Dr. Walter Bumphus, President
American Association of Community Colleges
One Dupont Circle
Washington, D.C. 20036
Dear Dr. Bumphus:
I am committed 150 percent to your success as president of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), and this is your wake-up call.
I implore you to table the program for this week’s AACC annual meeting in New Orleans until next year. Create a 2011 meeting agenda worthy of your own immense ability and of the six million students and their professors who overcome the impossible as the economy and horrific federal policies hammer them every day.
The assault, again, on Pell Grants? Veterans? Faculty workload?
Action on these major issues are nowhere I could find on the 12-page program  I downloaded from the AACC website. I acknowledge the sincerity and hard work behind the all the panels and programs. These are fine sessions -- for 2012.
The only agenda for New Orleans this year is:
- Increasing, yes, increasing Pell Grants for community college students, total Pell dollars and Pell eligibility. After all, funded students mean funded campuses;
- Funding a rational workload, with health insurance, for community college faculty. These faculty need more time with fewer students.
- Stopping the paperwork nightmare that begins August 1, 2011 for veterans trying to use the G.I. Bill. The paperwork, the fine print and the ambiguity of these G.I. Bill revisions will send veterans, especially wounded veterans, now in school to homeless shelters.
I don’t mean “think about a plan.” I mean have every delegate making so many phone calls that U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner are down in New Orleans by lunchtime Saturday. Fix these issues. Make the deal with Reid and Boehner.
Dr. Bumphus, community colleges have six million students/votes. If the AACC says, “Jump,” all Senator Reid and Speaker Boehner should ask is, “How high?”
If the size of the challenges frightens you, Dr. Bumphus, that means you are human. I’m frightened every time I go to teach my community college expository writing class. The odds against our students are so high. I can see the abilities you have. You know that the 1,500 delegates coming to New Orleans and the students, the faculty and the staff of the nation’s community colleges are all people of exceptional compassion, intellect and tenacity. Lead us. We won’t let you down.
I’m putting this agenda challenge to you from my teaching self, the same as when I meet students who have left their lights under a bushel. I respect the students by expecting more of them than they may, that day, feel is possible. Easy jobs are not worthy of them. Pell Grants. Reducing faculty course load to create more time for student success. Veterans. That’s the job this week.
Let me share with you, Dr. Bumphus, some recent events. Beside me is a pile of student essays to read. I have class at 7 a.m. That includes men and women who came to the classes I offered at 7 a.m. two weeks ago during spring break. As you know, community college students do not go to Daytona for spring break. The students who didn’t attend the extra classes had already signed up for more hours at work.
A lot of overtime, with a colleague, last week went to trying to deliver books and assignments to a student arrested and detained in Concord State Prison. I wasn’t out on the street in Dorchester when this young man was arrested. I don’t know what happened before the arrest. Besides, I have fine students, too, who are Boston police officers. I do know the student is willing to continue his courses. I know this because I spoke with his mother, whom I know, at 7:30 a.m. one day last week. She was crying. (I didn’t see easing education in prisons on the AACC annual meeting agenda, either.)
Also last week, one of the students, again from Dorchester, told me he didn’t have the money to return to school this summer or perhaps even next fall. I’d already bought all of his books for College Writing I this semester and some books for other students. (My book bill for students this semester was $262. I have no complaints, Dr. Bumphus. But I wonder, rooms at the AACC headquarters hotel, the Hilton New Orleans Riverside, are $215, not including 13 percent tax. Hotel rooms instead of textbooks?)
This young man, one of those who came to class at 7 a.m. during spring break, began the semester declaring that his only career ambition was playing for the NFL. I said I’d drive him to the tryouts. Just as an expository writing assignment assignment, humor me, and explore some other fields. The wide world is hard to see from our windowless basement classroom at 7 a.m. One recent morning, I showed the class Nova’s inspiring “The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers .” (Watch a few.)
"That guy is really cool,” I heard NFL say to himself as Andre Fenton , a young neurobiologist from NYU, talked about his work. In the discussion at the end of that class, NFL said he’d also always wanted to be an electrical engineer. “How’s your math?” I asked. “I love math,” he said. I linked him that day with colleagues in math and engineering. Nothing ventured, I looked up Andre Fenton at NYU. I emailed Fenton. Would he reach out to my student? Of course, Fenton replied.
Which is why I almost cried, Dr. Bumphus, when NFL explained his financial situation on Friday, that he might not return to school at all. Tomorrow, I’ll show NFL the excellent math lessons online at Khan Academy.  Several students I know have taken that route to at least higher math placements. That’s a start. This is why repairing and expanding Pell Grants has to be your top agenda item this week. Where else does completion begin?
I learned my government relations from Sam and Josh on “The West Wing.” Only begin what you can pay for. Pell Grants, the primary federal funding for so many community college students, are under siege again. First, why do we continue to accept that community college students must pay for the narrow view that the perceived constraints of the federal Department of Education budgets are the fixed boundaries of possibility?
While we have accepted this alleged Department of Education budget constraint, we’ve seen the federal government conjure billions for financial bailouts, for two and now three wars, for the rescue of New Orleans, where you are meeting. Dr. Bumphus, the levees have long broken for community college students and faculty. Making that federal case is what you must do at the annual meeting.
This time around, we’re rolling over without challenging the alleged truth that current Pell Grant funding levels are unsustainable. What about revenues? No one has proposed any changes in federal tax policies for higher education. These let endowments go untaxed, whether the college spends money on need-based scholarships or on palatial buildings or, at Williams College, where I went, on indoor golf nets.
Work out at your meeting, Dr. Bumphus, the elimination of all tax deductions for donations except those endowing need-based scholarships. Work out at your meeting, Dr. Bumphus, the shift to Pell Grants of 5 percent of the federal budget for reimbursing indirect costs for federal research grants to universities. The clear goal, Dr. Bumphus, is just equal federal support for all students in college. Golf nets are more important than textbooks for NFL?
Enough from me. You need to begin on your new agenda for this week. I only assign the possible. I believe you can lead the AACC to these solutions. Tell everyone to go to the same rooms as the scheduled sessions. Give each room a piece of the puzzle. Then, let NFL know that he can take more math and begin engineering this summer.
Registration begins in two weeks. Hurry.
Wick Sloane is an end user of higher education. The views expressed here are his own.