Funny thing about the letters and op-eds published recently around the state applauding the Board of Regents’ appointment of business “turnaround specialist” Bruce Harreld as University of Iowa president. They all denounce the UI faculty’s vote of no confidence in the Board of Regents over the rigged search as an act of pampered faculty wedded to an unacceptable “status quo.” But in every single case, these missives omit the fact that the UI student government and graduate union also passed votes of no confidence in the Regents, and that the UI Staff Council voiced strong “disappointment” in the search process. Faculty are not the only ones upset. This is not mainly about them. It is about defending public higher education in this state, which students, staff, and, indeed all Iowans, have as much at stake in as faculty. We will not be so easily divided and conquered.
The “education is a business” crowd clamors louder every day about the rising costs of college. But this is largely a manufactured crisis conjured up by market fundamentalists determined to defund and delegitimize public institutions in Iowa and across the nation. Why has the average annual full-time cost of a four-year public college more than doubled in recent decades? Certainly not because faculty are coddled with rich salaries and research perks. The increase is directly proportional to the amount of money that has been cut by states. In 2001, the State of Iowa funded 64 percent of the education budgets at the Regents’ universities. By 2014, that percentage had declined to 35. At the same time, Iowa universities have had to ramp up staff to meet financial and administrative compliance requirements, many of which have been imposed by the Regents. Higher tuition made up the difference.
The Regents — or, more accurately, Regents’ chair, Bruce Rastetter — selected Harreld to implement ongoing cutbacks and preside over a sharp increase in the UI student-faculty ratio. The plan also will probably include an expansion of distance education offerings, far from the panacea touted by many, and the privatization of university functions that will end up costing more over time. Whether or not students pay higher tuition, which incidentally has been frozen at UI the last three years, they will receive less for what they pay. This is the ultimate objective of a “business” approach to education.
Witness the record of for-profit universities, which are so attractive to people like Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, who receives major campaign contributions from them. A recent study by U.S. Treasury Department and Stanford University researchers reveals that the spike in student debt and associated defaults resulted not from a flaw in our public university system, but almost entirely from the rise of for-profit “education” and, to a lesser extent, increased enrollment at community colleges. To address part of this problem, President Barack Obama has proposed making community college free, to give everyone “a shot at higher education.” The Harreld appointment signals a move in the opposite direction, toward the for-profit model that will continue fleecing students.
Running public universities more like a business is not in the public interest. They require public investments to ensure democratic access to quality teaching and research. The champions of for-profit schools cynically charge that federal money allocated to higher education prioritizes research over teaching, as if the two were unrelated to each other. Even if these allegations were true, which they are not, federal funding for nearly every area of research, except for health sciences and defense technology, has already dwindled significantly in lock step with reduced money from states. The National Endowment for the Humanities budget, for example, is one-third of what it was (in real dollars) in 1979.
Anti-government forces have nearly won battle over federal research support. The next front in the offensive, led by the shock troops of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, of which Iowa Governor Terry Branstad is a founding member, has moved to the state level, pursuing the erosion or abolition of tenure, the growth of low-paid contingent faculty, and the depreciation of the “product” we ostensibly provide. Not only will this diminish the quality of education at Iowa’s flagship university, it also will diminish the State, which has a long tradition of supporting education.
The Harreld appointment is another step in the nationwide trend to dismantle public universities in the name of business and efficiency. Make no mistake, our students, our purported “customers,” will end up paying the price. For the current Board of Regents, the schoolhouse on the back of the Iowa quarter coin, designed to honor Iowa’s commitment to education, symbolizes instead the monetization of students and the cheapening of higher education.
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The silver lining in the farcical UI presidential search is that it has rallied faculty, students, and staff around a passionate defense of the priceless value of a major public university. If enough Iowans join in this defense, we may keep our college-bound youth from being severely shortchanged down the road.
• Tyler Priest is an associate professor of history and geography at the University of Iowa. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org