Wearing glasses and an earnest look, David Davies holds a piece of paper on which he’s typed three short sentences. The first: “I am a college professor increasingly frustrated by the incredible debt I see my students taking on.”
The Hamline University professor posted the photo on his Facebook page last week. A few friends passed it on. Ten shares, then 20. Then, suddenly, thousands.
The photo, inspired by and styled like those on the “We Are The 99 Percent” feed, has gone viral.
“It was kind of scary, actually,” Davies said by phone. “The first thing I remember thinking is: Is there anything in the photo someone’s going to misread? I do a lot of work in China. Is there a communist flag on my wall, a picture of Chairman Mao in the background? Then, the theme would be, just another commie professor.”
(Turns out the only symbol visible was a Statue of Liberty magnet. Phew.)
Most people have taken Davies’ post in the manner he intended it, he said. As director of Hamline's East Asian Studies program, Davies speaks with his students about the loans developing countries took our in the 1960s. How those loans provided the countries opportunities to build infrastructure, yet limited their options. Student loan debt offered a relatable comparison.
“Let’s think for a minute about what massive debt does to channel your educational choices — your major, maybe, and most importantly, what you do when you’re done,” Davies said.
His Facebook post included a factoid he had found in this newspaper: “According to the University of Minnesota, in 1968 a student working 6.2 hours a week at minimum wage would have earned enough to pay annual tuition and fees of $385.
“That was back when education was considered a public good and not a private investment,” he continued, “back when education was for the 99%.”
Many people responded to the post with a simple “thank you.” It also prompted a discussion in the comments section about what has caused the rise in tuition and what can be done.
“Very easy to say,” one man posted, “but will he take a tremendous pay cut in order to get tuition back to where it once was?? I don’t think so.”
“@Jimmy,” Davies responded. “Sorry to correct you, but tuition is not high because of my salary. The explanation for the increase in tuition costs is much more complicated than a simple photo can convey. Keep searching.”
Davies argues that these days, to get a job, a bachelor’s degree is as compulsory as a high school diploma. “We subsidize high schools through public tax money,” he said. “If we’re going to require a college diploma, it would logically follow that we ought to subsidize higher education, too.”
The conversations, especially with his students at Hamline, have inspired Davies, he said. The spread of the photo has also provided a useful example for a class he’s developing on digital culture. He’s plotting the quick propagation of the photo on a graph.
Davies is still surprised by the response, but understands it a bit better after some thought.
“How would I feel if my doctor wrote the same thing about my health care prices?” he said. “I’d share that, man. Wow. If my doctor took that picture, I would be sharing that with all my friends.”