Unsponsored and Unfiltered Mutterings on Education, Politics, and Business from Someone Who Still Hasn't Learned to Keep His Big Mouth Shut
Tuesday, July 14, 2015
American #HigherEd and the Liberal / Conservative Squeeze
American Higher Ed circles have lately been abuzz with news about Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's actions in his state, which appear designed to trim academic programs and confront unions. With the recent announcement of Walker's candidacy in the 2016 election, his actions in Wisconsin will bring more scrutiny and dissent.
Of course, educators are right to study and question Scott Walker's motives... and, in fact, the motives of any and all politicians, very few of who have any knowledge about Higher Ed or education in general. However, Higher Ed is struggling with much larger and broader challenges than Mr. Walker. Reduced resources from the States and Federal funding agencies; legacy costs; rampant misunderstanding of tuition inflation, the "college for all" concept ...which seems designed take the "higher" out of "higher education." Just to name a few.
An unfortunate political circumstance that is currently afflicting higher ed is what might be called the liberal-conservative squeeze: opposed forces chewing into support for Higher Ed from opposite ends.
The fringe Republicans' vendetta against Higher Ed is well known, so I won't dwell on that here. I'll simply point out that the Democrat's wondrous-sounding, beautifully egalitarian, "college-for-all" speak has inflicted grave damage as well, because it tends to devalue the on-campus, 4-year experience in favor of MOOCs and other measures that aim to take tuition revenue away from schools.... revenue that actually pays teachers' salaries. It amazes me that Ed advocates on the left don't realize that as soon as they assert the possibility of replacing current instruction with lower cost methods e.g. MOOCs, the more cost-conscious conservatives will seize upon that as evidence that faculty really aren't worth what they are paid.
Moreover, the Democrats' concept of simply shifting tuition costs for students to the broader public (via the tax base) also sounds lovely, but it does absolutely nothing to address rising costs, and isn't politically viable in many states. That leaves the Democrats with no better option than to advocate for a large private-to-public shift at the Federal level, which is unlikely to succeed, given the political ineptitude and inefficiency of the Education Department.
In my opinion, there has been far too much emphasis in Higher Ed media on Mr. Walker; far too much focus on the unfolding political machinations in that one state. Walker is ultimately a bit player, an ephemeral political being. Wisconsin will eventually overcome him and emerge stronger because of it, perhaps even with some benefits from a few of his ideas. To put it another way: if an institution can truly be decimated by one short-term, partisan politician, then it's not much of an institution. Surely we are more resilient than this. I offer this wisdom from the University of Virginia, where we know a thing or two about deep political intrusions.
In summary, a far greater long-term challenge to Higher Ed across America than Mr. Walker is this phenomenon of the liberal-conservative squeeze. It has the candle of Higher Ed burning at both ends, and if we don't address it soon (pardon the hyperextended metaphor) the light will soon go out.