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The War on Higher Education

In the wake of last year’s sweeping Republican victories in statehouses across the country, recent months have brought waves of legislation hostile to both academic unions and universities across many states.  The most prominent cases are in Ohio and Wisconsin, but nationwide, according to the National Conference of State Legislators, 820 bills have been introduced that would limit or eliminate collective bargaining rights of public workers, including university faculty.

In Ohio, Senate Bill 5 would drastically limit the ability of all public unions (police, firefighters, state workers, school teachers, and university professors among others) to negotiate for salary, benefits, and work conditions.  As a Republican senator said, testifying against the bill, it is a collective bargaining bill that does not allow for collective bargaining.  Moving rapidly through the state legislature, over one hundred pages of amendments were introduced just hours before the bill was approved.  Among the amendments was a clause that specifically targeted university professors—faculty who participate in service activities, such as search committees, promotion and tenure committees, or the Faculty Senate, would be defined as “managers” and thus ineligible for union membership.  A coalition of unions and progressive groups launched a petition drive to put the bill on referendum in November.  Needing nearly 232,000 signatures, the coalition gathered nearly 1.3 million, a record number in Ohio’s history of referendums.  Senate Bill 5 will be on the ballot in November as Issue 2 and the legislation is on hold until the vote.

In Wisconsin, after weeks of protest and the flight of Democratic politicians from the state to prevent a quorum, the state Senate passed in March (in what is now widely seen as an illegal meeting) legislation that would end collective bargaining in the state for most state employees.  After reviews and legal appeals, courts ruled the passage of the bill was legitimate and has been imposed across the state.  Labor unions and progressive forces launched a series of recall elections in August and were successful in unseating two state senators who had supported the union-busting bill, but they failed to unseat a third state senator that would have given Democrats control of the state senate.  It is now likely that a recall campaign against Republican governor Scott Walker will be launched in 2012.

History Professor William Cronon of the University of Wisconsin (and incoming president of the AHA) was briefly thrust into center stage of the political circus when he began to research what he felt was behind the legislation in his state.  He posted a blog entry on March 15 entitled “Who’s Really Behind Recent Legislation in Wisconsin and Elsewhere? (Hint: It didn’t start here)” and wrote a New York Times op-ed. piece, “Wisconsin’s Radical Break.” In his writings, he revealed the role of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in disseminating ultraconservative legislation.  ALEC is a right-wing group funded by wealthy conservative activists and corporations whose recent legislative agenda was clearly to undermine labor unions.  And the group has expressed particular objections to the way universities operate.

Shortly after Cronon’s revelations, the Wisconsin Republican Party issued an open records request to search the professor’s email for evidence of Cronon’s political activities, especially for emails containing the words “union” or “rally.”  The UW administration rightly defined the search very narrowly and, not surprisingly, nothing of relevance was found.  But since April 1, Cronon has not posted on his blog or written another op-ed.

“Republicans in Wisconsin,” Cronon wrote in his op-ed. in the New York Times on March 21, “are seeking to reverse civic traditions that for more than a century have been among the most celebrated achievements not just of their state, but of their own party as well.”

While not all states have the strong traditions that Wisconsin does, the civic traditions in many states are being challenged by the new and radical legislation being introduced.  Much of it, as Cronon reports, is not home-grown legislation but part of boilerplate legislation developed by ALEC.  The organization’s strategy is that by introducing these radical bills across the nation at the state level in a shotgun approach, they will make progress in reaching their goals incrementally.  The organization notes that only 12 to 15 percent of the hundreds of bills introduced in state legislatures each year pass into law but over time, these laws promise to have a huge impact.

Further, using a political strategy that writer Naomi Klein has recently dubbed a “shock and awe,” the proponents of this legislation have often been part of creating conditions in which they use the pressure of a crisis atmosphere to push through their “reforms.”  In Wisconsin, for example, Scott Walker was elected with a surplus but quickly funded several new conservative projects and thereby helped bring about a budget crisis.  Similarly, at least half of Ohio’s $8 billion deficit was generated by sweeping tax cuts, including a 21 percent reduction in the state’s progressive income tax.

The barring of collective bargaining are not the only changes being proposed.  One of the most widespread has to do with creating “charter” universities, or private or semi-private institutions.  The basic principle is that, in exchange for “deregulation,” states will provide less public money to support universities.  This strategy stems back more than thirty years, as some universities have tried to portray themselves as “entrepreneurial” or “enterprise” institutions – the terms used to distance the concept from charter schools that are now widely seen as failures.

In Virginia, the often-touted example of charter universities, the University of Virginia has just announced an 8.9 percent tuition hike, after a more than 50 percent increase since 2006.  In 2010, tuition shot up 24 percent at Virginia Commonwealth University.  In Texas, tuition has increased an astonishing 63 percent since the state universities were partly deregulated in 2003.  In Washington State, the University of Washington may be seeking as much as a 16 percent hike in each of the next two years.

Not only are charter universities expensive universities but increasingly they are failing to serve their state’s own citizens.  Out-of-state students and foreign students must pay much more for tuition, and so places that might have been reserved for in-state students are increasingly reserved for those from elsewhere.  The University of Virginia, for example, despite setting a cap at 35 percent, has averaged 40 percent out-of-state students in recent years.  Abandoned financially and otherwise by state legislatures, “entrepreneurial” universities must inevitably chase the cash that out-of-state students bring.  While the legislators may be happy with cutting its cost of supporting the university, all that has really happened is that the cost has been transferred to the students.

The University of Oregon, in a plan known as the “New Partnership,” is undertaking a new funding structure that would freeze state funding at $65 million a year for the next 30 years.  In exchange for that, the legislature would use a $1 billion bond sale to finance the university.  When the bonds mature in thirty years, it is expected that the state would no longer need to provide basic financing for the university as the transition to a semi-private institution would have taken place.

The University of Wisconsin, meanwhile, is considering the “New Badger Partnership,” under which UW-Madison would become a “public authority” and thereby receive the “flexibility” to set tuition and retain revenues.  As in the Oregon, UW would detach itself from the rest of the state system and move toward becoming a semi-private institution.

Louisiana’s appropriations for its system of higher education have been cut by more than 20 percent in that last two years but this has been accompanied by a movement toward institutional “flexibility” in setting tuition rates.  The recently-formed Louisiana Flagship Coalition is advocating that the main campus of Louisiana State University receive the freedom to run its own affairs and set its own tuition.

In California, continual deep budget cuts and sharp tuition hikes are generating widespread speculation that private or semi-private institutions are being created.  With $500 million in cuts coming this year, the University of California is planning an 8 percent tuition increase, although if a planned tax extension is not passed by the legislature, that increase could be 32 percent.  The UC-Berkeley chancellor has suggested that each campus be free to charge its own tuition rate.  The CSU system is facing similar dire financial straits.

In Ohio, a charter university proposal is expected from the chancellor’s office in mid-August and many of the state’s university presidents have expressed great interest.  Ohio State University President Gordon Gee has embraced the idea.  “It is an idea whose time has come,” Gee told the Columbus Dispatch in March.  In a letter to Gov. John Kasich, University of Cincinnati President Gregory Williams has expressed support for the charter university concept, citing such advantages as allowing universities to have the right of eminent domain, the ability to limit responses to public records requests and reports to the board of regents, and to be relieved of such “burdens” as civil service and collective bargaining.

In Texas, there are several new proposals to measure faculty “productivity.” They include ideas such as separating research and teaching budgets and determining whether faculty actually “earn” their salaries.  Meanwhile, research would be measured on its “value” with the assumption that some research is simply not valuable.  Proposals would also provide professors large cash rewards based solely on student evaluations.  The metrics proposed by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a Texas-based clone of ALEC, would gauge productivity by students in seats.  The more students, the more productivity.

Other legislation in various states, while not directly affecting higher education are nonetheless attacks on values that those in academia traditionally support.  Several states are enacting voter suppression laws and many are slashing funding to K-12 schools, legislation that ensures that even more students will get to college who are poorly prepared and politically disengaged.

Not surprisingly, much of the resistance to these dramatic changes affecting public employees and public universities is coming from faculty unions.  Many SHAFR members are also members of faculty unions and most of us are public employees.  In Ohio, some of us are in leadership in the AAUP.  I’m president of the University of Cincinnati chapter; Dr. Walter Hixon is president of the University of Akron chapter.  The California Faculty Association has spearheaded the creation in May of the Campaign For The Future of Higher Education, a coalition of faculty unions and groups that aims to create a national opposition to the sweeping changes to higher ed being proposed across the country.

A primary focus of any faculty union is on the twin issues of academic freedom and shared governance, and these are issues particularly under fire by the conservative movement.  Faculty unions have been expanding in Ohio and elsewhere, largely in response to university budget decisions that have taken place without faculty input and without regard for the instructional mission of the universities.  Just last summer, Bowling Green State University won a hard-fought certification election against determined administration opposition and will become an AAUP collective bargaining chapter (if SB 5 is defeated).  And just months ago, faculty at the University of Illinois at Chicago won a certification election and they will form a joint AFT-AAUP faculty union.  Questionable resource allocation by university administrations were key motivating factors in both the BGSU and UIC certification drives.

Public universities seeking greater autonomy have cited the need for greater “flexibility.”  But the combination of union-busting and the semi-privatization of “entrepreneurial” public universities creates the probability of creating institutions with little academic integrity.

Furthermore, there is little evidence that this flexibility is designed to benefit students or the citizens of the states who have for many decades invested their tax dollars in public universities with the promise that they will benefit from universities’ activities in teaching, research, and service.