Remarks by Max Page, PHENOM Vice President, to the Public Higher Education Caucus of the General Court of Massachusetts

February 10, 2011

My name is Max Page. I am a Professor of Architecture and History at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. I was president of the Massachusetts Society of Professors and am a founder and currently vice president of PHENOM, the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts. I am joined here today by Professor Ken Haar of Westfield State University, PHENOM’s Treasurer, and Alex Kulenovic, graduate of UMass Boston, former student trustee on the UMass Board of Trustees, and staff person for PHENOM.

I am truly thrilled to address the first meeting of this joint public higher education caucus, which PHENOM proudly played a role in launching. Under the leadership of Representative Garballey and my own State Senator Stan Rosenberg, and with so many representatives and senators and their aides in the room, I feel an incredible bounce of hope that we are heading toward finally doing right by all those who benefit from public higher education in Massachusetts. 

PHENOM was founded in 2007 on a few essential principles:

First, the strength of this Commonwealth lies in the quality of its public schools, colleges, and universities. A number of PHENOM members walked across the state in October, from Berkshire Community College to Westfield State University to UMass Amherst to Worcester State University and Framingham State University, to Roxbury Community College and UMass Boston before walking right up to your doorstep. Many of you were there to greet us. On that walk we saw no gold flowing in the Housatonic, no geysers of oil spouting from farms in Hadley, no orange groves in Framingham, no mountains in Brookline ripe for ski resorts.

We did see remarkable students, faculty, staff, parents, alumni, businesspeople, town leaders, all of whom get this essential idea: Massachusetts, more than almost anywhere else, depends not on its natural resources but on its human resources: an educated citizenry capable of working at the cutting edge of a global economy. As an historian, I can tell you that research across hundreds of years, not to mention evidence today from places like China, India, South Korea, is crystal clear: those communities that invest in the education of their people thrive; and those places that limit quality education to the few, decline rapidly. The prosperity of the United States after World War II was directly related to the rise of an outstanding public higher education system. The greatest contribution you as legislators can make for the long run is to assure that future generations get access not only to the best K-12 schools in the nation – we have those — but the best public colleges and universities. From both ends of the political spectrum, everyone acknowledges that in the 21st century, to be successful you must have higher education.

Second, we believe passionately in the “public” in “public higher education.” Only a publicly-funded system of higher education is dedicated to the proposition that every person in our Commonwealth deserves access to affordable, high quality higher education that will prepare them for a secure and enriching life. I am proud that my campus, the flagship campus of the UMass system, has more Pell-grant-eligible students than Harvard, MIT, Wellesley, Smith, and Williams College – combined. Public colleges and universities educate the working and middle classes. And our faculty embrace their role in bringing higher education to those who have been left out, and in conducting the highest level of research in pursuit of solutions to the great problems of our world. To continue to privatize public higher education system is a short-term solution to budget problems and a long-term mortgaging of our future.

Third, we echo the architect and planner Daniel Burnham, who said: “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s [or women’s] blood.” Think big. I look around the room and I see many representatives who have advocated passionately for public higher education for years and years. But we must acknowledge that we are not where we want to be, despite the heroic efforts of our students, faculty, staff, and you, our legislators.

PHENOM is working within the system too – we have understood the need to fight every year for a little more financial aid, so that a few more students can attend college. We have walked these halls in order to get our fair share of limited federal stimulus dollars. And we will be back again, to support efforts such as in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants and more full-time faculty and staff on our campuses.

But PHENOM was founded to lead a revolutionary shift away from budget cuts, high tuition and fees, privatization, and part-timing of our faculty and staff. We launched the Great State of Mind Campaign to jumpstart the reinvestment in public higher education. This year we have worked closely with Representative Garballey and a number of his colleagues to support not just a few more dollars for the Mass Grant program (though, of course, we support that), but a new “Finish Line Grant” that would provide the final year of free tuition and fees for needy students at our public colleges and universities. We see this as a step on the road toward making at least a two-year college education free, just as high school is today. Remember, it was in this very place that Horace Mann successfully argued what seemed preposterous at the time: that elementary education should be universal and paid for by the public. We need brave leaders who will fight for the preposterous ideas of our time.

In our Great State of Mind Campaign, we also called for a four-year plan to have our Commonwealth get to the point where it invests at least the average that other states spend in terms of per capita spending on public higher education. We support the Board of Higher Education’s budget proposal as a step on the road toward achieving this goal.

Behind it all lurks the problem of a structural deficit. I was thrilled to learn that Senator Rosenberg will be pushing for a constitutional amendment that will allow us to have what thirty-five states have: a progressive income tax system. PHENOM will also be fighting for the Act to Invest in Our Communities, a bill to progressively expand our revenues immediately, so that we can reverse the two decades of tax cuts – more than any other state in the nation – that have undermined our public life.

Finally – and perhaps most important – PHENOM was founded on the belief that we will only achieve our goals if the one million people in this Commonwealth who, on any given day, have a direct link and investment in public higher education, speak with one voice. Members of this caucus have a crucial role in uniting the higher education community behind a common set of goals. Community colleges, state universities, and the UMass system must advocate together for public higher education in Massachusetts – with each campus having its unique mission and role in a comprehensive public higher education system. IN January, PHENOM brought together an unprecedented meeting of representatives of all three sectors as well as caucus members, union leaders, student government leaders, as well as Commissioner Freeland. PHENOM is prepared to work with the caucus to organize town halls on the campuses when you visit this spring, so legislators can hear from the full range of the higher education community and we can build a cadre of activists to speak on behalf of public higher education.

We don’t need squabbles between administrators and their faculty and students, nor between campuses, nor between sectors of the system. We need, instead, to build a social movement on behalf of public higher education.

I’d like to end with the simple question, asked by a sage from two millennia ago: “If not now, when?” I fervently believe that everyone in this room believes in finally building an affordable, accessible, high quality, social and economically powerful public higher education system. We have yet to achieve our highest hopes. Now is the time.