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where “the little fish are big fish”: more on UT politics

February 23rd, 2013 by slewfoot

Music: The New No. 2: The Fear of Missing Out (2012)

In a well-conceived opinion piece in the local paper today, Arnold Garcia Jr. reports on this past week’s power struggle at the state capital over my employer, the University of Texas at Austin (thanks to Rick Cherwitz for pointing me to this piece). This week the Lt. Governor, a Republican, held a press conference in which he marshaled a bi-partisan political slap to the Board of Regents for meddling with the administration of the university. Apparently, Dewhurst suggested with bleary eyes, there were some attempts at assassinating the character of our beleaguered and outspoken university president, Bill Powers, by one of the regents (dirty laundry emails, I gather). He has announced there will be “hearings” to assess the quality of the oversight of the regency, which made it known last summer they wanted to oust him. Rather than back down at the threats and challenges issued, largely through backchannels, by certain regents, Powers has been speaking out publically—with a national microphone—about the need to balance commercial interests (touted almost always as a need for “accountability”) with our educational mission. He has spoken carefully and, in my view, admirably, which has earned him some respect in higher education circles (check out this piece in The Nation).

What I really appreciate about Garcia’s piece today is that he knows his university history. While much of the tension has to do with the Land Grant act after the Civil War (and the original idea to have the university serve the cause and memory of the Confederacy), Garcia points out squabbles between the university, the regency, and politicians at the capital have always been. I’ve discussed these issues on RoseChron before: the most (in)famous case involves Homer P. Rainey, who was eventually ousted for refusing to fire “communist” professors. Politics at the university between politicians, the regency, and the university administration seem to be built into the higher education structure here. What’s at stake here is money, of course, and all this ballyhooing over the Massive Open Online Course is the fantasy structure running cover for what’s more nakedly on display in this latest public feud.

What few are talking about is the larger, nation-wide political context of this local squabble (which The Nation piece cited above is about). My friend Dan Grano is visiting from out of town, and yesterday at lunch he was telling me about his governor in North Carolina, Patrick McCrory, who stated on a national radio program that he was going after the “liberal arts” and directing the state legislature to retool public universities toward vocational ends. He took a swipe at gender studies as a mostly valueless pursuit (how phallic!) and joked about philosophy Ph.Ds. Such sentiments represent the larger, nation-wide challenge educators are facing: the culture war. The reason why Texas is watched so closely is because they are the staging ground of the latest battle and the final theatre so-called conservatives have identified: first it was your womb, then it was your bedroom, and now it is your education.

As I’ve been saying for years, this battle is not going away. The reason has everything to do with the politics built-into public universities as a consequence of the Land Grant ideology of the late nineteenth century. Public universities were established primarily as a way to administer, in a pastoral sort of way, to the “industrial classes”—as a way to improve the lot of the poor and working classes. The calls for “reform” and “accountability” are often made in the service of this ideology—or at least, that is what the figureheads of the new movement, like our governor Rick Perry—claim: isn’t a $10,000 degree going to serve the interests of the working classes better? Won’t online courses make college possible for the disadvantaged? It’s this fundamental value that underwrites the humanities that is being used to dismantle the humanities.

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