- Austerity Undermines Every Effort at Equity and Justice
Austerity poses one of the most pernicious threats to the ability of new, developing, and established scholars to engage fully and freely in their intellectual environments. Ongoing cuts to all types of high-income and wealth taxes, as well as ambivalence about tracking and collecting such taxes, have led to a shrinking of public revenues and relentless reductions in state and federal appropriations for services. This situation has pushed higher education—especially the most accessible public institutions created to foster democracy and equity—into a fragile condition.
As a nontraditional (that is, old) PhD candidate in history and single woman with an unconventional career path now working as a university graduate assistant and adjunct professor at a community college, the consequences of austerity are very tangible to me. They manifest in my weekly budgeting for groceries, in the fact my clothing and kitchen items come from Savers and Salvation Army shops, in the fiddling maintenance of my fifteen-year-old car to get through another annual inspection, in the lack of full-time job postings as I begin my search, in the weekly panic at both institutions about “student numbers” and legislative budgets, in the elimination of course sections at the community college. The cutting and cutting of government funding for public higher education means that any drop in enrollment, even if cyclical or temporary, causes high-impact financial losses at a campus.
A heightened sense of precariousness occurred when a distressing family problem, related to another national catastrophe, arose two years ago. I could balance all my scholarly, teaching, financial, and household responsibilities [End Page 57] with exuberance and wit—until that major crisis. My immediate family had to confront someone close to us who had developed a severe opioid addiction. He had pawned almost everything of value and lost his job by the time we knew the full extent of the drug abuse. He would go on to lose his car. There was no collegial community to offer me support. Most people at the community college do not know me; perhaps I am a vaguely familiar face that passes through the hall at what seem like random times. The two supervisory professors who assign my classes and review my work do not know me beyond my name. We have never chatted during department meetings, attended holiday parties, or swapped materials between our offices. We have not laughed over lunch, planned any events, or designed honors courses together.
I am a cog performing a function. Even though the two women are respected, tenured professors committed to notions of justice and enrichment for students, they are not colleagues for me. So, as my family struggled to deal with someone cycling in and out of detoxes and rehab, often leaving against medical advice, I pushed to remain cool, receptive, and pliable regarding the ever-changing questions and needs of students and to remain responsive to the daily shifting between campuses. However, a durable seed of despair was planted in the back of my mind. I am utterly vulnerable. I have nothing firm in my career or even my income. If I stumble, I am replaceable. Many community and state colleges increasingly turn to retired high-school teachers and administrators for adjuncts. Although they do not have the most recent scholarship or approaches, they already have benefits and do not seek full-time employment. My other temporary position as a graduate assistant provides basic sustenance for at least the next fourteen months, but that public university continues to battle the state legislature over more proposed cuts that would hit the humanities hardest. I am considered and nurtured there, but we have been warned.
The 2016 national election heightened my fears—and they are fears, not anxiety. I fear for my income and basic bills over the next five years, my health insurance over the next ten years, and my retirement plan for twenty years in the future. I fear for my old car irreparably breaking down, taking the last of my liquid savings to get another one. Over the past 25 years, I worked as an educator in public schools, alternative...