Report from MTSU Rally & Meeting
by Andy Smith
On Saturday, December 13, 2008, I joined the Coalition to Save Our Schools (C-SOS) in Murfreesboro on the campus of Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) on a brisk but beautiful afternoon. For the hour before the afternoon commencement, we held a quiet and peaceful demonstration on the grass near the tennis courts and one of the parking lots on the western edge of campus. The rally’s purpose was to further raise awareness of and bring attention to the state budget cuts and proposed measures that could irreparably change higher education in Tennessee.
The Chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR) Dr. Charles Manning and the author of a controversial memo suggesting numerous methods to “increase productivity” on our campuses was the keynote at the afternoon commencement, and thanks to pressure from C-SOS, Manning had agreed to meet with us after the commencement to continue the conversation. Plenty of media attended, and many families and graduates saw us as they passed by. Several MTSU faculty came over in their full robes, and President Sydney McPhee stopped by for a short chat.
In a show of school spirit, blue was the theme of the day, with several us wearing blue jackets and ties, and all of us wearing blue armbands. Sturdy signs with messages like “Keep Our Professors in the Classroom” and “Students + Professors = Quality Education” decorated the area. As a graduate of MTSU and a current faculty member at a neighboring TBR school, I feel particularly invested in preventing the proposed changes and promoting the role of students and faculty in determining the future of our colleges and universities.
Following this successful showing, folks either broke for lunch or attended the graduation. Immediately after the commencement ceremony, we gathered in the MTSU Sports Hall of Fame where President McPhee had agreed to facilitate an open forum with the Chancellor. For the students who had called the event, this conversation was intended to clarify the situation. The conversation lasted an hour.
Although students formed the majority in attendance, faculty members, administrators, and the media were also present. TBR Student Regent Gioni Carr traveled from Memphis to join us. His impassioned message of encouragement to the student movement provided the only remarks to garner applause. Having heard that the memorandum was meant as a mere “brainstorming” document, I mainly wanted to ascertain how Manning the man squared with Manning of the memo.
At one point, a reporter from Murfreesboro’s Daily News Journal asked Manning if he would “revamp” his ideas based on the response he’d received. Manning stood by his suggestions, saying they were serving their purpose (he actually appeared quite proud of himself for generating so much attention), and his remarks throughout the meeting confirmed this.
Of Manning’s many comments, one anecdote struck me as terribly troubling and central to the Chancellor’s view of higher education. Manning described his days as a student when visiting a professor in his office to ask questions was the way to learn more and compared that to a contemporary computer program that utilized “drill and response.” Essentially, Manning believes that students interacting with professors during office hours “is not a very efficient use” of that instructor’s time.
Throughout the meeting, Manninng reiterated many other points from the memo in what he saw as a provocative and positive light. He invoked the University of Phoenix as a model for productivity in part because it requires so few full-time faculty. He defended charging more for more marketable degrees and charging less for less marketable ones, noting that “privatized programs” within “public institutions” were a good idea.
Moreover, consistent with the tone of austerity present in Governor Bredesen’s remarks, Manning described higher ed in Tennessee as discretionary, insisted that Tennesseans would never expand the tax base to fund higher education, and criticized “the culture of higher education” as an impediment to progress. He never mentioned ways in which more a more streamlined or efficient top-level administration fits his model for what he called the “evolution” of higher education.
Any implementation of the proposed plans will be managed by Manning’s successor, the search for which is currently underway. Input has been sought from the campuses and will be channeled through the respective administrations.
The statewide C-SOS has plans to continue its work to make sure student voices are heard in the coming months, and members of the C-SOS are in regular communication with faculty advocates from the Tennessee state conference of the American Association of University Professors.
Writer and activist Andrew Smith graduated from MTSU in 1999 with his Master’s Degree in English. He is an award-winning Instructor of English at Tennessee Tech (TTU), President of TTU’s chapter of AAUP, TTU faculty senator representing the College of Arts and Sciences, Chair of the AAUP-TN Committee on Part-time and Non-Tenure Track Appointments, and Executive Committee Member of the Modern Language Association Discussion Group on Part-Time Faculty.
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