It's not about the clothes

I’m very sad today. I’m deeply sad to hear about all of the cuts at USM. It sickens me. It feels like hearing a good friend has a terminal illness. I’m not sure this friend is going to make it, and I’m scared for her.

I know people who have lost their jobs. I know programs that are being erased out of existence. I know the state and the area this university serves. I know that we are perpetually last in everything in the country. Now we plan to operate a university without Latin classes, without religion classes, without an art education program. That’s astounding.

I think it was Flannery O’Connor who described the South as the place where more people could read Latin and Greek than anywhere else in the country and more people couldn’t read at all than anywhere else. Now we don’t teach Latin and Greek. We’re just the place with the highest illiteracy rate in the country, and we’re giving up all pretense of having anything else to distinguish us.

That’s how I feel about my Alma Mater today.

I’m quite disheartened and discombobulated by all of these lost jobs, and yet I get up every day to go to my job wondering how long I can keep doing it. I fantasize about quitting. I look up bank rates wondering if I could handle a reduced salary if I refinanced my house. I look up job ads to see who is hiring and where.

And I’m not the only person who feels that way. I’ve worked at this job for fourteen years. I’ve been there through three presidents, three department chairs, and four deans. In all of that time I never heard anyone talk about looking for another job. For the most part, people have only left when they’ve retired. But this year, I hear another person every day express the sentiment that he or she would be better off working somewhere else.

I started thinking I would be better off looking for another job even if it meant a drastic reduction in pay because I got scared that the job was literally killing me. The work loads are too much. The stress levels are too high. The environment is too unhappy. People all around me are very, very unhappy. This is an unprecedented situation.

In large part, we have the economy to blame. We’ve seen nothing but budget cuts for the past few years. When people have retired, they have not been replaced. The faculty is working with a skeleton crew. Nearly all of the English teachers, for example, are teaching eight classes this semester. That’s 24 credit hours. That’s more hours than a student would ever be allowed to take in one semester, and we have to presume the teachers work harder than the students on each class. On top of that, classes are over filled. Nationwide, colleges typically cap composition classes at 25 students. Many of ours have 45 in them. Therefore, every English teacher is carrying the load of at least two full-time instructors, and some are carrying the load of three or more full-time instructors. And English faculty are not by any means the only ones taking on that kind of work load. Many faculty are.

They are doing this after being hit with a pay cut in the spring that they are still struggling to recover from.

They are doing it in buildings that are miserably hot because the school has turned up all of the thermostats to save money on utilities.

They are doing it after fighting for a parking place every morning because we had a significant enrollment increase, and we really don’t have enough room for everyone and their cars.

They are not just working under all of the pressure they can handle. They are working way beyond that. The stress levels are just plain toxic.

So when I say that I have become scared for my life over this job, I’m being serious. I wasn’t sure I could go back to work this fall without having a stroke or a heart attack. When one of my friends said she too wondered how long she could even survive working like that, and then when another friend actually had to be taken to the hospital with heart problems while she was at work one day, that’s when I decided I had to start putting my own health first. That was one of the big motivators for all of my diet blogging. Something had to change, and that was it.

Now into this environment we are given a new dress code. Faculty cannot wear jeans or athletic shoes, not even on Fridays. Coaches can’t wear athletic shoes to class. It reads like something out of a 1960s handbook, right down to a statement about the length of skirts.

Ironically enough, people weren’t actually wearing jeans. The unspoken dress code by pure social consensus was much more formal than most college campuses ever are. Faculty only wore jeans on Fridays, and that was mostly during football season when they also tended to wear school T-shirts.

Now we have a rule that we actually had no reason to enact, and that rule has basically shattered what was already an extremely demoralized campus.

No one really cares about the clothes per se, however. They care about what the rule represents, and what it represents is an administration that is either completely disconnected from the degree of pressure the employees are under or completely uncaring about it. It represents an administration that does not respect its faculty as professional people capable of making professional choices on their own. It represents an administration that holds no regard for its faculty as human beings.

At least that’s what it feels like to us.

This new rule shouldn’t be a big deal, but it is. And it is not only because the rule itself is incredibly ill-advised, but also because the timing couldn’t be worse. You’ve heard of the straw that broke the camel’s back? This was a kick to a dying dog’s head.

We have a campus full of people who absolutely cannot tolerate another hair’s worth of pressure. Not emotionally. Not physically. Not mentally. They can’t tolerate a single thing that feels like harassment or aggravation. They can’t tolerate anything new that comes across as an arbitrary and punitive measure.

I have hesitated over writing about this, but I felt like I had to. Everyone around me is frustrated and upset to the breaking point, but no one feels they have a venue for expressing their pain. Everyone is afraid they will get in trouble if they complain.

I wondered if I would get in trouble for writing this and posting it to my blog, but then I remembered that repercussions for free speech on the part of a public employee are illegal. So that’s that.

Mississippi can’t keep going with budget cuts to education. Because of the recession, more people than ever are going back to school. If we want to ever recover as a state, we have to educate them while they are there. To do that, we have to hold on to our teachers and hire some more too. We have to give those teachers decent working conditions.

As for me, I’m going to take a few deep breaths, spend a little time working off anxiety on the treadmill, and try to keep going. I can only hope this is what bottom looks like, and next semester we’ll start seeing the turn around. I have to tell myself that because I have to get up and try again tomorrow. People everywhere are losing jobs. What else can I do?

6 thoughts on “It's not about the clothes”

  • Sorry things are so tough there, Sharon. Things are tough here in Arizona too. MS and AZ have a similar culture where seeing the value in putting tax dollars into education is concerned. It seems to me that the best way to ensure that the economy improves is to educate–and where it’s called for, re-educate–the people who live there, and the children of the people who live there, to maximize everyone’s opportunities. But there is a prevalent short-sighted selfishness abroad on the land. May it end soon.

    Hang in there.

  • Well, now I know why I haven’t seen you since school began. Thank you for writing this. And publishing it. I have often wondered why “leaders” allow themselves to stay at the level of thinking that justifies rule-making as a good solution to almost every ill they encounter. Like the principal I had who made a rule that everyone must sign-in each morning when she realized a few often arrived late. For the first time in my life, I wanted to be late.

    The academic cuts are hard to swallow. I hope they were even harder to decide. I wonder about that. How can so many people be fooled into thinking it’s just about numbers? Latin, Greek, Art ed… and Deaf ed, also. I am sad to think I will miss the hearty enthusiasm of the professor and his students who let me get a glimpse of their beautiful language of study when they practiced around my building and gave amazing concerts each semester. Of course they have low numbers in their program. Doesn’t that correspond to the percentage of the population they want to serve?

    Sharon, even your sad blogs inspire me. I just went back and read your diet posts and I’m going to keep up with them. I’m sure thinking about my JCJC friends. I may show up to see y’all in a denim mini skirt and tennis shoes.

  • This is absolutely heart-breaking in its honesty and clarity, especially since it comes from someone who I know pours herself into teaching and students. Bravo for your bravery in publishing this. If more people at JC had courage like yours, Jesse Smith and his crowd of superficial idiots could not run roughshod over education, academic standards and the faculty.
    Thanks for writing this!

  • Ah, Keith, I do love you, but you’re the kind of friend who makes me wish I believed in censorship. 🙂

    Mutually respectful discourse. That’s what we’re going for, bud.

    But thanks for the thanks. Thanks to all of you, and thanks to all of you who privately commented today as well.

  • Sharon, my dear, I feel your pain. We, too, are overloaded with students, and the stress level is high in many quarters. We don’t have the added pressures of pay cuts and draconian dress code–and I was a student in the 60s, so I know exactly what you’re talking about!–and I’m grateful for that, We are happy to have jobs, of course, especially with cuts all around the state. But that will go only so far. Mostly, I admire your gumption for posting this. You are one of my new heroes!

  • Hey Sharon,

    Now you know why I retired with 25 years of teaching which is a 50% decrease in pay. No longer could I handle the things you have mentioned.

    Take care.

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