Governors for Ignorance
by Randall Auxier
I would have lost the bet, if I were a betting man. Under no circumstances would the state of Illinois elect a governor who would attempt the same assault on higher education that has been tried, with varying success, by the governors of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, and Michigan. After all, Illinois is not a swing state and it doesn’t fit the “profile.” But it had a bad run with Democrats (most recently, that is; there was a bad run of Republicans before that, of course). Even liberals get tired and don’t turn out to vote.
So this . . . what is it? . . . new boiler-plate for governors, having mainly to do with loyalty to the toxic sort of ideology promoted by the Koch brothers, some odd neo-libertarian grab-bag of stuff that comes from the southern end of a northbound horse, this is enough to make a sane man twitchy. We have the variations, in Walker and Corbett and Snyder and now Bruce Rauner, and they all want to be president. And their script is the same. Challenge all unions, all the time, bury them, and then get the public’s money out of higher education and into tax breaks for corporations and wealthy people.
The thin theory, as we all know, goes like this: rich people create jobs (never mind how crappy) and jobs (however crappy) are the be all and end all of everything. Government is the root of every problem and cannot be trusted to handle our money responsibly. The public sector is stuffed with lazy, wasteful, overpaid people who do nothing all day and who form unions to prevent smart, efficient people from making the needed reforms. Thus, the unions of public employees must be challenged and broken, for the good of everyone. So the theory goes, if it warrants so dignified a name.
In Michigan, Snyder has been able to get a law passed and upheld in the courts enabling him to take into state receivership any town or city that is declared to be mismanaged. The law enables the state to break the contracts with public employee unions and other unionized businesses that have been entered into by these municipalities that are thus taken over by the state. It appears that the Michiganders are willing to have this done in their state. Just barely.
In Wisconsin, Walker has carried out a highly publicized frontal assault on unions, and especially unions representing educators. He has won a few and lost a few, as the slugfest has perdured. You could say that Wisconsin provided the testing ground for whether this story about unions and government waste had any traction with Joe the plumber and Jill the floral designer, in a state in which Joe is tired of paying union wages and benefits to his employees and Jill has never made any such extravagant wage. Evidently, the story does find its audience in sufficient numbers to carry the plan forward among the cheeseheads. Just barely.
In Pennsylvania, Corbett decided to see if he could gut the state universities and return the money to his corporate buddies. An outrageous budget taking something approaching half of state funding from public universities passed, after a good deal of screaming and a little bit of softening. And that, along with other battles waged upon the idea of the public good, cost Corbett the governorship. But just barely. The lesson for these mavericky friends-of-all-things-Palinesque-and-Foxlike is that the plan must be carried out more carefully than Corbett managed to do.
Clearly there have been some other less successful efforts in the west (Arizona, New Mexico, Montana) and in a mixed martial arts battle royal, with everyone switching sides, in Florida as well. Now Illinois, of all places, is the new frontier. It has elected a governor who has never held public office, is a billionaire, and ran his campaign from his own pocket. The Democrats were just that bad, in this case, being unable to rouse themselves to enough industry to discredit a person who was clearly unfit to lead the state.
However, dark blue Illinois (or more properly, dark blue urban Chicago, with bright red collar counties and pinkish prairies) doesn’t just roll over and play dead. Yes, they handed Bruce Rauner the governorship, but included super-majorities of Democrats in both houses of the General Assembly, and a House Speaker who has been the actual Boss of Illinois for a generation. Rauner has nothing to lose, since he can’t win any battle that the Chicago Democrats don’t hand him. But they might hand him higher education, in exchange for, well, something they care about more.
Returning to Koch-logic, I think that nobody is going to defend the public universities and, as this “logic” asserts, they are full of socialists anyway. These folks see our universities in about the same way that the Left views the military. The Left: military = Republicans with guns they want to use, and lots of business interests to cheer them on. The Right: universities = anti-American, overpaid socialist elitists who don’t want to work and want guaranteed jobs with which to indoctrinate the young people. Darkly, however, the suspicion on the Left is that the Right sees education thus: “Since we don’t need college graduates for crappy jobs, we also don’t need strong colleges. Hence,” they seem to believe, “one place that government waste is at its worst is colleges and universities.”
But whether the neo-Libertarians really want a stupid work force (which I doubt), the bottom line is that the universities are genuinely vulnerable in this environment. No one is going to pay them more than lip-service when more immediate oxes are being more immediately gored in the immediate vicinity. And here is a chance to strike a long-term blow for “enterprise,” as they call it. Higher education is, to be honest –and this is me speaking, not the Kochs, inefficient, bloated, comfortable, and behaving like it is entitled to a soft ride on the back of any democracy that doesn’t want to be called stupid. But unfortunately, this characterization of higher education isn’t just what the Right thinks, it is also largely accurate. Nothing would make me happier than to be able to dispute this characterization. But I can’t. Three quarters of my colleagues have “entitlement” issues and fully a quarter, in my experience, are genuinely lazy. Many who aren’t lazy, precisely, still wouldn’t spend a half an hour helping a student that could be more profitably spent advancing their careers. There is wide disparity from one university to the next with regard to this problem of entitlement. The small, private liberal arts schools and the Roman Catholic schools do not tolerate such laziness or entitlement. They can’t afford it. They pay less and demand more. People who don’t want to work hard for the students don’t survive.
There is tremendous disparity among small public universities as to how hard the faculty works. There are both big and small universities, ones with good leadership, that have created a culture of service to the students. Illinois has some. For example, the faculty at Illinois State is, from the point of view of willingness to serve students and set aside personal interests, a university anyone could be proud of. I would say the same of SIU Edwardsville although twenty years ago I wouldn’t have said it. My estimation is subjective, but it comes from an insider to the culture of faculty in higher education. I have visited many campuses and I know faculty in many disciplines in all of these places. But even looking at our best universities, from the standpoint of service to students, Illinois isn’t doing well.
And, I am sorry to say that the relative selflessness of faculty that prevails at ISU and SIUE, actually it should be called professionalism and work ethic, is not the prevailing culture at Northern, or Chicago State, or, sadly, SIUC. There are narratives of corruption, poor leadership, and conflict at the schools that help anyone understand how things have come to be as they are. There are wonderfully dedicated people at all of these places who really have fought for the students. But in the end, students have become, to some extent, greater instead of lesser, the cash cows that fund an inefficient state agency of the sort that the neo-Libertarians are describing.
But then there is the phenomenon of the “University too Big to Fail,” and this is what makes Illinois interesting. Corbett did go after Penn State’s main campus. It is still one of the most corrupt state agencies in Pennsylvania, but let’s just say that Corbett got some help from Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky as he set his sites. The same week that SIUC’s faculty went out on strike, in 2011, the news cycles were dominated by the expose of just how irresponsible and corrupt Penn State had become. In the end, everyone was bloodied and no one was bowed, but the loser was the public willingness to think of higher education as something noble, worthwhile, and deserving of public monies.
I regret to say that Penn State is merely the Richard Nixon of big state universities. That is, it got caught. A goodly number of state colleges and universities could not pass a Sandusky test, and certainly SIUC could not –now or in the last 20 years. And this brings us to the University of Illinois. Too big to fail. And Rauner has set his sites on it, and he knows that he cannot lose altogether. We already know the place is corrupt, from the recent scandals of Trustees and admissions and retracted faculty offers and furloughs rescinded and general disarray. I do not think the current governor will survive this fight with UIUC –had he left that school alone, the legislature might have relegated the remaining (hapless) schools to the dustbin.
Now Rauner and Madigan are locked in a death struggle over the budget in Illinois. The deadlines are past, no one is yielding an inch, state services are beginning to close down, and one wonders whether this might, symbolically, be the Koch Brothers testing to see whether they can buy a blue state. While the Brownback administration in Kansas tries to clean up the godawful mess made by these theories out there in the great spaces, is there any way to get around the truth that all politics is local and the Kochs can afford local politics? They can even afford state politics. And they sure don’t care about higher education.