All posts by Dr. Michael Forster

Dr. Michael Forster

And we’re off….

Wow, who stole summer?  That is, what became of the abundant “free time” imagined available for making tremendous headway on all those projects there just wasn’t time for in the regular term?  It somehow evaporated in the sizzling Mississippi heat, it seems….

Now the first semester of the new academic year is off and running, coming out of the blocks at breakneck speed.  Classes kicked in Wednesday, and suddenly it seems that every classroom seat and every parking slot is filled (a very good thing for an institution evermore dependent on tuition revenue!).  Grabbing a “quick” coffee at Starbucks is a rapidly receding summertime memory.

2014-2015 promises to be a huge year for CoH.  I look forward to substantial enrollment growth (including at the newly invigorated Gulf Park campus), completion of key leadership and other faculty searches, important new research and service initiatives, and detailed planning for the renovation of Joseph Greene Hall to accommodate many (though far from all) CoH programs after our colleagues in College of Business depart for their brand spanking new digs in Scianna Hall.

Stay tuned.

Dr. Michael Forster

Gov. Bryant is right – More education means more jobs

Today’s Clarion-Ledger carries the distressing story that Mississippi’s jobless rate – an official 7.9% in June, according to the U.S. Dept. of Labor - is the worst in the nation.  The Magnolia State stands atop a “bad” list once again (sigh).

Asked to comment, Gov. Bryant explained that Mississippi’s economy is improving, just not as fast as the rest of the country (or as fast as he would like).  Going to the cause of the state’s sluggish progress, the governor got it exactly right – education, or lack thereof, is the key factor hampering improvement.  Mississippi suffers from too many dropouts and too much misdirected education.  “We haven’t done as good a job as we should training workers for the future,” said Bryant.

While I prefer “education” over “training,” I think the governor is dead on in his assessment.  Mississippi will forever bring up the national rear in employment – and likely every other indicator of well-being – until it does a significantly better job educating its citizens.   Preparing workers of the future requires excellent education across the educational spectrum – pre-K – 12, community college, baccalaureate and graduate education included.

Lacking universal pre-K, Mississippi can’t at present even boast of a comprehensive system.   Too many K-12 systems, further, are on life support (another news item informs that the state may soon take over malfunctioning Greenwood schools), and do a poor job preparing students for advanced education and training.  Community colleges and four-year universities continue to struggle with declining state support and rising tuitions that price low-income students out of the educational market.

To get ahead, Mississippi will need to invest seriously in education – most notably in securing and retaining excellent faculty, and in maintaining state-of-the-art facilities for teaching and research.  It’s not all about money per se; to be sure there are opportunities to streamline and to improve integration across the system spectrum.   But we’re deluding ourselves if we think we can boost the employment prospects of most Mississippians without a major leap in the level of our financial commitment to education.

 

Dr. Michael Forster

Bad economy = bad mental, public health

Research conducted by sociologists and health economists at the University of Oxford in England confirms in concrete numbers what most of us feel at a gut level – hard economic times are bad for mental health.  Unemployment, falling home values, and high levels of debt experienced on a mass scale contributed heavily to driving up rates of psychological depression and “economic suicide” dramatically, especially in countries with limited support resources for those suffering the most.

Study findings indicate that that at least 10,000 more Americans and Europeans killed themselves between 2007 and 2010 – during the worst of the financial crisis and subsequent recession - than in the few years prior.  But Western countries did not evenly suffer rates of mental distress and suicide.  Sweden and Austria, keeping their relatively strong social welfare supports intact, maintained flat suicide rates during the worst of the recession, while countries taking the austerity path of cutting or sharply restraining social welfare benefits – such as England and the U.S. – experienced significant suicide spikes.

Economic debates over the best approach to recessions aside, the public health case for a compassionate response to economic downturns seems clear.  Social welfare supports save lives.

Dr. Michael Forster

Healthy school lunches for healthy kids

[Lynn Pye - this one is just for you! :-)]

Nobody – but nobody – is going to argue that America’s kids shouldn’t be following healthy diets, especially in school.  Yet, a bill moving along in the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives would let school districts off the hook for upgrading to healthier lunches (i.e. fewer calories in sugar, salt and fat, more in fruits and veggies) if they’re losing money in the shift.

The bill’s proponents argue that cash-strapped schools need “flexibility” in the type of lunches they provide, and hence would waive the healthy lunch mandate.  Leave aside the hypocrisy of lawmakers who would impose austerity budgets on public programs while shedding crocodile tears over the fiscal challenge of providing good food to poor kids.  As Mark Bittman writing in the New York Times put it, the certain result of this bill becoming law will be more junk food – supplied by a rapaciously profit-seeking junk food industry – “flexibly” offered to our nation’s children.

Mandated nutrition standards are the best thing that have happened to childhood nutrition in a long while.  We cannot afford to backslide.  President Obama should clearly signal that any bill dampening progress in childhood nutrition reaching his desk is dead-on-arrival.

 

Dr. Michael Forster

Social Work graduates are prepared to lead positive change

The School of Social Work held pre-commencement pinning and hooding ceremonies last week at the Trent Lott Center.  Following is part of my address to the graduates:

Do we – does the state of Miss, does the U.S. of A., does the world – need social workers today?  You bet!  In fact, the need for social workers fired by the mission to change the world for the better, and armed with the tools to do it, has never been greater.  The challenges facing us are – without exaggeration – enormous.  Poverty rates are soaring, unemployment remains far, far too high, homelessness and hunger are widespread.  The wealth inequality gap in the U.S. is greater today than any time since the 1890s.  In Mississippi, fully 1/3 of our children – disproportionately children of color – live in poverty.  Hundreds of thousands of our citizens go without accessible and affordable health care, with strong political resistance to taking advantage of opportunities to extend it to the poor and the near-poor.  “Safety net” services have been cut, cut, and cut again, as the result of a long-running public budget crisis.  Individuals, families, and communities are stressed as available support and resources diminish.  And politicians pushing for “austerity” measures would further shred our already tattered social safety net.

That’s the bad news.  But fortunately there is good news too .  The good news is that across the country (and the world), we see progressive movement and reaction, even resistance, to much of the bad stuff happening.  We see challenges to cuts that hurt the poor and disadvantaged.  We hear new criticisms of “corporate welfare,” and calls for Wall Street bank accountability.  We see demonstrations against destruction of the environment, new and well organized efforts to raise the minimum wage, to extend unemployment benefits, to increase health care access.  We even see very innovative and creative efforts to “reinvent” community and political economy – to form housing cooperatives, for example, and self-reliant economic arrangements of various sorts, to establish democratically run worker-owned businesses, to repossess public land for common purposes, to produce food and energy on a localized basis so that communities can “go green” on their own.

This is all good, and social workers need to be involved, deeply involved.  Social work needs to be part of progressive movements to democratize, to share wealth, to re-include and empower the excluded, to save the planet from ecological degradation. Indeed, why shouldn’t social workers go beyond just being involved, to take the lead in movements to build a more fair, just, and sustainable world?  It is our heritage and our responsibility to do so, is it not?

Graduates, this is your charge, to stand up and stand out, to lead in making progressive change. It is a heavy charge, but I have no doubt you are up to the task.  Why, otherwise, would you have chosen this profession to start with?  And why, just as importantly, would the profession have chosen you? Yes, I say chosen you – because social work is not so much a job as it is a vocation, and that is how it is with vocations – they choose you as much you choose them; they issue the call, and you decide only to answer or not.  Clearly, social work – the greatest profession – has called you, and you have chosen to answer; you would not, otherwise, be here tonight, prepared to “commence” to the next phase of your professional life.