The Republican Destruction of Public Universities

In previous CounterPunch essays, I described how Republican governors and state legislatures (with some Democrats in tow), heeding Reagan’s long-discredited “low tax, low spend” prescription for economic growth, have reduced education funding to the point where state universities have had little alternative but to raise tuition and turn to corporations for alternative sources of budgetary support.

The results have been uneven, to say the least.  A bogus MBA degree was awarded by West Virginia University to a corporate fat cat (a member of a WV Democratic political dynasty in a state where Democrats are indistinguishable from Republicans); the University of Cincinnati named its business school after a big donor known to be the financial supporter of a State Department designated “terrorist organization” (because it operated death squads in Latin America), and universities are driven increasingly to appoint as “leaders” those without experience of running a university but possessing the requisite political and business connections.

Meanwhile the budgetary cuts continue.

Two weeks ago, the Republican governor of Missouri, Eric Greitens, slashed $82 million in spending on higher education from the state’s current budget in an attempt to keep it balanced for the fiscal year.

Missouri’s budget problems have been exacerbated by revenue shortfalls stemming from two obsessions dear to ideologues in its Republican-dominated legislature, namely, reductions in corporate and personal income tax.

The Republican governor of Kansas, Sam Brownback, and its Republican legislature reduced taxes for corporations and the rich in 2012 and 2013.  The predictable budgetary shortfalls ensued, and a $44 million cut had to be made in higher-education spending in 2013.  Cuts were also made to Medicaid, social services, and funds for public schools.  Brownback, a former US senator, is a stooge of the Koch brothers, who donate handsomely to his election campaigns.

Another state suffering severe budget cuts at the hands of a Republican legislature and governor is the “bathroom bill” state of North Carolina.  Since 2008, NC has cut higher education spending per-student by 25%, according to the Center on Budget and Public Priorities. Tuition was raised by nearly 35% over the same period.

In 2010, Republicans, massively funded by Art Pope, NC’s equivalent of the Koch brothers, took control of the state assembly for the first since 1870.  Immediate cuts to NC higher education by the Republicans were accompanied by massive political interference in the state’s flagship university, UNC Chapel Hill.

The UNC Board of Governors, now stuffed with donors to grateful Republican politicians who then appointed them to the UNC Board, closed UNC’s Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity, and two other university centers dedicated to civic engagement and to biodiversity.

Also targeted by the newly-emboldened NC Republicans was UNC President Tom Ross, a capable administrator with Democratic sympathies respected by students and faculty alike, who was asked to submit his resignation by the Board of Governors for unexplained reasons.

Ross’s replacement, after a completely untransparent search process, was the least academically-qualified President in the history of the UNC system, with only a BA from the University of Houston to her name, Dubya Bush’s former education secretary, Margaret Spellings.   The chair of the UNC Board of Governors appointing Spellings (having first sacked Ross for what were obvious politically-motivated reasons), John Fennebresque, resigned the day after her appointment.  He’d delivered the tainted goods, and was no longer needed.

As equally unqualified as Dubya for any kind of high office, and the architect of Dubya’s disastrous No Child Left Behind misadventure, which should have disqualified anyone from future employment in the education sector, Spellings, a long-time opponent of gay rights, began her term by insisting, predictably, that NC’s 17-university system comply with the state’s absurd “bathroom law”.

Spellings quickly reversed this decision when the Department of Justice deemed it a violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, thereby necessitating UNC’s likely forfeiture of federal funding.

Money clearly talked for an unabashed proponent of corporate education such as Spellings!

Just as unqualified as Spellings for the responsibility of running a major university is the current president of the University of Iowa, Bruce Harreld.

As happened at UNC, Iowa’s sitting president, Sally Mason, had to be unseated.  The Iowa Board of Regents chose not to renew previous Mason’s contract two years before the appointment of Harreld.  The Regent’s gave her one option–  continuing to work “at will” on a day-to-day basis.

Now effectively a pawn of the Regents, Mason implemented their request for significant cuts to UI’s budget.

Harreld, a former IBM and Boston Market executive, could now be inserted into UI’s presidency, despite having no university administrative background. His only experience of university employment was serving as an adjunct senior lecturer at Harvard Business School.

On his résumé Harreld listed his current position as the managing principal for the Colorado-based Executing Strategy, LLC, a non-existent business.  He also omitted the co-authors of his publications in his résumé, attributing them solely to Harreld himself.

In addition to faking a key part of his CV, Harreld’s public forum at UI did not go well (he admitted Wikipedia was his only source of information regarding the university), but somehow was given the job ahead of the manifestly more qualified Oberlin President Marvin Krislov, Tulane University Provost Michael Bernstein, and Ohio State University Provost Joseph Steinmetz.

So how was this unqualified candidate parachuted into the presidency of the University of Iowa?

The Board of Regent’s president Bruce Rastetter, an agribusiness baron with interests in ethanol and pig farming, and the biggest Republican donor in Iowa, put Harreld in touch with the Republican governor Terry Branstad (whose biggest campaign donor had been the afore-mentioned Rastetter).

This led to a phone conversation between Harreld and the governor– the latter, and by this stage Harreld himself, both stooges of the agribusiness president of the University Board of Regents.

Harreld was the only UI presidential candidate given the privilege of speaking with the governor.  He was also the only candidate invited to meet with the search-leaders ahead of the official process.

Shortly after the four presidential finalists were announced, the Regents, without consulting faculty, staff, and students, dissolved the campus-based search committee and outsourced the presidential search to a private firm, Parker Executive Search.

A couple of days after his vastly unimpressive open forum at UI, the Regents unanimously made Bruce Harreld its 21stpresident.

The fat cats on UI’s Board of Regents wanted to impose a corporate model on the university, and believed Harreld to be a president who could deliver a “transformational turnaround”, in the words of their management gobbledygook.

The imposter Harreld took office in November 2015, and the “transformational turnaround” is still being awaited.

Two weeks ago it was announced that Iowa’s governor was reducing its higher education budget by $25.6 million, with complete acquiescence from the imposter university president.

With Trump’s election, and Republican domination of state assemblies and governorships, things will only get worse.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.