What's up with the POTUS,This mercifully thwarted attempt at political poetry was inspired by my typist's long reflections on the president's brief remarks on higher education in Wednesday night's State of the Union address. (Paws up and a well-worn copy of Paul Fussell's Poetic Meter and Poetic Form to anyone who can come up with a rhyme for "idea," by the way.) In the speech, Mr. Obama, you may or may not have noticed, came out strongly in favor of Excellence Without Money (TM: RW Enterprises, LLC), which is this blog's way of describing the cynical or delusional notion that you can have quality, affordable higher ed with little public investment or support. He called on Congress to pass a bill that would, according to the Chronicle report linked to above, "eliminate the bank-based federal student-loan program and use the billions of dollars in projected savings to expand aid to students and colleges." Fair enough. We are certainly with the president in believing that, "In the United States of America, no one should go broke because they chose to go to college." We fully support tax credits for college tuition payments and expansion of the Pell Grant program. Then, however, the president offered up this snarky little aside:
Insulting the SCOTUS
And failing to quote us
While stealing our bestest idea?
And by the way, it's time for colleges and universities to get serious about cutting their own costs -- because they too have a responsibility to help solve this problem.Okie-dokie, Mr. President, we'll get right on that. Let's see, hmmm, cutting costs on campus. What can we do? What can we do? Gosh, well, maybe we could freeze tuition? Oops, sorry, Mr. President, but we're in our fourth year of a freeze in the QTU system, and even MD Gov. Martin "You, Sir, Are No Jack Kennedy" O'Malley admits it's time to lift the cap. Trim program budgets? Oh, please, please, please, Mr. President, the itsy bitsy teenie weenie super cool queer program Moose directs has never, in its eight year life on campus, had a budget increase. Never! Indeed, its budget has already been cut several times, including a 10% cut earlier this year. Prick us anymore, and I guarantee you you will see some serious bleeding, even if we do have a supportive dean who gives back in soft money much of what gets taken away in hard money. Fine, then. Let's look at salaries. Gulp. Yeah, been there, done that, Mr. President. QTU is on its second round of furloughs this year and faces the prospect of a third round in 2010-11, depending on how much flexibility the state gives the university in handling a budget recall of $10.2 million. (Gov. Not Jack Kennedy calls for up to 10 days of furloughs for non-university state employees in his 2011 budget proposal.)
Here's the thing. Obama's little admonition to universities to "get serious about cutting their own costs" is itself not the least bit serious. It is a throwaway line, much like his proposal to freeze non-defense discretionary spending. In today's column, Paul Krugman borrows from the Center for American Progress in describing that proposal as the gesture of a "deficit peacock" -- i.e., someone who resorts to gimmicks as a way of scoring political points by merely pretending to address budget problems. Krugman goes on to take the president to task for indulging in a specious analogy between governments and families that has always made our skin crawl. Obama justified the spending freeze by saying, “Families across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions. The federal government should do the same.” Krugman points out that House minority leader John Boehner used the same analogy last year and was widely ridiculed for it. We've taken Gov. Not Jack Kennedy to task for hiding behind that very analogy in his effort to justify this year's round of cuts and furloughs.
The problem, of course, is that the current economic crisis has turned the chronic underfunding of higher education into an acute, even urgent, condition. It won't be solved by cynical rhetorical gestures or short-terms gimmicks. The belts on campus are already so tight that many of us are damn near choking for breath. We don't need to be scolded by a peacock president. We need a serious conversation about how to assure that the "world-class education" you say citizens need is affordable and available. Serious leaders can get voters to recognize the need to take serious steps to address such problems. Need proof? Voters in Oregon this week easily approved two measures to raise taxes in order to protect public education and other vital services. (H/T Chris Newfield.) You read that right: They voted to raise taxes -- in a state where voters hadn't approved an increase in the state income tax since the 1930s. Perhaps if some courageous, visionary leader in your adopted home state of Illinois had the guts to support such measures the state wouldn't be hundreds of millions of dollars in arrears to its flagship university for this year.
The choice is yours, sir: Will you truly be a president, or will you be content to be a peacock? A year into your term, an anxious nation longs to know the answer to that question.
(Photo Credit: iStockphoto, via)