By Douglas Unger
The murder of George Floyd by police and the tragic litany of police murders of African-Americans is raising outcries for justice long overdue and has set off fires born of rage, including in Las Vegas. These calls for justice extend to scrutiny of higher education for institutional racism that affects climate and opportunities for students of color and from racial and ethnic minorities along with urgent priorities to diversify faculties.
Efforts to address these issues will now be set back by the COVID-19 budget crisis. Nevada universities and colleges will suffer 19 percent-plus budget cuts in little more than a year (other state higher education systems vary: California will see 10 percent-plus; CUNY in New York as high as 30 percent; state colleges in New Jersey 25 percent; an emerging average from all states is approximately 15 percent or greater). Along with the disruptions and complex challenges to reopen closed campuses in ways that assure maximum safety during a deadly pandemic, these cuts threaten to freeze ongoing initiatives to grow diversity, equity and inclusion, and to support low income students.
UNLV counts among the top three most diverse campuses in the United States, responding to the fertile diversity of Las Vegas and Clark County. Many administrators and faculty have engaged for years in outreach and institution building to respond to the aspirations of our multiracial, multiethnic community. We teach an undergraduate student population that identifies as 67.6 percent non-white, mixed race, or non-resident international. The number of full-time faculty who identify as racial or ethnic minorities is 32 percent. Just 12 percent (combined) are Latinx or African-American, serving a student population that is 31 percent Latinx and 8 percent African American. The gender ratio of students is roughly 57 percent women and 43 percent men (no statistic is available for LBGTQ students). At 41 percent, UNLV has one of the highest percentages of low income students among all universities in the western region of the United States, so it is a wellspring of opportunity, also a major economic driver for our city and state. Still, with these demographics, that UNLV has taken six and a half decades to grow its full-time instructional faculty to 12 percent Latinx and African-American can be fairly called out as a case of progress delayed, progress denied.
In 1991, when I first joined the Department of English at UNLV, we had no African-American nor Latinx among our full-time unit faculty, no professors from other minorities, either. The full-time faculty counted 23.5 percent women. In nearly 30 years, we’ve been able to grow through conscientious hiring to next fall reaching 47.3 percent-52.7 percent women to men, almost a balance. We’ve added six minority or BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) scholars and writers to a total of 39 (from 0 percent to 15.3 percent). We were all set to hire another new faculty member of color when the contract was “frozen” by the COVID-19 budget cuts, and the search failed.
This position took three years for authorization and search. New hires are hard to get approved. And applicant pools are so competitive for diverse faculty that we too often lose preferred candidates because our administrations either cannot or will not meet salary demands. The rationale deans often use for salary limits is ironic in regard to institutional racism: due to fears of “salary compression”, deans do not want to face their tenured (mostly white) professors should they agree to hire a new assistant professor at a salary that exceeds those of more senior faculty because if they do, their lives can be made miserable by complaints and appeals about resulting disparities in rank and pay.
The other major reason for failed searches to hire faculty from diverse racial, minority or underrepresented groups is that UNLV may not yet have enough “core discipline” cohorts in fields of interest to them―it’s unreasonable to ask or expect any young scholar to be the first, the pioneer. Faculty hired for such positions cite lack of community and professional support along with stagnant salaries as reasons to leave for jobs elsewhere.
We’ve faced fierce resistance from the Legislature and our governors for years to improve faculty salaries and to address “salary compression.” Faculty salaries have been left out of appropriations so consistently that (according to the Nevada Faculty Alliance and AAUP) pay has dropped from 15 percent above the national average in 2008 to 15 percent below it for 2020-21. Due to the COVID-19 catastrophe, salaries will fall even lower―by 4.6 percent next year, implemented by “furloughs”, and this may be just the first round. These cuts will mean yet more delayed progress for diversifying faculties, also far more difficult to achieve as we confront a political class in Nevada (from both major parties) that continually devalues state supported Higher Education so as to favor tax laws made for the rich and the CEOs of casinos along with policies that further reinforce their powers.
This devaluing reflects a national trend, reflective of an economic and political system that sustains institutionalized racism. In the words of Paul Krugman, Nobel laureate in Economics: “The core story of U.S. politics over the past four decades is that wealthy elites weaponized white racism to gain political power, which they used to pursue policies that enriched the already wealthy at workers’ expense.”
Nothing in Nevada except public education so immediately offers remedies for this systemically racist economy. And where else are thousands of the unemployed supposed to turn to learn new skills so as to reenter the workforce with better prospects? Nevada in microcosm represents the American Dream transformed for half our fellow citizens into a shallow marketing lie to preserve a system of below subsistence minimum-wage jobs and a vast underpaid class of service industry workers whose employment security is continually imperiled by cruel boom and bust cycles of tourism and gaming, the reward at the end of the day a bunch of cheap imported consumer goods bought at Target or Wal-Mart or on Amazon. Or if all works out, a stucco house in the desert and a kid in college as the marker of generational progress.
This pointing to political-economic causes is not enough. Our students are asking about diversity in what and how we teach, questioning the too slow progress to hire BIPOC faculty, and calling for increased financial support (at a time when we must fight to retain current support within drastic budget cuts). And they plead with no little urgency that we reform our campus climates and the police to provide BIPOC students with a more nurturing, welcoming, and safe environment. More pointedly to this national (and global) moment, they’re asking: Why hasn’t change happened faster? What took you so long?
My generation of male white scholars and writers (a majority), after earning our degrees, entered the academy with sincere ideals to change or subvert the unjust status quo so that real change would result, but we gradually gave up or burned out on the grueling labor and career risks of such activism. As young assistant professors under pressure to perform, it became harder to spare time from the necessary careerism for our survival and to provide for our young families. We turned mostly to growing our disciplines within institutions that increasingly treated our fields, including the humanities and the arts, as another consumer industry (academic branch) within the new market-driven university.
We did diversify reading lists, embracing feminism first, having inherited a largely white male, white privileged curriculum, so we rediscovered and added women writers with equity in mind; and we worked on courses to add representative minority authors, but often without much deep understanding of their cultures and contexts or how best to teach them. New literary theory taught that “truth” is subjective and “problematic”, and “meaning” is relative, complicating any certainty to determine “true” or “false.” Many of us played semantic games with deconstructing texts instead of fiercely deconstructing the power relationships of an increasingly repressive society and, in the words of environmentalist Barry López, “This economy that is killing us.” My generation is notorious for having tested out ideas for reforms and political action only, in the end, to undermine, reduce, then cancel them out until we had arrived at zero, self-satisfied by civic duty if we could make it to the polls every two or four years to vote. As Charles Newman puts it in his essay, “The Post-Modern Aura,”: “In such a situation, both the critical and aesthetic intelligence often relinquish their traditional claims, preferring to explore what they imagine to be the richness of their own limitations.”
And as we could, we worked to add women and diverse faculty to our ranks. This was clearly not enough without taking on the more difficult challenges of reforming the system.
One way to reform a system is from within (though not always). For the past six years, I have served in faculty governance roles for UNLV, with my fellow faculty senators pushing a glacially slow institutional process to change policies and leadership so as to improve working conditions and reform entrenched cultures of faculty and administrations. I was elected chair of the Council of Faculty Senate Chairs for the state in 2018-19. During the 80th Legislative session, I and other faculty representatives lobbied and petitioned our Board of Regents, Legislature, and governor with a major emphasis on fixing stagnant salaries and substandard health benefits, and on maintaining the research missions of UNLV and UNR, arguing how these would support the hiring and retention of diverse faculty. Legislators were not persuaded. I was never able to pull along enough followers who would make their voices heard, too reliant on myself, and at times too content to fill the ethically self-congratulatory yet still contemptuously ineffective role as yet one more voice in the wilderness.
Economist Thomas Picketty estimates that fully 47 percent of Americans don’t own more property than their TVs, smartphones, cars, clothes, a few possessions, the majority locked into high interest payments even on these. I’ll wager the percentage is higher in Nevada. How much does white privilege rely on prioritizing wealth over equal opportunity and human life? Higher education offers reliable tickets out of this economic injustice, and it teaches a core of humane values pertinent to our historical moment as a nation. That doesn’t seem to matter to the powers-that be who know the price of everything at the expense of equal opportunity. On the excuse of the dire revenue crisis caused by the pandemic, those same powers are beginning the process of higher education’s dismantling, in Nevada and across the nation.
They do not have to do this, not in our state. The third phase of COVID-19 federal relief could help prevent such destruction, the “American Modernization Initiative” in Congress, if it can earn enough bipartisan support. And if not that, Nevada provides in its statutes NRS 396.80 and NRS 396.81 authority to the Board of Regents to apply for loans or bonds that could stretch out drastic cuts over a period of years to mitigate such losses and help to secure vital resources to support progress. Many faculty and institutional leaders are strongly against doing this, saying, “We can’t mortgage our way out of this crisis.” They’re preparing for complicity in the swift shrinking of our colleges and universities along with their missions at a time when our society most needs them. For forty years, political and community leaders have been shoving business and marketplace slogans down the throats of faculty to reshape higher education, so why not consider doing exactly what a business would do if a tornado blew the roof off?
Voice in the wilderness, still, for the sake of economic justice, there must be a way.
James Baldwin states in the documentary film ,“I Am Not Your Negro”: “In America, I was free only in battle and never free to rest.” Six decades later, that the same battle continues is a marker of our national tragedy. State leaders in Nevada must heed the warning, to paraphrase Baldwin’s famous essay, that the fires next time will be a righteous burning.
Douglas Unger is the immediate past chair of the Council of Faculty Senate Chairs of Nevada System of Higher Education, and the president-elect of the UNLV Chapter of the Nevada Faculty Alliance.