Why we provide food

This is the text of a column that I wrote for publication recently in the Connecticut Mirror.

Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, wrote more than a century ago about “the sickness that is not until death.” He did so in an essay about despair, loss, and fear.
Notwithstanding the gloomy topic, Kierkegaard, was an optimist.
The sickness about which he wrote, after all, is “not until death.” The sickness until death, he wrote, would be a deeper sickness—the one that comes from the separation of one’s soul from the spiritual core that is deepest part of one’s being.
Welcome to the world of Connecticut higher education, college and university-style, circa 2017.
For me and for my colleagues in the Connecticut State College and University system, our collective soul is being wrenched from its spiritual core. The same is true, tragically, for our students
And it is getting worse.
I teach History and English at Tunxis Community College. I have been here, full- or part-time, for more than 20 years. I can attest that our students are not receiving the quality of education they did even five years ago. And they are hardly receiving the quality of education that they deserve.
This is not due to a lack of effort on the part of my students or colleagues.
We are working harder than ever—but we are no longer working to make things better. We are working to keep things from getting worse.
Kierkegaard might say that we and our students are facing the death of our intellectual souls.
The number of full-time faculty members at Tunxis has dropped. Vacancies in all departments from faculty to academic support to the Library are not being filled.
Yes, courses still are offered, but they are increasingly being taught by part-time faculty members. Many of them are excellent instructors, and we are blessed to have them. Still, they are part-time, paid a remarkably small sum to teach, and only to teach.
They have other jobs and other priorities in their busy lives. That means they often are not here to offer ongoing academic and career advice that can be provided only by a full-time presence.
What about counseling and tutoring, the vital supporting services? Cuts there as well.
The Library? Closed on weekend—closed to our part-time students with full-time jobs for whom Saturday is the only time to do the in-depth study and research that they need for the exams and papers that they must complete to succeed.
Are we making progress anywhere? Not really, except in the peripheral places.
We are trying—but we are pushing back against a tide of soul-eating loss. Tunxis, for instance, joined many of our sister institutions in opening a new food pantry this year to provide decent nutrition to our students and their families.
Its business is robust, which is both good and sad.
“Food insecurity” has been identified in study after study as a critical problem in higher education. The reasoning is simple: Students who are hungry, or who have children who have nothing nutritious to eat, are not likely to stay long in higher education.
So we offer food.
We are here to teach, to advise, to counsel. That is what we WANT to do, why we choose to be here. But we know that we can’t help our students to learn if they and their families don’t have food to eat. That is why we volunteer our time to make sure The Pantry (its official name at Tunxis) is open when it needs to be open.
We are doing what we MUST do.
Our elected leaders are trying to figure out how to balance the state’s budget—and every plan to date has called for devastation of higher education.
Last week, the Democratic leaders of the General Assembly, both the Senate and House of Representative, offered their own “plan” to stop the state’s budget hemorrhage: Cut the state colleges and universities (excluding UConn) by $100 million over the next two years.
Where? Don’t know. How? Can’t say. Why? Because it’s easy.
The numbers appeared on a partial spreadsheet—no supporting details, no justification, simply numbers that seemingly were plucked out of the air in order to make the spreadsheet work.
On a recent airing of WNPR’s Wednesday morning, The Wheelhouse, one of the analysts said that the “plan” looked like something submitted by a high-school student who realized at the last minute that he had to turn in an essay that he had forgotten to write.
How soul-affirming that is.
The fact is that any cut of the proportion envisioned by our Democratic legislative leaders would mean the closing of at least one community college, the evisceration of already diminished services, and ever more extraordinary challenges for our students in achieving the education they deserve.
Lest this be regarded as special pleading on behalf of my colleagues and me, I fully recognize that a cut of this proportion would mean layoffs or reductions in staff that might reach into the hundreds. So be it.
Even if that were not the case, a cut of $100 million would destroy our system.
CSCU President Mark Ojakian has proposed a strategy designed to cut our spending by more than $40 million over two years. It involves consolidation of service functions for our state universities and combination of administration for the 12 community colleges.
Some of my colleagues in the state college and university system have criticized the plan—or at least the way it was offered in April. They have offered alternatives to the plan. But the purpose of this article is not to assess either the blueprint put forth by President Ojakian or the analysis of its critics.
I would simply say this: The pain it would inflict pales in comparison to that which would result from anything that remotely resembles a cut of the magnitude envisioned by the Democratic leadership.
When we read the type of “plan” that the Democrats advance, it truly does chill the soul. That’s not quite the same as actually killing the soul, but it comes pretty close. And that’s the case for those of us who are merely trying to offer opportunities to those who might otherwise have no opportunity.
A cut of $100 million to the CSCU budget would kill the opportunities for hundreds, even thousands, of our students.
These are the students who need a food pantry to make ends meet, who have no means of transportation beyond the range of the bus that takes them to the closest campus, who will have no time to blend a minimum-wage job and a college education.
Throw in an inevitable tuition increase and the number of students shut out from the system will only grow.
So what to do?
How about this: Rather than pick a number ($100 million) out of thin air and rip it from the soul of higher education, take the time to look at the entire state budget, approaching $30 billion, and deal with the systemic dysfunctions that exist but no one wants to face.
Former state Sen. Gary LeBeau proposed in recently in The Hartford Courant a return to county government.
That may be a good idea. At least it’s headed in the right direction. A handful of counties, properly administered, could allow the state government to cut the millions that it offers annually in aid to local government.
We could have fewer school administrators, fewer local police chiefs, fewer grants supervisors, fewer bureaucrats—and services could still be provided.
Here is the bottom line:
Cut the CSCU system by $100 million and at least one community college probably will close. And maybe more. This will make life immeasurably harder for the single parent, the laid-off factory or office worker, the young person who wants desperately to succeed.
Their hopes will wither and perhaps die.
Find another way, demonstrate the courage that real leadership sometimes requires, and we may actually avoid that catastrophe.
Sadly, we will still need our campus food pantries. At least then, however, our students will know where to go for the food that they and their families sometimes need—and they will still be able to cling to the belief that is at the heart of the American dream: the belief that education is the key to a better tomorrow for all of us.
That, surely, is better than the sickness that, to Kierkegaard, led to death.

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Where Trump Was Right

Donald Trump was right about one thing: The U.S. electoral system IS rigged. If it were not, then Hillary Clinton would be president-elect this morning and Trump would be declaiming to the heavens about how unfair it all is . . . might even be encouraging his supporters to take it to the streets and might even be leading the assault.

Some of Clinton’s supporters indeed did take it to the streets, though surely not on the scale that would have been the case if Trump had lost.

Demonstrators protested in several U.S. cities from sea to shining sea (Los Angeles on the Pacific to New York and Washington on the Atlantic). “Not our president,” they chanted peacefully.

Sorry, but they’re wrong–under the rigged rules that led to Trump’s election.

The Electoral College, enshrined in Article II of the Constitution, determines who should be president. Its makeup penalizes the states where most of the people live (California, New York) to the benefit of places where most of the people don’t live (Nebraska, South Dakota, Utah, Wyoming). True, Trump carried Texas and Florida–our second and third most populous states. But he lost California and New York by large margins–in California, in fact, by a landslide. And Trump achieved landslide victories in those states where most of the people don’t live.

If all the votes had been counted equally, then the election would have turned out differently. The people spoke and, by a narrow margin, they chose Clinton. Yet Trump will become the president in January.

This is the second time in 16 years that we have witnessed this travesty of democracy.

Remember 2000? Vice President Al Gore received more than a half-million votes than Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Yet Bush became president because he (perhaps) carried the state of Florida by fewer than 1,000 votes.

Another election determined according to the rules of a rigged system–another election that cheated the progressive candidate.

Back in 2000, the fate of the Electoral College seemed very much up in the air. People did talk about the unfairness of it all–about the inequity of losers becoming winners. Nothing happened, though.

Maybe it was because the process of amending the Constitution is so complicated–because the amendment process has never been used to tamper with the text of the Constitution itself, except perhaps in the case of the 13th and 14th amendments which ended slavery (not directly mentioned in the Constitution) and extended Constitutional protection to ex-slaves. Or perhaps it was because no one thought anything like this could happen again anytime soon.

Now it has.

It looks as if Clinton’s popular-vote victory will be a bit smaller than Gore’s in 2000. With 99 percent of all the votes counted, she had a lead of about  230,000 over Trump. This may be small, but it’s significant enough to give her a one percentage point lead (48 percent Clinton, 47 percent Trump).

Know who has opposed the Electoral College as the arbiter of election victory? Trump himself. In 2012, when it looked early on as if Republican Mitt Romney might win the popular vote over President Obama yet lose the Electoral College, Trump had this to say: “The electoral college is a disaster for a democracy.” In the end, of course, the president won both the electoral and popular votes–and Trump went silent on the topic.

You’ll surely not hear him attacking this democratic disaster now that he has used it to win the game. To Trump, winning has never been the most important thing; it has been the only thing.

If the rules seem to favor the other guy, attack the rules. If the rules help you to win then it’s, “Hey, everybody knows the rules.” If you lose under the rules, tell your people to take it to the streets because the whole damned thing is rigged. If you win under the rules, then forget all of that. Principles have never mattered very much to Trump. The goal is just to win. This time, he did. . .and he did it by the rules.

Yes, Trump stole this election–stole it fair and square because he did it under the rules of the game. And the system is, like Trump said all along, rigged. Rigged in his favor.




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Rep. John Lewis absolutely rocks

Rep. John Lewis absolutely rocks

I read today that Rep. John Lewis of Georgia has organized in the House of Representatives a sort of sit-in among Democrats on the issue of gun control.

What a great idea.

Chris Murphy, one of the senators from Connecticut (where I live), filibustered in the Senate for 14 hours this week until he actually got the Republican majority to agree to a vote on a series of gun-control votes that had no chance of passing.

At least he got them to do something–even if it led to nothing.

Weirdly, actions that seem to do nothing can achieve something.

We can have an impact just by starting a conversation. Murphy’s filibuster, coupled with the protest organized by Lewis, can force discussion on the vital issue of gun control.

A little about Lewis:

He speaks with considerable authority. During the early 1960s, when he was in his late teens and early 20s, he was also a college student and would go on to become president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee–a civil rights organization.

Lewis was one of the group called the Freedom Riders, an integrated group of students who had a vision. These people wanted to demonstrate the absolute inability of our nation to deal with the fundamental problem of racial, discriminatory segregation in the U.S. South.

Their tactic was to rent buses that would travel through the South into local bus stations.

Once they entered a bus station, the Freedom Riders would act out their defiance: White Freedom Riders would enter the restroom reserved for Blacks, and Black Freedom Riders would enter the restroom reserved for Whites.

The Interstate Commerce Commission had ordered the desegregation of interstate facilities, such as bus stations that served buses that cross state lines. The Supreme Court found the ruling to be constitutional. It was the law of the land. But in the South, bus facilities remained largely segregated.

The Freedom Riders challenged the system by showing the reality rather than the fiction.

In Montgomery, Ala., Lewis was beaten to within an inch of his life by violent, racist whites. He barely survived the beating in large part through the intervention of a white law-enforcement official.

Lewis recovered from his beating and went on to lead a distinguished life of public service.

He is regarded today as the conscience of Democrats in the House of Representatives. He is also one of my personal heroes. It doesn’t surprise me that he is leading this sit-in, but it never occurred to me that he would do this.

Go for it, Rep. Lewis. You have always had my respect. Now, maybe we can get a vote that actually leads to some place. Maybe we can save the lives of gays in some city other than Orlando and children who do not attend a school called Sandy Hook in a town called Newton located in Connecticut, where I live.

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After the weekend of praises, epistles, and hosannas to Muhammad Ali, I have nothing truly original to offer. I do have a few reflections, all of them personal.

  1. Ali messed up my mind at a time (to borrow Winston Churchill’s terminology) “up with which my mind most needed to be messed.” I was 12, living with my grandparents in mountain Virginia, on the night of the first Clay-Liston fight. Liston, the ex-con, had somehow become the favorite of white America–mostly because Clay was so loud-mouthed, sure of himself, arrogant, and profoundly stupid in his insistence that he could beat the brooding, imponderable force of nature that supposedly was Liston. Then, Clay did it. He did it even though Liston’s handlers put rubbing alcohol on Liston’s gloves and told him to rub the gloves in Clay’s eyes. Lesson one: You are as good as you want to be, good enough to beat people who cheat.
  2. The next day, he announced that he had changed his name to Muhammad Ali. My little slice of white America couldn’t quite deal with it. What, in fact, was the Nation of Islam? Whites who lived in the urban Northeast understood, as nearly as I can tell, but whites in the rural South couldn’t get the frame of reference. It confused me then, but one day I understood. Lesson two: You really do get to define yourself.
  3. He was stripped of his title because he refused induction into the military during the Vietnam War. It took him nearly four years to beat the draft-dodging rap and get back to the boxing ring. It took him longer to regain his title, but he did it, and then he did it again. Lesson three: Life requires endurance.
  4. Before they stripped him of his title, nobody could hit him because he was so quick; after he got back the title, everyone could hit him because he had slowed down during the hiatus. Still, only Joe Frazier could actually knock him down (once). Lesson four: Ali could take a punch. We can all take a punch.
  5. Eventually, all the punch-taking took its toll. We’re told he died of Parkinson’s Disease. More accurately, he died of Parkinson’s produced by acute and repeated blows to the head as a result of his boxing career. The toll of taking a punch shortened his life. Lesson five: Sometimes, we have to take a punch–and shorten our lives–because that’s what we have to do in order to live an honorable life.

From a practicing and devout Christian: Muhammad Ali lived a most honorable life.

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Election 2016

My good friend, Andre Blaszczynski, has an apocalyptic theory about this election season: Trump can’t win, which means Clinton will win. But Clinton will be indicted before the election–despite the best efforts of the Obama Justice Department to prevent the indictment. So Clinton will have to withdraw, leaving the Democrats with a gaping chasm to be filled by (wait for it) Joe Biden as candidate for president and (wait for it again) Elizabeth Warren as candidate for vice president.

I wish.

This is as close to my dream ticket as I hope to see in my lifetime.

My first presidential vote was for George McGovern. I’m still proud of it, though McGovern went on to become, as nearly as I can tell, the second largest presidential loser in the nation’s history.

Biden is no McGovern, but he’s a solid guy–working class to his roots. He stands on the right side of the major issues, from guns to income inequality, and he would certainly be the poorest president, in terms of wealth, in the last 60 years (Eisenhower). That counts for a lot these days.

And Warren? She’s a progressive male’s political pinup girl. Yes, the ticket should be reversed: Warren on top, Biden below. But who would quarrel a lot with either result?

Bring it on.

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A Hero of My Youth

The Nation magazine asked its readers to write brief essays of 200 words about the sports hero of their youth. Here’s what I wrote about a great football player named Ernie Davis.

I was 11 the day Ernie Davis died, and I cried.

My friends thought I was weird. Who, in the white, jock South of the early 1960s, could possibly care about a black running back from Syracuse University in a faraway land called upstate New York?

Ernie broke down my own, personal racial barrier. How could he not? He outran almost everyone, and he would shake-and-bake those who kept up with him. He played both offense and defense. Watching the Saturday highlight shows, seeing Ernie break another big run or make a key interception, I realized that greatness comes in all colors.

Ernie demolished the University of Texas in the 1960 Cotton Bowl. He was everywhere he needed to be at the moment he needed to be there. Without him, Syracuse was pretty much an average team; with him, Syracuse went undefeated and won the national championship. They beat all-white Texas in segregated Dallas. It took a strong man to do that.

Ernie received the Heisman Trophy in 1963. He signed a pro contract with the Cleveland Browns. Then he was diagnosed with leukemia. He died without ever playing a regular-season game. The Browns retired his number.

I cried–cried at the unfairness, cried because my hero was dead.

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Our Students and Their Destiny

On Thursday, May 26, I read an essay by former state Rep. Jonathan Pelto that appeared in the online publication, ctmirror. It dealt with the emerging approach of the Malloy administration to community-college education during a time of budget crisis. Here’s my response, which I submitted to ctmirror.

As a community-college teacher, I had multiple reactions after reading Jonathan Pelto’s excellent and depressing column, “A Giant Step in Connecticut’s Race to the Bottom.”

The first was simply that those of us who work in the community-college system know, perhaps even better than Gov. Malloy and Commissioner Michael Meotti, the dimensions of the problem that they presume to address. We see it at the start of every academic year—students who come to college unprepared to do college work. And we’ve come, reluctantly in my case, to accept that community colleges can’t quickly solve the problems that accumulated during the first 13 years (kindergarten through Grade 12) of our students’ education.

The second reaction was that someone has to try, that “someone” historically has been us, and that no effort in higher education is more important.

After reading Commissioner Meotti’s comment that the state should “reconsider” offering a college education to those who are “likely to fail,” though, I came up with a few other ideas that could deal with the problem that he perceives and save a ton of money to boot.

We know, for instance, that 75 percent of our students are going to come here unable to do college-level work in math, English, or both. Since the deficiency rates are higher in the state’s cities than in the suburbs, why not post a sign over the entrance to every urban high school in the state—a sign that says, “ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE.” I’m assuming that, since Dante Alighieri has been dead for more than six centuries now, his inscription over the Gates to Hell is part of the public domain. And it captures perfectly the spirit of Commissioner Meotti’s analysis. After all, most of these students will graduate from high school “likely to fail” anyway. Why permit them to build up hope for four years, receive a high-school diploma, and then have the doors shut in their faces? ‘Tis kinder, surely, to discourage them from wasting time on an effort that was doomed from the start. Plus, we would drive down high-school enrollment, which would save money on teacher salaries and building maintenance.

There is a way to save even more money: Simply close the state’s urban high schools. No schools would mean no teachers, no maintenance, and even more savings. Why, especially in a time of mandatory austerity, spend anything at all on those who probably will fail anyway?

Because, of course, one of the foundational beliefs of this country is that few among us are destined to fail.

We who work at the community colleges have seen students who should have failed by every available measure, and yet who have succeeded—whether the measure of success is graduation, a transfer to a four-year institution, a promotion made possible by success in a specific course or attainment of an academic credential, or simply the satisfaction that comes with learning something new. We have seen, by the hundreds, students have succeeded in ways that crude budget analysis can’t capture. I refer specifically to the students who needed six or seven years to get their associate’s degrees because they had to complete multiple levels of developmental English and math in order to get to college-level work, because they also had to work full-time, and because they therefore had neither the time nor the money to take more than six credits in a semester.

Like every unit in public education, the community colleges face tough choices. “Ability to benefit” is no longer an abstract and obscure phrase that we can kick around in our idle time. Enrollment at my college must remain substantially flat until we can afford to hire more full-time faculty, which seems unlikely at least into the mid-range future. So we need to craft plans that allow us to achieve our mission within available resources. As we make the decisions, however, we must interpret our mission as generously and broadly as possible.

We do have a lot of thinking to do. As we deliberate, however, we need to focus on maintaining a success rate that, if properly defined, is quite admirable.

Let’s leave the talk of destiny and failure to the politicians.

If we handle ourselves well enough, we might even get them to stop talking about failure altogether. Then we can all turn our attention to keeping hope alive, which is an effort that enriches everyone who undertakes it.

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