Dr. Michael Forster

Trumpism compels social workers to choose

The best piece out there on social workers reacting to the collective trauma of Trump is probably “Social Work at the Crossroads,” appearing in Huffington Post – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/social-work-at-the-crossroads-how-to-resist-the-politics_us_583f22ade4b0cf3f6455863a/

Authors Hayes, Karpman, and Miller make it crystal clear – both in action and attitude, President Trump and the collection of xenophobes, white supremacists, militarists, misogynists, and heterosexists he has surrounding him are anathema to everything Social Work holds dear.

There are supposed to be over 650,000 Social Work degree holders active in the USA today. Every one of them stands at the “crossroads” and has a choice to make – oppose Trumpism, in word and action, or betray the values and ethics at the heart of the profession.

Dr. Michael Forster

Social Work Colloquium welcome remarks

Welcome.  At 24 years old, the School of Social Work Annual Fall Colloquium is not only the longest running event in the College of Health, but quite possibly the oldest in the university. I’m delighted that here we are again, and even more delighted that you are here in attendance today.

Now, this particular colloquium occurs just three days after a truly historic presidential election, prompting the question on tens of millions of lips across America – What the hell happened?  Only four words, but they pose a deep question, one which, as you know, political analysts of varying perspectives are hard at trying to answer. In the few minutes I have, let me share what I think are three key “take-aways” from the Trump upset:

  1. First, populist anti-“Establishment” rage is real. The ranks of people facing declining economic fortunes – notably low-wage working people and the so-called middle class – has been steadily expanding for decades, with no end in sight.  They don’t like it; they’re afraid, and they’re angry.  They want to hold somebody responsible, and they want something done to reverse their slide and the diminishing prospects for their kids.  Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side was tapping into the same populist anger quite successfully until his campaign was derailed by Clinton, leaving Trump’s right-wing version – xenophobic, misogynistic, Islamophobic, etc. – to romp freely.  Populist rage is real.
  2. Second, political party leadership is out of touch with the electorate they claim to represent. Trump took on the Republican leadership and turned it inside out, upside down.  On the Democratic side, Clinton, with a huge amount of baggage, appeared as the very picture of the elite Establishment, the old guard, inside-the-beltway-business-as-usual.  In broad terms, her defeat (true enough, only in the electoral college, and not in the popular vote) spells the death of a shaky coalition of Wall Street money and so-called “identity politics” – blacks, women, Latinos, post-industrial working class, younger college-educated urbanites and hipsters – who every four years join in fear of a common enemy.  The problem is that that coalition has no organizational base, is therefore unsustainable, and has been close to death for some time now.  Yet Clinton and the Democratic party leadership missed it.  So, one, populist rage is real; and, two, political elites are severely out of touch.
  3. Third, governmental institutions are themselves at their lowest level of legitimacy ever.  Six years of Congressional gridlock, Obama’s kowtowing to Wall Street and failure to deliver on key “change” promises, seemingly endless wars that drain the treasury and wreck lives, and an anemic economic recovery haven’t helped.  Neither has a broad-based perception of widespread government corruption, that “the whole system is rigged” in favor of the fat cats, the bankers and corporate heads who don’t give a damn about workers, and the political insiders.  Let’s remember that a large majority of Americans found both Trump and Clinton as distasteful, didn’t want either one to become president.  But in a general context of revulsion against government, and growing cynicism toward pretty much all voices of authority, the rude/crude tough-talking “outsider,” beholden to no one for money and promising to shake up Washington from top to bottom, comes out the winner.  So, again: populist rage is real; political elites are out of touch; and trust in government and most authoritative institutions is in the toilet.

Well, I’ve used far more time than I should have.  In conclusion, we’re in a bad spot (and not just because we missed a chance to elect the first woman president); we have much to fix; there’s a lot of work to do.  Today’s colloquium topic – racism, and what to do about it – is surely an appropriate place to begin that work.  Again, welcome; enjoy the day.

Dr. Michael Forster

Medical association – “We have a public health crisis here”

Last week, the Mississippi State Medical Association adopted a resolution supporting Medicaid expansion – even though the words themselves, “Medicaid expansion,” were considered too politically incendiary to appear in the document.  That tells you a lot about our condition, both healthwise and politically.

MSMA president Dr. Lee Voulters pithily summed up the health condition – “We have a public health crisis here.”  Along with being the poorest state in the nation, Mississippi ranks as the most unhealthy.  Governor Bryant was even more pithy in his response to the MSMA resolution to expand Medicaid coverage – “No.”

And there’s the rub.  The public officials who need to act to improve health care access won’t.  Indeed, they want to move the state in the opposite direction, toward a progressively smaller government footprint, in line with the “starve the beast” ideology popular on the political right wing.  They are deeply, deeply committed to the notion that government should do less for citizens, not more.  And expanding health care, especially for those least able to pay, would definitely mean doing more.

It’s obvious to the doctors’ association that any form of expanded health care coverage would be a good thing for Mississippi, and saying so was the right thing to do.  But hey, they’re only doctors.  What do they know about public health compared to the governor and the other enlightened leaders of state government?




Dr. Michael Forster

Oh, no! Dobbs to leave post as state epidemiologist

Today’s Clarion-Ledger carries a notice that Dr. Thomas Dobbs is resigning as the state’s epidemiologist.  This is very bad news for Mississippi.

I’m  a huge fan of Dobbs.  Dr. Mary Currier brought him into the critical post of helping defend the state against disease epidemics shortly after she assumed the helm as our state health officer several years ago.  Dr. Dobbs, who formerly served as the health officer for two state health districts, VII and VIII (taking in most of southern Mississippi), is a great friend of Southern Miss and the College of Health.  He’s been an adjunct instructor for our Department of Public Health, and a long-serving member of my advisory Dean’s Council.  Everyone who knows him says you won’t find a more decent and caring individual.

I’ve had no personal correspondence with Dobbs, and the brief news note offers no details, but I feel certain his resignation is tied to the serious budget cuts laid on the state Department of Health.  His entire tenure in the position has been punctuated by cut-cut-cut; now already inadequate resources are shrinking further, with new service reductions and staff layoffs in the offing.  I don’t want to project too much onto Dr. Dobbs, but it’s all too easy to imagine him concluding that enough is enough, it’s time to stop the madness of pretending that all the plates can be kept spinning through ever-greater “efficiency.”

Let’s hope that the doctor’s resignation helps our sometimes myopic guardians of the public purse to see reality more clearly, and move rapidly to reduce the growing risk to the health and welfare of Mississippians.

Dr. Michael Forster

Breaking ground for a new CoH/CoB building at Gulf Park

I was among those university officials, faculty, staff, and friends who participated in the groundbreaking ceremony for a new College of Health/College of Business building on the Gulf Park campus, on a bright and sunny May 23rd morning. Following are my podium remarks (minus a smidgen of ad libbing):

Good morning.  I have two thoughts that I‘d like to share with you about this wonderful new building project.

The first has to do with the connection – and important connection – of learning and place.  The great, archetypal Renaissance learner Leonardo da Vinci wrote in his Notebooks (J.P. Richter 1988 translation) that…“Study without desire spoils the memory, and it retains nothing that it takes in.”

My own recollections of the desire for learning, and the retention of learning, from my earliest schooling through multiple university experiences, are deeply and inextricably bound up with memories of specific places, and very often of specific buildings, learning spaces that I experienced as my own, sturdy supportive structures that buoyed me up, helped carry me along during rough times, and fed the flame of desire for continued learning.  In this digital age of “distributed, asynchronous learning,” we have become fond of saying that one can learn just about anything, anywhere, and anytime.  And certainly there is a wonderful, liberating truth to this notion.  But it is at least equally true that physical space, campuses and buildings that are welcoming and properly designed to purpose, powerfully influences learning and the motivation for learning, enhancing the academic experience in ways that are both general and specific, subtle and profound.  For many, if not most students, they are a key to academic success.  The structure that we break ground on today will be a marvelous enhancement of our supportive learning environment – for our students first and foremost, but for all of us – faculty, staff, and administrators – as well.

My second thought, a related one, is about the vital importance of continuity and commitment to mission through time and across generations.

We read this in Joshua 24:13, “I have given you a land for which you did not labor, cities to dwell in which you did not build, and vineyards and olive yards to eat from that you did not plant.”  Faculty, staff, and administrators in the College of Health do what we do, can only do what we do, because of those who have come before us, who built the buildings and planted the vineyards that sustain us today.

It is wonderful thing, then, that we have this opportunity, the groundbreaking for this new building, to forge another link in the chain of sustenance across time, to reaffirm our commitment to shelter and nourish not only the current generation of learners and knowledge creators, citizens and culture-bearers, but the next generation, and the generation after that.

At our recent commencement here on the coast, just over a week ago, President Bennett extended an impromptu offer, at once simple and extraordinary, to members of the audience.  (Pres. Bennett, you will forgive the free paraphrase, I hope.)  He said something like this – “As I shook hands with each of our new graduates just now, it occurred to me that there may be many of you here today who have wanted to pursue a college degree, but for one or another reason either did not start, or started and got interrupted, and have never been able to complete, and now it seems that either too much time has passed, or it will take too much time to finish.  Well, I’m telling you today (said Dr. Bennett) that Southern Miss is here for you, to affirm your dreams and to encourage and support you in pursuit of those dreams.  Yes, it can take time, but we are here for you, not just today, but tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow, and the day after that.  Southern Miss has been in the business of education for 106 years, and we’re not going away.”

That sentiment really gets to the heart of what we’re about today, I think, in breaking this ground.  The College of Health advances, indeed, and not only with our colleagues and neighbors in College of Business (whom we love dearly, or course!), but with the whole of Southern Miss, all of us together advancing our mission of service to the people and communities of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, with a purpose and commitment as solid, strong, and enduring as any brick and mortar – today, tomorrow, and every day after.

Thank you.