I hope you'll forgive yet another digression from astronomy, but I'm ticked off.
For a country that claims to value education, we've been very good at gutting it right and left at all levels. Now that we are in the midst of a severe economic crisis, this is coming to the fore, and institutions right and left are fighting for their survival, sometimes by offering to sacrifice the school next to them, and sometimes by cutting so deeply that one is left to wonder how those in charge of the purse strings can sleep at night.
In 2004, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell celebrated the 150th anniversary of the founding of Penn State University, the state's largest public institution, with the following words:
"At the height of the Civil War, when our continued existence as a nation was in question, our state and national leaders turned their attention to higher education, and to the future. It should serve as a lesson to us today that, no matter how difficult the times, it is never too bleak to justify deferring our attention from the needs of the people. It is always the right time to invest in the future."(emphasis mine). Last week, the exact same governor tried to declare that four storied Pennsylvania state universities, Penn State, Pitt, Temple, and Lincoln, were not truly public institutions, and therefore did not qualify for federal stimulus money earmarked for higher education, claiming that times were unprecedented. Again, I realize that times are really bad, but I think the Civil War was worse... This move led Penn State to temporarily approve a monstrous tuition hike to cover the loss of funds. Thankfully, the U.S. Department of Education prohibited this change in status, but the cards are now out on the table, so to speak, and I suspect that the fight to retain public university status will now be much more common.
In California, where the word "crisis" doesn't begin to cover the depth of economic woes, 22 department chairs at the University of California San Diego wrote a letter to the president of UC suggesting that three campuses (UC Santa Cruz, UC Riverside, and UC Merced) be closed, because these "teaching institutions" are not profitable, and "corporations faced with similar problems eliminate or sell off their least profitable, least promising divisions." Frankly, I am shocked and horrified that any university professor worthy of the title would consider that teaching is not profitable nor promising, especially since teaching is and should be the primary goal of institutes of higher learning. They aren't called "institutes of higher research." Further, as a graduate of UC Santa Cruz, I can say based on experience that there is a large amount of "profitable" research that goes on at Santa Cruz and Riverside. (UC Merced opened after I graduated, and I strongly suspect that it is no slouch, either.) And, lastly, education is NOT a commodity to be bought and sold, but a fundamental right of human beings.
Other universities are also struggling with crippling budget cuts, and they are all trying to maintain educational services while cutting costs. Staff (including administrative assistants, janitorial staff, etc., not just faculty) are going without raises and often are receiving pay cuts. Universities are closing departments, not filling positions, and letting basic maintenance go.
In the meantime, public education is also suffering. My high school recently effectively cut the orchestra out of the school. They didn't cut it completely, but didn't fill the teaching position, either. Many other public schools nationwide have already completely cut music, arts and sports programs, libraries, lunch rooms, and so on, often because the administration deems that these are not part of an essential education; these cuts were often made before the current budget crisis. I strongly disagree with the notion that music, sports and arts are not crucial parts of education (and libraries! How can you possibly claim that a modern library does not enhance education?!). It's a lot like cutting two fingers off of each hand, removing an eye and an ear because they are redundant and not necessary to functioning as a human.
At the start of every school year, my daughter comes home with a "wish list" of supplies for the teachers. These supplies are not luxuries like high-definition computer monitors or surround-sound systems for auditoriums, but absolute necessities like paper and pens and Kleenex. If the students don't bring these in, then the teachers have to purchase these supplies out of their already barely-living-wage salaries. Our society claims that we value education, but we are too cheap to buy pens and paper for our students?
I realize we are in a severe economic crisis. But the students currently in school or in college cannot wait two or three years for state budgets to recover. They can't put their lives and growth on "pause" for more favorable times. By slashing education budgets and pushing schools to try and cannibalize each other for funding, we are condemning students who had the unfortunate luck of growing up during a crisis of our making (not theirs) to a substandard education.
Growing up, I heard stories of how my great-grandparents would forgo comforts and even meals to make sure that my grandparents could go to school during the Great Depression. My parents and many parents of their generation went deep into debt to give my sister and I a decent college education. Now it's my generation's turn to sacrifice to make sure that our kids do not get left behind. Shall we step up to the plate? Will we make the vow that it is "never too bleak to justify deferring our attention from the needs of the people?" Or will we let our society turn on itself and consume the very institutions that gave us the luxuries we are all too unwilling to part with?