and for much of 2013 it appeared all but inevitable. But student activists last summer forced the college to establish a formal working group to consider alternatives, and when that working group brought forward a robust, detailed plan for keeping Cooper free last month, the trustees blinked. Announcing that the proposal needed further review, they deferred final action for another day.
Today is that day.
As for what’s coming, nobody’s offering predictions, at least publicly. One active alumnus posted on Facebook last night that by his reckoning there are nine solid votes against tuition on the board, and five trustees clearly in favor. With twenty-three voting seats on the board, that would mean tuition opponents need to pick up three of the nine unknowns.
I have no sense of how reliable that count is, though, and no concrete inside information from other sources. Tuition opponents have a huge mountain to climb with the trustees — the Cooper Union president still supports tuition, and a minority faction of the working group has drafted its own report breaking with the majority’s recommendations.
But if it’s true that nine members of the board are prepared to vote to keep Cooper free, tuition supporters on the board have another question in front of them: Imposing tuition is one thing. Imposing it over the objections of nearly 40 percent of your institution’s trustees is quite another.
Yesterday Cooper Union trustee Kevin Slavin, an alumnus elected by alumni to the board last year, published a passionate defense of a free Cooper Union. The whole thing should be read by anyone who cares about higher education tuition policy, but I’ll close this post with a brief excerpt:
If you’ve never experienced it, “free” just seems like a lower number on a slider that has “half-price” in the middle. But free is not a number.
If you paid for your education, you’re likely to understand education in transactional terms. In straightforward economic terms, it means that if you charge some money, you can have some stuff. With more money comes more stuff, higher quality stuff.
But “free” is something different than “less.” And free is not less than cheap. It’s something else entirely.
4:45 Update | At 2:38 this afternoon the secretary of the Cooper Union board of trustees sent out an email to the campus community saying that the board meeting was over and that there would be “a communication from the Board … this evening concerning [its] outcome.”
Around the same time, alumni trustee Kevin Slavin posted the following on the Save Cooper Union Facebook page:
Over. Sitting w trustees and staff. Statement coming late tonight – from cooper but with my participation – and apologies I can’t say more now. Have pushed to make sure something is communicated today. Will be later in evening.
I can’t help but notice that neither statement specifically states that the board reached a decision on the tuition question. More when I get it.
5:55 Update | Less than an hour ago Slavin said on Twitter that the board was ”working to send out a statement later tonight.” Fifteen minutes ago an editor at Architect magazine tweeted that an unnamed Cooper trustee had told him that “results on the Cooper Union board vote may not be made public until tomorrow.”
Evening Update | The trustees have announced that they voted to impose tuition. Much more tomorrow.
Daniel Jose Older has written a lovely long essay on the work of the author HP Lovecraft, a vicious racist who was perhaps the most influential horror/sci-fi writer of the early 20th century. Older gets it exactly right when he says we read Lovecraft not in spite of his racism but because of it, and I just want to take a few words to echo and expand on that analysis. (I was going to livetweet the essay as I read it, but as I leaped in I realized that not much of what it sparked in me was going to fit into 140-character bites.)
As Older suggests, Lovecraft’s racism — his paranoia, his xenophobia, his visceral disgust with Other People — lies at the heart of his genius. He’s not merely a racist writer, he is a virtuoso of racism itself. Racism is his art, and he’s a hell of an artist.
An example: When he lived there, Lovecraft described Brooklyn as a giant vat “crammed to the vomiting point with gangrenous vileness, and about to burst and inundate the world in one leprous cataclysm of semi-fluid rottenness.”
It hasn’t burst yet, note, but it will, and soon.
Lovecraft’s voice is the voice of the embattled, outnumbered, doomed paragon fighting desperately to stave off the annihilation of everything he cherishes. Lovecraft the writer despises humanity’s benighted past, fears its degraded future, and doesn’t hold out much hope for its present.
The standard weak defense of the offensive comedian is that he (or she) is an equal-opportunity offender: “He hates everyone!” It’s rarely true, of course, and even when it’s true it doesn’t mean very much. Making cruel fun of the powerful and prominent doesn’t carry the same illicit charge as the one that comes from kicking the already-down in the ribs. They’re not the same kind of thing, and doing one doesn’t balance out the other.
Lovecraft has no interest in balance, and he doesn’t pretend to hate everyone. He, much more honestly, and much more potently, hates everyone who’s not like him. He’s repulsed by immigrants and upcountry New Englanders, by city folk and rural townspeople, by Africans and Asians and Italians and half-human-half-fish monstrosities.
We, as a species, gross him out.
And this, I think, is why his racism strikes such a powerful chord with the reader. We’ve all been trained to hate the Bull Connors of the world, the men in power who are beyond the reach of those they grind down. We understand and we reject the racist in the mansion and the Klansman on the horse and the redneck sheriff.
Lovecraft isn’t that kind of racist. He’s the creep who thinks he lost his job because his black boss has it in for him. He’s the jerk who bends your ear about how the Jews are running the world into the ground. He’s the fantasist, the conspiracist, the scapegoater, the whiner.
He’s us. He’s the worst of us.
That’s what makes him scary. That’s what makes him important.
And that, weirdly, is what makes him great.
This post was originally as a cut-and-paste Storify of a Twitter rant, but it’s continuing to get traffic so I’ve rewritten it a bit. Thanks to @suey_park for the inspiration for the original piece.
In any discussion of racism these days, it’s almost inevitable that someone will accuse a person of color of being racist and someone else will say that people of color can’t be racist, by definition. Dictionaries get dragged out, tempers flare, and as often as not the whole conversation gets completely derailed.
If you’re someone who thinks that anyone can be racist, and you’re in an argument with someone who’s claiming that racism is a white-people thing, there’s stuff you should know before you sound off.
Let’s start by getting something out of the way. Yes, racism has often been defined, and often still is defined today, the way you define it. In this definition, racism is, as whoever Google uses for their dictionaries puts it, “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.”
You’re not imagining things, and you’re not making things up. That definition exists. It’s in dictionaries and everything. It’s real.
But it’s not the only definition. There’s another definition, one that many other activists and scholars use. It’s been around for a long time, and in many circles it’s the standard definition. (It’s not at all uncommon for words to have different meanings in different contexts.)
Under the activist definition, the crucial component of racism — what distinguishes “racism” from other kinds of ethnically-based bigotry — is its relationship to institutional power, to structures of authority.
This distinction is grounded in the fact that folks who are oppressed hating their oppressors isn’t the same phenomenon as the reverse. You can call the two phenomena by one name if you want, and many people do, but they’re two different phenomena all the same.
Because they’re different phenomena, and because they operate differently in a societal context, a lot of folks now use the term “racism” exclusively in the context of the oppressor’s bigotry, as a way to highlight the underlying structural issues.
That’s what’s going on here. That’s the root of the disagreement.
Now, you don’t have to accept this definition of racism. If you want to insist that all race prejudice must be called “racism,” that’s fine. But if you’re going to do that, you have to do two things:
First, you have to acknowledge the existence of a different definition, with a strong pedigree. Maybe you didn’t know about it before, but you do now. To say your definition of racism is real and the other one is made up is just false. Both definitions are real.
Second, you have to come up with some other way of distinguishing between race prejudice backed by hegemonic power and that which isn’t. Because even if you call them both “racism” (which, again, fine, whatever, go ahead), they’re not the same phenomenon. They don’t spring from the same roots, they don’t operate the same way, they don’t have the same effects. They don’t.
Lemon out. Questions? Comments?