Sunday, June 30, 2019

Cold Front

The news from Alaska, about a possible 41 percent cut in state support to the University of Alaska, came as a shock.  The president of the university declared six-week furloughs, and may declare a state of “financial exigency,” which is the academic-budgeting equivalent of martial law.  Suddenly, tenure is abrogated, programs are cuttable, and everything is on the table. No pun intended, but the entire picture is chilling.

Alaska is an outlier in some obvious ways, of course.  Other than Anchorage, which is about the size of Cincinnati, it doesn’t have a single city or town with even 40,000 people.  Its economy is dominated by Federal government and petroleum jobs, with a heavy focus on extraction. There isn’t a single teacher certification program in the entire state.  It redistributes profits from oil and is enormously dependent on Federal spending, but it thinks of itself as libertarian. And large swaths of the state are only barely developed, some accessible only by plane.  Physically, it’s about 76 times the size of New Jersey, although New Jersey has over 12 times more people.  

But it may also be a bellwether.  Although it has the least claim of any state to being overtaxed, lacking both a sales tax and a property tax and actually mailing checks to everybody every year, the governor is making the political calculation that reducing the annual handout would be worse than funding the university.  If higher ed can’t win in that setting, it’s in sad shape. A government that can afford to mail four-figure checks to every resident every year has no business claiming austerity, but it is.

I see the core issue here as generational.  The current voters of Alaska, assuming the governor’s political math is correct, are effectively saying that they don’t mind cutting off one of the few links Alaska’s young people have to the larger world.  Given Alaska’s geographic isolation, that’s unconscionable.  

I’m guessing that the governor’s political math goes something like this: everybody receives checks, but not everybody goes to college.  Therefore, better to cut the university than to reduce the size of the checks or, heaven forbid, develop a sales or income tax.

In higher ed, we know the obvious responses to that.  Even people who don’t go to college benefit from an educated population.  An educated population is more productive, and more ready to shift to other industries as the extractive industries slowly decline.  The more your local population loses touch with advances from the outside world, the farther behind it will fall, economically. Norway understands that; it uses oil money to sustain education, knowing that oil money is basically temporary.  Alaska apparently hasn’t figured that out.

Most of us live in states or provinces that don’t send us checks every year just for being there. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from the example.

At a really basic level, faculty who believe that tenure will forever insulate them should take notice.  When a college or university goes into “exigency” mode, tenure won’t save you. In the popular mind, the argument for tenure is far from a slam-dunk, especially when it’s opposed to tax cuts or refunds.  After decades of framing education as a private good, it’s a real leap of faith to count on folks who haven’t been paying attention to suddenly “get it.” Why would they? If we, as an industry, haven’t made the case that we offer a public good, we shouldn’t be surprised when the public responds accordingly.

In higher ed, we like to talk about “shared governance,” but we almost never think through what it means.  We take it to mean “shared among academics,” not “shared with the public.” But the public has opinions, and the power of the purse.  Democracy is a form of shared governance, writ large. To the extent that we hide from the public, we’re vulnerable.

I don’t know the internal politics of Alaska well enough to know whether this particular veto will stick, or whether they’ll land on some sort of still-awful-but-slightly-less-bad compromise.  But even if a miracle happens, the fact that something like this is even on the table should jolt us out of complacency. People may have tenure, but institutions don’t. We need to make the case to the public for higher education as a public good while we still have the option.  If we don’t, folks with other agendas will be more than happy to fill the vacuum.