Politicians set sights on changing higher education
Proposals from Statehouse and White House roil public education advocates
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Gov. Terry Branstad last week signed into law a $117.8 million spending adjustment that, among other things, strips $18 million from Iowa’s three public universities yet this budget year — the one that’s already more than half over.
Some lawmakers say the universities should get used to it.
“In their 10- and 20-year budgets, they have to start expecting that revenue from the state is going to be low,” said Rep. Walt Rogers, R-Cedar Falls, who chairs the House Education Committee. “If I was running a university, I would start looking at out-of-the-box ways to teach, and online potential.”
Between the budget cuts, proposals in this year’s still-young legislative session and uncertainty over federal support under a new president, the landscape of higher education as Iowans have come to know it could change dramatically this year.
At the state level, lawmakers are considering proposals from abolishing tenure to weakening employee collective bargaining rights to redirecting collegiate sports revenue to rolling back tuition increases.
“I think the concern is that these are attacks on the role that higher education plays in supporting democracy...the very important role that universities have as spaces where ideas can be explored, where dissent can occur, and where the truth can be investigated.”
- Hans-Joerg Tiede
associate secretary of the Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure and Governance for the American Association of University Professors
Adding to what some have declared an all-out attack on higher education in the Legislature, one Iowa lawmaker is telling university students and faculty to “suck it up” and move past the election of President Donald Trump, proposing repercussions for faculty members who organize some protests.
At the national level, questions swirl over how Trump administration actions might impact public higher education — including the president’s immigration ban order, a move to freeze federal research dollars, appointment of private-school advocate Betsy DeVos as education secretary and naming faith-based Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. to lead an education task force.
Aside from the budget cuts already approved, some of the proposals pitched at the Statehouse may never become law. And only two weeks into the Trump administration, it remains to be seen whether the travel ban will withstand court challenges and which of the issues most concerning higher ed advocates will turn into policy.
But taken together, several of the proposals from the Statehouse to the White House go beyond budget and pocketbook issues to target ideology, said Hans-Joerg Tiede, associate secretary of the Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure and Governance for the American Association of University Professors.
“I think the concern is that these are attacks on the role that higher education plays in supporting democracy,” Tiede said. “I see it as very similar to the attacks on the free press that are coming from the Trump administration as undermining the very important role that universities have as spaces where ideas can be explored, where dissent can occur, and where the truth can be investigated.”
The AAUP has voiced opposition to proposed bills in both Iowa and Missouri to dismantle tenure. The UI-based AAUP chapter has piggybacked on those statements and issued its own on other topics, including one excoriating Trump’s “Muslim ban” as unconstitutional.
“Such discrimination, which ‘deprives the person of consideration as an individual,’ runs counter to the University of Iowa’s values and policy,” its statement read.
Concerns over potential changes to higher ed mounted last week in what Tiede flagged as part of a “larger attack on the role of the university in a democracy.”
On Thursday, Trump — using fewer than 140 characters on Twitter — threatened to sever federal funding for the University of California at Berkeley after violent protests there led the campus to cancel an appearance from far-right figurehead and longtime Trump supporter Milo Yiannopoulos.
And early Friday, a U.S. Senate panel voted along party lines to advance Trump’s education secretary choice to a confirmation vote, which is expected Monday. DeVos has been skewered from the left for, among other things, her positions on public education.
In confirmation hearings, she has been non-committal on upholding federal Title IX and campus sexual assault guidance, prompting some to wonder if changes in those areas are intended.
And news that Trump has asked Falwell, a Christian conservative who endorsed his campaign, to lead a task force charged with identifying possible changes for the U.S. Department of Education has some worried.
“It is troubling for a representative of this relatively small sector of the higher education world to be put in charge of a task force to explore federal policy for all of higher education,” Tiede said.
Less than a week into his presidency, Trump began discussing freezing research grants at some federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture.
That has some wondering if research dollars and the science they support at public universities will dry up.
UI and Iowa State University research and economic administrators say they have too many questions at this time to adjust course.
“We’re aware of the conversations taking place at the national level but can’t speculate about future decisions and actions regarding funding,” UI Vice President for Research and Economic Development Daniel Reed said in a statement. “Historically, support for basic research and scholarship has had bipartisan support.”
Sarah Nusser, vice president for research at ISU, agreed the situation “is very fluid.”
“So we are doing what we normally do, which is helping faculty develop their ideas and identify ways to be supported by external sponsors,” Nusser said.
She said ISU will continue pursuing federal research money as an “active part of our portfolio.” But, she said, ISU already was moving to diversify its funding.
At a time when states across the country including Iowa are reducing the level of taxpayer support for public higher ed, UI President Bruce Harreld has cited research and the resulting entrepreneurship as an avenue for new revenue.
During a speech to regional business leaders last week, he stressed the importance of thinking expansively in how the UI supports its budget needs. But he also argued that lawmakers should reverse the slide, citing the multitude of ways Iowa’s public universities contribute to the economy through recruitment, employment and purchasing.
After Harreld’s speech, he spoke in an interview about the potential impact Trump’s immigration ban — if it survives court challenges — could have on the UI and others.
It’s an issue all three of Iowa’s regent universities have addressed publicly — saying the ban on Immigrants from seven countries and change to visa application processes could dull diversity of thought and culture on campus and eliminate tuition revenue those students provide.
“This whole thing, in my view ... is thoughtless, very poorly implemented, seems cavalier in many ways, and I’m not so sure it’s going to solve the problem that someone thinks we have,” Harreld said.
“It’s actually almost antithetical to the values I think our institution has, I think most Americans have, and maybe illegal.”
He said the directive is causing “pause” among prospective international students — and not just those from countries on the banned list.
The UI this fall enrolled about 4,300 international students, ISU enrolled 4,131 and UNI counted 548 — most of whom pay higher out-of-state tuition. ISU recently approved a more than $1,000 tuition increase for international students.
Not everyone, however, views the potential changes to public higher ed as attacks on it.
Des Moines Area Community College President Rob Denson said public higher education — and community colleges specifically — are just like any other industry.
“We are all seeing disruption to the way it used to be,” he said. “And most of it turns out to be good.”
He cited the way technology and the internet has opened doors of educational opportunity for traditional and non-traditional students. And he’s taking Trump at his word of restoring more blue-collar jobs.
“I’m cautiously optimistic that, as the president looks to bring jobs back to the country or help businesses grow, they’re going to need workers, and over 60 percent of those workers need only one or two years after high school,” Denson said. “That’s right in our wheelhouse.”
Iowa’s community colleges will lose a total of $3 million in the current budget year, about $502,000 of it at DMACC.
“Most of the community colleges and DMACC, we have been bracing for this,” he said. “So it will hurt, but we will not be hurting too bad.”
Kirkwood Community College Vice President of Student Services Jon Buse said his institution views its biggest challenge in the face of fiscal changes and legislative proposals as accessibility and affordability.
“Maintaining enrollment is going to be critical,” he said.
Though Buse acknowledged a growing demand for blue-collar jobs could give a boost to Kirkwood, he didn’t attribute that to a new administration.
“We already know that Iowa has a shortage of workers to fill middle-skills jobs, which are those jobs that require education beyond high school but do not require a bachelor’s degree,” he said. “It’s too early to tell what impact the Trump administration will have on manufacturing jobs. But regardless, we know the need already exists in Iowa.”