Why I'm not picketing to 'save' College Park

MORRIS FREEDMAN

November 13, 1991|By Morris Freedman

A PHONE caller the other day invited me to join a picket line of the full professors of the University of Maryland's English Department to protest budget cuts. I declined. I take picketing very seriously.

Picketing should always support a good and large cause, as it normally does in union negotiations, after other forms of discussion and confrontation have proved futile. At the City College of New York in the '30s, students, rightly or wrongly, picketed about profound international issues, like war and peace, or national ones, like civil rights and academic freedom, nothing less.

The last time I recall crowds marching around College Park's main administration building, tying up traffic on nearby U.S. 1, was to protest events in Vietnam. National Guard troops in gas masks and with drawn bayonets swept the campus under clouds of tear gas.

The present demonstrations at College Park seek to keep the cornucopia of funds flowing to support the rich lifestyle to which the campus is accustomed. Professors and administrators are intent on preserving threatened privileges. Before this action, sober recognition of the state's financial crisis should have generated widespread and effective efforts to reduce dubious expenditures and institute efficiencies.

When budgets were relatively unrestricted in the late '70s and early '80s, administrators sometimes seemed at a loss about how best to use funds. They ordered remodeling of structures that needed mere touching up; contracted for new buildings without bothering to use fully those already standing; built handsome reflecting pools and a fountain on the main quadrangle; added lighting for night games at Cole Stadium and enlarged press and broadcasting facilities there; set up ambitious new programs; instituted courses in marginal subjects; hired tenured faculty at astonishing salaries to do minimal teaching, often of marginal specialties, and part-time untenured ones to handle basic courses; added generous leave policies on top of the usual sabbaticals; inflated administration; revived programs once abandoned as ineffectual; subsidized the expensive publication of a host of slick newsletters. And so on.

Some administrators discounted repeated warnings of the coming budget crunch. One, when finally told to list specific economies in his unit, proposed deleting courses required for graduation rather than optional, fringe ones, hoping to pressure superiors to let him get away with no cuts. "Are you playing chicken?" an incredulous colleague asked him.

When anyone raised questions about extravagant construction or hiring, the official response was that funds allocated for one purpose could not be spent for another. Yet flexible accounting could always justify transferring funds from frills to student aid and the teaching of basic subjects.

My uncomfortable sense is that few in power lately at College Park have attended sternly enough to maintaining authentic academic prominence. The dominating ambition has been to look good, not be good.

The budget crisis has, of course, caused inevitable scanting of some worthy needs, and demonstration leaders commonly cite these to protect doubtful ones. Projecting an appearance of catastrophe is displacing respect for strict truth. For example, no tenured professor in English has been dismissed or reduced to part-time status, and no English course required for graduation has been canceled, although self-appointed strike leaders strain to leave exactly that impression.

Before I join pickets with a placard pleading that our flagship campus not be sunk, I should like to see more good-faith efforts to achieve savings that will realistically preserve College Park's genuine stature, which so many rank and file faculty have strained so hard to make firm.

Construction not already near completion or irrevocably contracted for might be suspended. Non-tenured, part-time, temporary, redundant and other borderline teachers, many casually appointed and rarely supervised, ought to be rigorously re-evaluated. Poorly functioning senior faculty ought to be reviewed sympathetically with an eye toward early retirement. A rigid, sophisticated study of all courses and programs should be launched to save those universally required for degrees and to minimize the rest.

A few measures to shrink needless spending have been taken, solemnly, sadly and scrupulously. Otherwise, all has been gesture, apparently in the expectation that militant protest -- massive picketing, public lamentation, lobbying of legislators, cancellation of classes, drives on Annapolis, "teach-ins" and highway sit-downs -- will force the governor and legislature to impose greater sacrifices on other sectors of the state and lift them from College Park. That seems the sort of narrow, callous, selfish, inhumane and frivolous cause that no campus picketing should ever support.

Morris Freedman recently retired as professor of English at the University of Maryland College Park. He has written extensively on higher education.

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