The University Mission Under Siege - Pacific Standard

The University Mission Under Siege

The GOP takes aim at state schools and social-justice advocacy.
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The Van Hecke-Wettach Building at the UNC School of Law. (Photo: Donn Young/UNC)

The Van Hecke-Wettach Building at the UNC School of Law. (Photo: Donn Young/UNC)

Keep an eye on Republican governors in states known for their elite public universities, and observe as bedrock ideals get picked apart in subcommittees. When a state starts re-writing its educational manifesto to sound like a corporate memo, pay attention. And turn a questioning eye when a state starts closing its university's advocacy centers. Ask whether the state is saving money by closing those advocacy centers.

If the answer is “no,” something especially sinister is going down.

As Valerie Strauss reports in the Washington Post, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker recently proposed a budget that fundamentally re-framed the function of the university:

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker submitted a budget proposal that included language that would have changed the century-old mission of the University of Wisconsin system — known as the Wisconsin Idea and embedded in the state code — by removing words that commanded the university to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition” and replacing them with “meet the state’s workforce needs.”

Governor Walker's staff later attributed this seeming philosophical departure to a “drafting error”—one that somehow appeared in the first six drafts of the budget. Walker claims to have requested merely a greater emphasis on “workforce needs” and says he never wanted the other language cut; the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, however, has found items in the budget proposal and internal memos from the Wisconsin executive branch that suggest otherwise. In fact, according to the Washington Post report, Walker had “requested in painstaking detail the removal of phrases central to the Wisconsin Idea — the guiding principle of the state’s public university system for more than a century.”

This semantic back-and-forth was of real concern to Walker’s office. On January 12, a staffer for the Wisconsin Department of Administration sent a clear email about the drafting of the budget: “To extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of [Wisconsin] campuses should be removed.”

When faculty and journalists had the poor taste to draw attention to this sleight of hand, Walker's office backpedaled immediately. The core mission of the University of Wisconsin is now restored, on paper at least. The budget itself is another story. Walker has cut $150 million through the end of this year with a provision that will freeze funding at the same rate through 2016. In the next couple of years, Wisconsin will be losing a lot of people to recoup what amounts to a $300 million shortfall.

Unless I am deeply mistaken, neither the Center on Poverty nor the Center on Civil Rights has ever endorsed or funded a specific candidate or party; the only sin here is that these centers don't discuss free markets as the main solution to poverty.

Spectators of American universities will perhaps recognize a shared spirit between the Walker storyline and recent developments in North Carolina, where a working group of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors has recently recommended closing three academic centers across the state, all of which focus on social justice and civil rights: one at NC Central that studies minority voting patterns, a biodiversity center at East Carolina University, and the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law. The board's hostility toward this latter center has drawn the most outcry, for several reasons, namely that a) none of the center’s $120,000 budget comes from public funding; b) the center does crucial work combating poverty and educating citizens; and c.) the center has collaborated with the UNC Center on Civil Rights in suing city and state government to combat vestiges of segregation, voter-suppression, etc.

The law school's Center on Civil Rights is also being advised to soften its mission somewhat—to focus less on race issues and to include a conservative emphasis on religious rights and the right to bear arms.

Is it intrinsically partisan for an academic center (set aside, for the moment, the crucial question of funding) to advocate for the downtrodden? Reviewing the law school's advocacy over the past decade, one will be hard-pressed to find anything approaching a conflict of interest. Unless I am deeply mistaken, neither the Center on Poverty nor the Center on Civil Rights has ever endorsed or funded a specific candidate or party; the only sin here, according to at least one member of the working group, is that these centers don't discuss free markets as the main solution to poverty. That's rather like taking a starving man and telling him to study agriculture—a fine intellectual exercise, but hardly useful in the short term.

The executive branch is eliminating crucial vocational training for the Atticus Finches of the future while indemnifying itself against having to address the decay of its schools.

UNC has, of course, a highly regarded business school, where the free market takes a daily victory lap, so one can’t help but wonder why these Board of Governor-types are grousing so much. The answer, in part, is Gene Nichol. Head of the Center on Poverty and UNC's free-speech standard-bearer in recent years, Nichol became the target of state GOP operatives after his eloquent, energetic, and above all frequent broadsides against Governor Pat McCrory in the Raleigh News & Observer. Nichol is also a vocal booster of the Reverend William Barber, godfather of North Carolina's Moral Mondays movement, an association that only further blackens Nichol in the eyes of the BOG. After the NC working group recommended cutting the three centers and hamstringing the Center on Civil Rights, the law school responded:

The recommendation to close the Poverty Center, if implemented, will deprive North Carolinians of critical research and education on poverty; chill academic freedom and inquiry; and hurt our law students who desperately need and greatly benefit from the real-world experience that interning there provides. Moreover, the proposal by some members of the BOG working group that the Center for Civil Rights be prohibited from suing the state or its political subdivisions – the usual defendants in civil rights suits – would fundamentally curtail its important work on behalf of marginalized groups.

Twenty-five percent of North Carolina's children live in poverty; that number nearly doubles among children of color. The executive branch, meanwhile, is eliminating crucial vocational training for the Atticus Finches of the future while indemnifying itself against having to address the decay of its schools, the deceleration of social mobility, the empty bellies of its children.

The Board of Governors in North Carolina has an outsized influence to be sure; it seems Wisconsin is following suit. Under the banner of giving universities greater “flexibility” in allotting its resources, Walker has in fact invested greater and greater influence in his Board of Regents. All mere subterfuge, of course—centralized control over education is anathema to conservatives, until it becomes the quickest way to silence perceived progressives or anyone who calls attention to the moral failings of his or her municipal and state government.

It is feeble indeed when a board of governors would rather attack professors than poverty. Nichols was warned a year ago that his columns in the News & Observer might spell the end of the Center on Poverty. What we're seeing isn't just a corrosion of free speech. It's something closer to a vendetta.

The Classroom is a regular series on the issues facing both students and teachers of higher education.

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