It is important to put recent cuts in higher education into context. Kentucky is not an isolated case.
Illinois Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner proposed what he called a “turnaround” budget that would cut nearly $209 million from the University of Illinois.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin has proposed cutting $300 million from the University of Wisconsin system.
Bobby Jindal, past Republican governor of Louisiana, proposed $500 million in cuts in his state, which is facing a budget shortfall of $1.6 billion because of lower oil prices. Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic governor of Virginia, has proposed $90 million in cuts from the University of Virginia.
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Some of these cuts reflect state budget deficits while others represent a reallocation such as a shift of funds to early-childhood education or funding shortfalls for pension plans.
The extent of this movement was recently revealed in a new documentary titled Starving the Beast: The Battle to Disrupt and Reform America’s Public Universities. Through a series of cases, Steve Mims, the filmmaker, alleges that wealthy right-wing ideologues are attempting to radically change the mission of public universities.
He refers to this drive as a coordinated assault. The genesis of this assault may be attributed to a confidential memorandum written by Lewis F. Powell Jr. in 1971, shortly before he was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Richard Nixon.
The document, titled “Attack on American Free Enterprise System,” was given to the chair of the Education Committee of the U.S Chamber of Commerce. It was a conservative polemic attacking the people and institutions within our society that appeared intent on destroying the free enterprise system. Powell laid much of the blame for this anti-free enterprise thinking on the college campuses where radical professors with tenure spread their liberal ideas to the hungry minds of students.
The document essentially became a battle plan for American business: create conservative think tanks, increase public relations, push for “fair and balanced” news reporting to counter the liberal media and increase political funding, which led to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.
An outgrowth of this effort has been the creation of free-enterprise institutes on college campuses to counter liberal and socialistic thinking. The creation of the John H. Schnatter Institute for the Study of Free Enterprise at the University of Kentucky, funded by John Schnatter of Papa John’s and the Charles Koch Foundation ,was announced last year.
The term “starve the beast” is alleged to have originated in the 1980s by an unnamed Reagan staffer. It became a sound bite by Sarah Palin in the 2008 election as she toured the country saying “Please, starve the beast, don’t perpetuate the problem, don’t fund the largesse, we need to cut taxes.”
In other words, by cutting off the money supply, you reduce the activity.
The fallacy of this idea when applied to public higher education is that universities make up the shortfall in several ways such as increasing tuition, which forces many students to incur significant loan debt from their friendly banker. Another popular approach is to recruit more out of state and international students with the ability to pay. A third approach is to relax admission and retention standards to maintain an increasing pool of tuition-paying students.
When I became a professor 40 years ago, a student was an individual to be educated. Now they have become revenue units.
William F. Maloney holds the W.L. Raymond and R.E. Shaver Chair and is a professor of construction engineering, project management at the University of Kentucky.
Related: April 29 Herald-Leader article, “Layoffs, furloughs and hiring freezes at Kentucky’s universities”