Monday, March 14, 2011

Reno 911

With Wisconsin and Ohio getting most of the national attention lately, I’ve been struck at the amazing goings-on in other states that seem to be flying below the radar.

On March 3, IHE reported that the University of Nevada at Reno was considering eliminating programs (and firing faculty, including those with tenure) in German Studies, French, Italian, interior design, and the entire College of Agriculture. Eight days later, IHE reported that Nevada was looking at closing four of its eight public colleges -- Nevada State College, the Desert Research Institute, Western Nevada College, and Great Basin College -- entirely.

Both reports were in the “quick takes” section, and neither elicited much response. I couldn’t help but notice the contrast with the national outrage at smaller cuts at SUNY-Albany.

Late last week, it came to light that the newly elected governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, has proposed dealing with budget shortfalls by unilaterally appointing “emergency managers” for cities or towns in financial trouble. These “emergency managers” would have the legal ability to fire elected officials (!), nullify labor contracts, and even dissolve the governments of entire cities without so much as a public meeting. (In case that’s still too subtle, the state Senate rejected an amendment that would have capped compensation for emergency managers.) As I read it -- and I invite readers from Michigan to shed light here -- the emergency managers target municipalities, as opposed to public colleges, but it doesn’t take much imagination to see a precedent developing. To the extent that Gov. Snyder has offered anything resembling an argument, it has been that desperate times call for desperate measures. Though one would imagine that if they were that desperate, they wouldn’t leave the salaries uncapped.

Higher ed in Michigan has already taken some lumps, but I can’t imagine that a governor who is willing to have elected officials fired -- seriously, is that even legal? And aren’t conservatives supposed to be fans of making decisions at the lowest levels of government? -- would stop short at the prospect of a ticked-off Board of Trustees. If Ann Arbor gets hit, Washtenaw Community College is unlikely to remain unscathed.

Meanwhile, Texas has discussed closing four community colleges, and Gov. Brewer of Arizona proposed cutting public higher ed by fifty percent in a single year.

Even the relatively “blue” Northeast isn’t immune to the fetish of privatization. SUNY’s issues are well-known, but aren’t the worst in the region. Chris Christie, in New Jersey, has taken to hunting the NJEA for sport. Like Gov. Walker in Wisconsin, he’s after more than just cost-sharing on health benefits; he’s gunning for absolute control, using cost-cutting as an excuse. (In New Jersey’s case, we know it’s a pretext because he actually eliminated an existing tax on millionaires. If one is truly desperate for money, one does not voluntarily forego revenues.)

It’s tempting to write any one of these off as the quirks of a given state. Michigan has been circling the economic drain for so long that a certain vertigo is to be expected. Nevada has never been known for higher ed, outside of the UNLV basketball team. Arizona is so distracted by chasing down brown people to check their papers that it can’t devote time to much else.

But when one comes after the other so quickly that the national press actually loses track, it’s hard to plead ‘fluke.’

Part of me still hopes that much of this is the result of a pendulum swing, and that it will swing back quickly when the economy starts breathing again. But I don’t recall the pendulum ever swinging this hard before. There have been recessions before, and there have been Republican governors before, but the level and seriousness of the assault on all things public is new. A party that was once known for ‘conservatism’ -- that is, the thoughtful preservation of the best traditions, combined with a skepticism towards utopian reformists -- has become far more ideologically absolutist than its opponents. To apply the label ‘conservative’ to someone who wants to upend laws and institutions all at once, just because, is to do violence to language. Conservatives conserve; it’s what they do. These people destroy, in the expectation that the new thing that emerges will somehow justify the destruction. They would almost have an argument, if they ever bothered to specify what the new thing would be.

Yes, we -- defined here as “people who care about public higher education” -- need to fight this trend politically like we never have before. But ultimately, you don’t win on defense. My guess is that the best outcome we can hope for, outside of an economic miracle, is to buy enough time for a new, more sustainable model to emerge. The Tea Party’s fortunes may wax and wane, but the underlying tensions that allowed it to thrive will remain. If we allow the evisceration of the current model before building a new one, an entire generation of students will be lost. It’s time to envision and build new models from the ground up. That, or we can keep responding to 911 calls until there’s just nothing left.