Friday, January 29, 2010

Lines Almost Written Upon SOTU

There are plenty of English profs in Roxie's World, but, alas, no poets, which explains this bit of doggerel (if you'll pardon the expression) found on a crumpled yellow sticky in a wastebasket somewhere deep in the bowels of our global headquarters early this morning:
What's up with the POTUS,
Insulting the SCOTUS
And failing to quote us
While stealing our bestest idea?
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:
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)


  1. We sure do want to know that answer, Rox: is this President serious or is he content to preen and prance with his lovely rhetoric (which, as you point out in this post, is even beginning to sound totally unoriginal, unimaginative).

    While I was out shopping to stock us up for a frigid weekend, I heard a story on NPR about Denmark, one of the most heavily taxed countries in the world, whose citizens are also the HAPPIEST IN THE WORLD. When will we have leaders who have the courage to explain what taxes are for and then call for raising them? When? When?

    Way to go, Rox-er-roo!!!
    Your Goose

  2. You know, I'd like to call President Obama and reiterate what you've said, Roxie, but unfortunately my university -- this would be the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, by the way -- took our office phones away last semester (that was just before they unscrewed the light bulbs in the hallway).

    But then, better to light a candle than to say, "You've got to be fucking kidding me."

  3. We feel your pain regarding the loss of faculty phones, Steve, but I think the Prez is on Twitter. You might try to reach him that way. Looks to me like you could squeeze your message into 140 characters. Oh, and the tiny url for this post is, just in case you want to pass it along to the White House. ;-)

  4. This seems to be the Obama way; lightly coat any moderately liberal measure with a tangy veneer of "centrist" or "independent" BS. It's as though he's studying the playbook recommended by the ever-nauseating David Brooks.
    Please add my name--as one who supported his senate as well as presidential candidacy--to your "Lose the Peacock" tweet.


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