116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Among all the shortsighted, petty and vindictive actions taken or considered under the Golden Dome of Wisdom this year, slapping around the state’s universities is among the worst.
House Republicans announced this past week they want to freeze funding to the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa. Also, they’d like to freeze tuition.
University budgets have become “bloated” according to House Speaker Pat Grassley. Back in January, UI President Bruce Harreld pointed out that while the state’s budget has grown $4.3 billion since 1998, legislative funding for his campus has dropped $ 8 million.
In real dollars compounded by inflation, Harreld said, that $8 million reduction is actually $446 million.
House Republicans insist the schools have received COVID-19 stimulus dollars with more to come. We don’t yet know how much.
But I’m old enough to remember Terry Branstad jeering former Gov. Chet Culver during the 2010 campaign for using one-time federal stimulus funds to cover ongoing expenses. It was fiscally irresponsible, Branstad charged. Now, it’s perfectly swell.
Senate Republicans are proposing a roughly $8 million increase in university funding, which would only cover a funding cut the schools sustained last year.
Of course, this isn’t really about budgets. Republicans are fond of reminding us frequently how healthy the state budget is compared to other states. In fact, more tax cuts likely are on the way.
And, we know it’s not about money because of other ideas GOP lawmakers have floated this year.
They considered bills to outlaw tenure, collect information on the political affiliations of university instructors and staff and tried to ban curriculum using the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which puts slavery and racial discrimination at the center of the nation’s story.
Those bills, thankfully, failed to advance. But the message was clear.
Lawmakers are still considering a bill that would ban “divisive concepts,” such as institutional racism and white privilege, from being part of campus diversity training, mimicking a Trump administration edict.
A far more acceptable portion of that bill requires public schools and universities to provide First Amendment training to instructors and staff. In February, the Board of Regents that governs the universities also adopted a series of recommendations for upholding First Amendment values and making sure student viewpoints aren’t squelched.
Republican lawmakers are obsessed with the notion that conservative students are being silenced by powerful liberal faculty. There have been troubling instances of faculty overstepping their roles as educators to act as political speech police. Steps are being taken to address it, as I mentioned.
But it’s unlikely good enough.
Over the last decade or so we’ve seen what Republicans can do to institutions they can’t control or bend to their ideological liking. That hasn’t ended even as the GOP dominates state politics and controls the Legislature and the governor’s office.
They spent years trashing the courts and trying to put a conservative thumb on the scales of justice after the Iowa Supreme Court ruled for marriage equality in 2009. They’ve spent much of the last five years rolling back the power of local governments to take action on raising the minimum wage, helping Iowans vote and other issues. It took Republicans roughly a week to gut collective bargaining for public employee unions to punish them for supporting Democrats.
Now the liberal universities will take their political medicine. But the side effects won’t be confined to the tweedy corners of our lefty college towns.
In the fall of 2019, according to state figures, more than 46,000 students from Iowa attended the three state universities. We have a hard enough time keeping bright young university students in Iowa. Continue to damage the universities and they’ll head for the borders after high school.
Iowa’s public universities also snare some of the 22,000 out-of-state students who come to Iowa. Will they still come to schools plagued by faculty departures, declining research and discontinued programs amid a political climate hostile to education and diversity?
A study commissioned by the Board of Regents and released in 2019 found that the three universities provided $11.8 billion in additional income to the state in 2017-2018. University activity supports 150,000 jobs.
But you can’t put a price on punishing the liberals. These are small costs to pay to stop the spread of radical socialism or Marxism or the war on meat or whatever.
And as I’ve heard from Republican readers many times this year, if you don’t like it, move. Unfortunately, a lot of young people will do exactly that.
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