After the horrific announcement this Tuesday that Governor Pete Ricketts intends to plunder the biggest employer and most valuable asset of the state of Nebraska, the University of Nebraska, another piece of news came over the transom—one that may seem unrelated to Ricketts setting fire to the state but is actually connected. The Governor of Iowa, Kim Reynolds, announced that a research institute at George Mason University has concluded that the state of Iowa has too many regulations and that these regulations are killing business there.
This sounds alarming—a research institute at a big public university came to these conclusions? That sure sounds like scholarly evidence for the need to reduce governmental regulation in the state next door.
Not so fast.
That “research institute,” the Mercatus Center, is a pet ideological factory funded by Koch Industries and until recently directed by none other than anti-regulatory billionaire Charles Koch himself, who continues to be on its board. You may be wondering how a libertarian billionaire who wants to tear down the government could possibly run a “research institute” at a public university in Virginia. The answer is that for years Koch and his oligarch affiliates have been weakening universities, then taking advantage of the weaknesses to insert themselves into decision-making roles in those universities. George Mason University is one of the most shocking examples. Koch donated millions of dollars to the university in the 1980s. Now, this billionaire has his own think tank dressed up like a scholarly enterprise there, which he and his affiliates can use to crank out “research” backing policy recommendations that serve their deregulatory agenda in other states, which, in turn, can use them to weaken universities and give wealthy donors additional opportunities to take over.
This has started to unfold here in Nebraska. Ricketts, one of the many wealthy heirs who are part of the Koch network of oligarchs, has announced that the state must cut even more spending even as we offer tax breaks to the wealthiest residents in the state. And the University of Nebraska system, the great portal to national and global opportunity for all of the state’s young people, including the urban poor and the rural isolated, must shoulder fully one-third of these new cuts despite already suffering crippling budget losses.
The University is a generator of business, a nucleus of ideas and culture, and an outreached hand to every county of the state, as well as a bare minimum necessity if we are to attract businesses and keep our talented young people. But Ricketts proposes to hack it back even further. It’s a baffling proposal until you consider what will be left behind: a shell of a great university that implements the agenda of billionaires. Watch for some of these developments to start happening: starved of funds, the University will have to consider restructuring and accepting new sources of funding—moving the sciences that challenge climate change to new units and making them dependent on private funds, eliminating or hobbling humanities programs that challenge the Koch worldview, and setting the stage for private donors to swoop in like guardian angels to fund faculty lines and initiatives the U could otherwise no longer afford… just so long as those faculty and initiatives promote supply-side economics or can be hand picked by donors, as has happened at places such as Florida State, the University of Utah, and Utah State.
These budget cuts will be worse than a financial wallop that will reduce the scope and efficacy of the University’s service to the state. They are quite possibly opening the university to outside interference that will permanently damage the state and contribute to the decline of American higher ed.