Notions of Privilege and Basic American Values

Aaron Barlow’s post today concerns legislation proposed in North Carolina that will uniformly increase teaching loads at all public universities to four courses per semester.

I might look at this kind of legislation somewhat differently if the Far Right was interested in funding public higher education at any reasonable level and some legislators were, in however misguided a manner, simply trying to insure that the taxpayers were getting their money’s worth.

But, in just about every state in which it controls the legislature, the Far Right has been relentlessly gutting state support for public education at all levels. Even in Ohio, where the cuts have recently abated somewhat, the “increased” spending that Governor Kasich has announced as budget targets will not actually restore even the subsidies that have been cut since he took office.

And so this proposed legislation in North Carolina, and other bills like it elsewhere, is hypocritical on at least two levels.

First, the defunding is being justified under the mantra of reducing the role of government to its most basic functions. But the legislators want to have it both ways. They still want to control what they are refusing to fund. In fact, they are insisting on even more control than they have ever had historically. In a period in which most state colleges and universities receive no more than a quarter of their funding from their state governments—and the percentage is perhaps half that for the flagship and major research universities—these legislators are intruding into the governance of institutions in completely unprecedented ways, and they are doing so for the very deliberate purpose of undermining academic freedom and shared governance.

There is a parallel here in the disjunction between the Far Right’s insistence that it wants to remove government from people’s personal lives and individual choices and its imposition of draconian legislation limiting women’s choice, gay and lesbian civil rights, union rights, and voting rights. What those on the Far Right very clearly want is to protect their own values at the expense of everyone else’s values. If this sort of very obvious partisanship is as innately and purely American as they claim, then what is means to be American has become so constricted and constrained that it declares at least half of the country to be un-American.

Second, the proposed increase in workloads is hypocritical because it is an attempt to disguise the actual impact of and to deflect the responsibility for the defunding of public higher education. In short, the legislators want to get the credit for cutting taxes but to escape the blame for the consequences of those cuts. The legislators know that costs have been rising almost in exact proportion to the declines in state support and that the increased costs are being borne by students and their families. So, they want to create the straw man that faculty are not productive enough. For a long time, they have been imposing reductions in state subsidy while also limiting tuition increases, but now that they have exhausted the “economies” to be squeezed from that strategy, they need to shift to increasing the workload of faculty. It is just another form of the “do more with less mantra,” even though there are no economic reasons for the constraints that are anywhere near as obvious as the ideological reasons for them.

Furthermore, since they perceive most faculty as “Liberals,” they feel free to tar faculty as unduly “privileged” and exploiting public employment. They have worked this same strategy in their characterizations of other public employees, of union members, and of minority populations benefiting from affirmative-action policies. But, if anyone challenges the privileges of affluence, they denounce it as “class warfare” and un-American—socialism or, less frequently now, communism. So certain types of privilege are to be protected while others are to be denounced.

And this ostensibly fundamentally “American” notion of privilege is very clear in the Far Right’s almost uniform inattention to administrative bloat, which—not just coincidentally–has been increasing in proportion to the decline in institutional support for instruction.

Likewise, many of the most vocal Far Right critics of government—in particular, many of those who have gone so far as to proclaim their hatred of big government—have nonetheless spent most of their adult lives in very well-paid government positions. And those who have left government office have very often joined lobbying firms to make the most use of their connections in government. But, apparently, that sort of hypocrisy is also a privilege to be protected, rather than to be denounced.


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