Featured Network: PHENOM the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts

Posted by on July 29, 2011

An Interview with Ferd Wulkan

For more information contact: Ferd Wulkan
Western Mass Organizer


PHENOM, the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, is a network of faculty, staff, and students from public colleges and universities in Massachusetts that work against the increasing privatization of higher education in the United States. The goal of the network is to expose and combat the increasing financial burden placed on middle and low-income families sending their children to college. Ferd Wulkan, one of the organizers for PHENOM, spoke with me about how the group was formed and the challenges of becoming a loud and powerful voice to create legislative support for equitable access to quality public higher education.

Q: How was PHENOM founded?

A: The group started about five years ago. It came about as a result of the constant de-funding of public higher education in Massachusetts. We felt this was especially important to address because one of the major results has been that the cost of higher education has shifted to students and families, making access to higher education more and more limited. Students take longer to graduate, or drop out more frequently, because of lack of aid or access to knowledge about how to obtain enough financial aid. We’re helping students and workers see that we’re all in the same boat – that higher costs and inadequate staffing have the same cause – disinvestment by the state. PHENOM is unique because it includes all the constituents for public higher education and we support each other as we advocate for change. The unions and student groups are active partners and the common goal is access, funding and affordability.

Q: What does it take to “be heard” by legislators in Massachusetts?

A: Our belief is that politicians will only listen when there is a large and loud constituency so we are trying to build that. We do most of our organizing on college campuses but are beginning to work with community organizations as well. There are 29 campuses, and we have active participation from all sectors: community colleges, state universities and the University of Massachusetts. We are also in support of the national Campaign for the Future of Higher Education. In other states, alliances are more tactical and short-lived. Here we see our future dependent on a long-term vision and broad grassroots organization. We welcome and cultivate support from campus administrations, but our network is focused mostly on generating grassroots activism, particularly among students.

Q: Are there any connections to public K-12 education in the area?

A: We’re connected to K-12 education in two ways, but not nearly as much as we’d like to be. We’re in an alliance with the Citizens for Public Schools who are concerned about privatization of public K-12 schools through charter schools and the voucher system.

We have also tried to do outreach to counselors (through the MA School Counselors Association) because they deal with issues of access and affordability of college all the time. One of the counselors from this group served on our board and we continue to seek their opinion and support in our work.

Q: Do you work with the college access field?

We put on a pretty big conference recently – Expanding Access to Higher Education — that brought together a lot of people from across the state. It involved a wide variety of groups, and included workshops on racism, TRIO programs, teen parents, non-traditional students. As a result of the conference we increased our work to pass legislation that would allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates at public campuses.

Q: I found out about your network through researching the Student Bridges program, does your network support the growth of college access outside of financial advocacy?

A: We support programs like Student Bridges in a big way, and they were active participants in our college access conference.. They really started out pressuring the UMass administration to do more outreach to low-income communities and communities of color. When they hit walls in the administration they decided to just take that on themselves and have done a great job.

Q: What do you see as the main barrier in advocating for these changes?

A: There’s such an assault on the public sector, and public sector workers in general. Corporations are looking for new areas to make profit and see services provided by the government as another place to take over. So, if they can starve the state for resources, then “there is no money”, public services are privatized, and market values replace human values. Overall there’s less and less money for public services and more areas to be sources of profit in the United States.

Q: In which areas do you focus on raising revenue, or finding funding for public education if this is an increasingly challenging priority to advocate for?

A: We have to raise revenue and we have to do it in a progressive way. We are actively involved in a bill to make the income tax more progressive, and to increase capital gains rates. We’re very committed to that. We’ve been talking a lot about student debt so, for example, we put in “finish line grant” legislation, which would make the last year of college free for students with financial need, so that there is an incentive for students to finish college. With the whole question of student debt…we haven’t started to launch a campaign, but we’d like to find a way for there to be more loan forgiveness. We need to do more outreach and research on that to start a larger movement.

Q: What are your specific advocacy projects for this year and how do you mobilize professors?

A: We really want to work on being a bigger voice. We have so many vital issues that we are tackling but don’t do any of them to the scale that’s needed. We hold rallies, many of them organized by students, and we have call in days on campuses to make it really easy for students and faculty to call their legislators.

This year, we helped some state legislators create a public higher education caucus. One of the ways we build support is by hosting events where we get legislators to campuses to see what’s going on, which helps us organize around what we want next year’s budget to look like. This kind of work is hard. I don’t want to make this seem easy, it’s not. But it can be a really empowering action for people to talk to their legislators.

We are also very excited about the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education. It’s not going to transform the situation overnight, but people around the country are thinking similarly, and we need to build this kind of movement. We always try to tie short term issues to a long term vision. For example, “Free Higher Education” might be our long term vision, but we’re going to take on the budget fight on the state level in order to increase the level of support for public education. We fight to keep the Public in Public Higher Education!

In addition to all the on-the-ground organizing and advocacy, we try and do something fun and dramatic to bring attention to the cause. Last fall we did a 100-mile walk across MA, ending with a really big rally. We’re not sure what it’s going to be this year, but we’ll let you know what we decide.

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