Keynote Address on Equality: Myths, Inequality, and Action

Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society Induction Ceremony, April 12, 2015, Raritan Valley Community College, NJ

Thank you so much for the invitation to speak here on the topic of “equality.”

I would like to begin by acknowledging my American Literature students at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility who have taught me new ways to understand and appreciate equality and inequality.

I would also like to thank the students in my two sections of English Composition II; they gave me input on my comments, and some are being honored today. The thematic focus of our course is “Inequality, the American Dream, and the 99%.”

One of these English II students recommended that I “speak from the heart” and “just say what needs to be said.” So here goes…

Our society has many beliefs about equality and inequality, and some of these beliefs are myths. They are simply not true, but they get repeated and celebrated. They mask the truth. Such myths have consequences, serious, often deadly, consequences.

Let’s start with a myth that everyone here is likely aware of, a myth that is familiar and uncomfortable at the same time. That’s the myth about community colleges. We’ve all heard it, that it’s not a “real” college, that it’s 13th grade, that it’s for losers. We have all—faculty, students, and parents alike—felt the burn of the anti-community college stigma. Our students describe how in high school they were ashamed to tell anyone where they were going to college. Why wouldn’t they feel ashamed, when we live in a culture that treats higher education as another commodity, another acquisition? It doesn’t help that local high schools set aside a day for seniors to wear the sweatshirt of the college they will attend. It’s an accessory, like a fancy label or brand, and a shirt from RVCC just doesn’t cut it. Students feel embarrassed. Who wants to be called a loser? Even more so, who wants to go to the place that is used as a derogatory chant, a taunt, at seniors by younger high school students during local high school pep rallies in the supposed spirit of friendly class competition? What kind of a culture exists so that such behavior is considered acceptable?

The myth that the community college is inferior has devastating consequences. Myths usually do. Myths serve to cover up a truth, and the truth is that community college is a real college. Our students are real college students. They are getting real college degrees and transferring to other real colleges for further study. Our students are smart and capable. Our PTK students here are living proof that the myth is wrong. Our college offers top-notch academic courses that many of our students say are more challenging than the courses they take elsewhere as juniors and seniors. The secret of our high quality is kept, just that, as a secret, masked by a powerful stigma.

The problem is that systems support myths like this one, and these systems are powerful and wide-reaching.

Let’s consider some examples of the way systems support the anti-community college stigma, systems like the government and the economy.

RVCC President McDonough recently told us that six of our students participated in the first-ever Community College Day at the New Jersey State House. Our students reminded our representatives in the Assembly and the Senate that the state formula for funding higher education is grossly unfair to community colleges, with: New Jersey Public 4 Year Colleges receiving $10,276 per Full Time student, New Jersey Private Colleges receiving $1,972 per Full Time student, and New Jersey Community Colleges receiving only $1,780 per Full Time student.

Really? Community Colleges in NJ receive less money from the state per student than private colleges and less than one fifth of what public colleges receive? Where is the equality there?

When the community college system was first created in NJ in the 1960s, the NJ legislature created a funding system where the state, the county, and student tuition would each provide for one third of the college’s funding. Students, instead of paying the originally envisioned 33% of our funding, are now paying more than 60% of our funding because the state and the counties are not following through on their obligation.

Again, myths have consequences. The stigma against community colleges reaches all the way to the state house. Without the state’s promised funding and without the counties’ promised funding, two things happen: 1) our students unfairly bear the weight of funding our college when we’re supposed to serve the community and 2) we don’t have the funding we need to support the work we do.

For students, this means taking on debt, working extra hours, attending part-time instead of full-time, and even leaving school. They give up sleep, they can’t take as much time to study, and they can’t spend as much time with their kids if they are parents. The impact is not only financial, but it is also physical and psychological. Social justice is at the heart of our mission, yet we are not serving the students who most need our help.

Research shows that the single greatest factor in whether or not a college student will graduate is the income of that student’s parents. The higher the parental income, the better the chance the student will graduate. While financial resources certainly play a role, one of the biggest resources that students from wealthier families have is academic confidence. Knowing your parents finished college provides a confidence that being the first in your family to go to college doesn’t provide. This confidence is the difference between failing a test and deciding to drop out of school vs. failing a test and deciding to go for extra tutoring. Students from lower socio-economic backgrounds need access to a strong support system in order to build this confidence that other students already bring with them to college. It’s our obligation to provide such a support system.

In addition to students suffering the burden of broken promises by the state and counties, for the college, this means hiring part-time faculty (adjunct faculty) instead of full-time faculty. RVCC is certainly not alone in going down this path, but it is an unsustainable one. Adjunct faculty are the majority of our faculty, and they are paid per course. When you break down the amount of time it requires to teach a course, they are paid less than minimum wage. They have no job security from semester to semester and no benefits. They all have Masters degrees, and some have PhDs.

The myth that community colleges are inferior has serious consequences.

Knowing the power of this myth, it is all the more impressive that we have the opportunity today to honor these students here, who have fought against so much to excel academically.

Part of the reason the anti-community college myth is so powerful is it supports a larger myth in our society against public service, a myth that says the key to success is individual hard work. The corollary, of course, is that those who are not successful do not work hard. These interlocking myths are very dangerous because they deny the impact of the privileges, benefits, and resources available to those who have succeeded. Those very privileges, benefits, and resources are then not available to those who didn’t inherit them, buy them, or get lucky. Even though we believe we live in a meritocracy, that anyone who works hard can achieve the American dream, that is a dangerous myth that ignores the impact of race, socioeconomic status, citizenship status, sexual orientation, and gender.

Let’s consider a few examples:

  • According to a 2013 ACLU report, drug use in NJ by blacks and whites is similar, yet blacks are arrested at a much higher rate. In fact, Hunterdon County, out of all the counties in NJ, has the highest racial disparity when it comes to marijuana possession arrest rates. Blacks are 5.1 times more likely than whites to be arrested in Hunterdon despite comparable drug use.
  • According to the Sentencing Project, the “lifetime likelihood of imprisonment” for white men in the US is 1 in 17, for black men is 1 in 3, for white women, it’s 1 in 111, and for black women, it’s 1 in 18.
  • Amnesty International reports that “Over 30,000 immigrants are in detention on any given day in the U.S. . . . triple the average number detained just ten years ago.”
  • The American Association of University Women reported that in 2012, Latinas earned 53 cents for every dollar a white male earned, African American women earned 64 cents for every dollar a white male earned, and white women earned 78 cents for every dollar a white male earned.
  • According to the PEW Research Center, in 2013 median net worth of households for whites was $141,900, but for blacks it was only $11,000, and for Hispanics $13,700.
  • Finally, according to the African American Policy Forum, “The median wealth for single Black women is $5.00.”

This is the richest country on earth – how is any of this acceptable?

Somerset and Hunterdon Counties are two of the wealthiest counties in the country, but you wouldn’t know it from hearing our students’ or our adjuncts’ experiences. Given that wealth, don’t these counties have an even greater obligation to give back to the community, specifically the community college, the only college in either county? What would amount to just another yacht to one of our wealthier residents would mean the world to this college, yet wealthy donors tend to donate instead to the Ivy League university they attended, even if those universities don’t really need the money, while they ignore the community college in their very own backyard where that money could change lives.

Myths have serious consequences, and you, as strong academic students have the power to make a difference. The odds may seem set against you, but that is all the more reason to do something. If the odds seem against you, then they most certainly are against your peers who are not able to be here. Do it for them. What powerful myth governs our society that you want to change? Myths are stories, and stories can change. If you tell enough stories to counter the myths, if you speak up enough about the value of community colleges, people will listen. But telling new stories to counter damaging myths is not enough. You’ve got to take further action. Learn about the problem, and advocate for a solution. Meet with someone of influence and explain your view. Start a petition. Vote in every local and national election. Hold government leaders accountable. Hold corporate leaders accountable. Organize a boycott. Advocate for a new policy or law. Run for office. Raise awareness among your network. Raise your voice. Share your knowledge. Teach.

Keep saying that black lives matter, that transgendered people are people too, that undocumented Americans are real Americans, that bullying against LGBT kids must stop, that students in poverty need support.

Raise your voice, and people will listen.

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