Nebraska Politics

The Future of Higher Education in Nebraska

Yesterday, we had a lot of people — from all across the state — turning out for “NU Advocacy Day.”  Some of them had never been to the State Capitol (or not since their sixth-grade field trip), and the group included students, faculty, and citizens all running around meeting with senators and talking about the future of higher ed in Nebraska.  It was a mighty thing to behold, and a lot of people were learning for the first time that they can always visit their representatives (or anyone’s representative) any time, and can always testify on any bill in committee.

Public universities — like all public institutions — are particularly sensitive to economic conditions. And really, the math couldn’t be simpler. If state revenue is down, universities will get hit. Maybe state revenues are down because of general economic troubles; maybe they’re down because the people in power are bent on downsizing. Either way, universities feel the heat. They’re competing against every other government department and program, including prisons, public works, social services of every kind, retirement plans, healthcare, and the apparatus of the government itself. It would be naive to imagine that when the money dries up, the university should be the number one priority of the state government. Most people working at public universities are accustomed to cuts.

And then there’s what’s happening in Nebraska. University of Nebraska system President Hank Bounds delivered the bad news on January 16th, but we all knew it was coming. Eleven million this year, twenty-three million the next.

If you just had those numbers to go on, you would assume that Nebraska was in the midst of a serious economic depression. That’s a colossal amount of money to take away from higher ed, and there’s no way Bounds could sugar coat it. Programs are going to disappear. People are going to lose their jobs. Tuition is going to go up. The quality of education in the state of Nebraska is going to go down, and its ability to conduct research will be sharply curtailed.

But here’s the thing: We are not in the middle of a depression. Revenue is down, to be sure. But this is not a case of the University bearing the burden with everyone else. Bounds himself said it best: “The Governor is asking us to shoulder one-third of his proposed cuts — despite the fact that we comprise only 13 percent of the state’s total budget.”

One third.

You don’t ask a government-funded operation to take a third of the cuts to the state budget for economic reasons. You do that because you are openly hostile to that operation. And Pete Ricketts really is.

Here at Seeing Red, we tend to focus on practical matters — what such-and-such a bill will do and why it’s bad, why so-and-so’s policies are going to have a deleterious effect on some aspect of life in the state, and so on. We can do the same thing with these budget proposals, because cutting the University’s budget in this way will have tangible and predictable effects on the state economy.

But in this case, we really need to take the long view.

Once upon a time, university education was the exclusive province of the wealthy. It was unheard of for the son (to say nothing of the daughter) of a farmer to go study at Trinity, or Wittenberg, or Oxford. And when the first universities began to appear in the United States, they followed the conventional pattern. Most were originally established for the education of ministers, but they quickly became places for the sons of the wealthy. Those who were intended to one day rule went to university. It wasn’t meant for ordinary folks, and ordinary folks didn’t go.

This changed during the nineteenth century. A movement arose that sought to extend higher education to “the masses.” As with the first U.S. universities, the original intention was rather narrow; it was mostly focused on education in the “agricultural and mechanical arts.” But before long, a grander vision emerged. Public universities became a way for ordinary people to have access to what the rich had always had: a full, liberal arts education. After a thousand years of educational elitism, it became possible for the sons and daughters of working- and middle-class people to go to a university and study Latin. Or history. Or archaeology. Or physics. Or chemistry. Or anything at all.

These universities became the envy of the world, and they remain so.  Every state in the union has a world-class public research university, and while the costs of public higher ed are a very real problem, they are intended to be affordable. It is, without any question at all, one of the grandest achievements of American democracy.

Except that there are lots of people that don’t care for this vision, and their voices have been getting louder and louder over the last few decades. The university is increasingly charged with being a hotbed of liberalism, but that is ultimately a distraction. The truth is that many conservatives — in particular, very wealthy conservatives — don’t really care for this “everyone gets to go” thing. They fundamentally don’t like the idea that everyone gets the same treatment or the same access to resources, because they ultimately don’t believe that everyone has earned that right (by managing to become fabulously wealthy).

That’s why the important thing to notice in all of this is not the three rural senators screaming about liberals at the University. Far, far more telling are the words of, say, Nebraska Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (R), who had this to say about college:

[College] is now a place where many students become frustrated, waste time, waste money, and confront an ideological environment that can be hostile. […] “Is College Worth It?” It depends. For some, the revived and noble idea of becoming an American craftsman, or working in other service fields, is a great pathway that comes with the reward of knowing how to make things.

By his own admission, college graduates earn (on average) a million dollars more over their lifetimes than high school graduates, but nonetheless, I’m sure he presented his children with the option of becoming TIG welders.

For most politicians who adhere to this line of thinking, though, it would be far better for their children to go to the right kind of schools. Schools like, say, Pete Ricketts’s alma mater: The University Chicago, which you can attend for the low, low price of about $75,000 a year. Or maybe Harvard, where Nebraska State Senator Ben Sasse (R) spent his youth, for about the same amount of money. Not everyone in Nebraska politics attended such bastions of privilege and exclusivity, but there’s a curious relationship — at the national level — between conservative voices bent on defunding public higher ed and where those voices were educated. The people speaking most loudly against public higher ed are, by and large, wealthy people who stayed firmly outside of it: Betsy DeVos (Calvin College), Donald Trump (University of Pennsylvania), Charles Koch (MIT), and the list goes on.

Now, maybe all conservatives are ready to capitulate to this narrative: the rich can become doctors, the poor can become line cooks, and everyone can stay in their lane. But not one of the editors at Seeing Red — a few of whom hold doctorates — could have gone to college even a hundred years ago (wrong income bracket, wrong religion, wrong chromosomes). Neither could University President Hank Bounds or UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green, both of whom were first-generation college students.  We are grateful for the enormous privilege of having had options. We weren’t restrained by accident of birth or wealth. We could go be whatever we wanted to be. And for most of us, that was because of the existence of public higher ed.

Ricketts will score points with this because he gets to (a) reduce the size of state government and (b) take a shot at what many are convinced is a site of rampant liberal indoctrination. But what he’s actually doing is destroying a big part of the American dream for millions of Nebraskans.

We at Seeing Red salute those who turned out yesterday to reanimate the original vision of public higher education and to add their voice to the chorus of those who oppose Ricketts’s mean-spirited and destructive budgetary legislation.  It is your university, and you have every reason to be very proud of what it represents.