Thursday, May 3, 2012

Political Tribes and Public Universities

Having written about tribalism in American politics yesterday, I wake up this morning to see a stark example right next door: public universities in Michigan.

According to today's Chronicle of Higher Education, state legislators in Michigan inserted a provision into the state's education budget that would cut state funds to any public university that has connections with, or whose students or activities are supportive of, a certain political labor/management dispute in the restaurant sector. The measure hasn't become law yet, but it is part of the current education budget being debated by the Michigan House of Representatives.

The immediate fear within academia, and justifiably so, is the potential for this measure to crush academic freedom. If the state legislature can withhold funds because some small minority of students, faculty or staff in Lansing or Ann Arbor are involved in something that legislators of one party or the other don't like, we may as well abandon public funding of universities now. I guarantee that there are student activities, classroom materials and teaching, and lines of research at any large university that Republicans or Democrats would find objectionable. If you laid every activity of the university bare to the world, tribalists in both parties would find plenty to get mad about.

While I agree that this represents a grave threat to academic freedom (and is, therefore, likely to be eliminated from the final bill), the more disturbing message is the kind of politics this represents. The political dispute in question - organized labor protests against a local restaurant chain in Dearborn - is tiny. In terms of its impact on the overall wellbeing of the people of Michigan, it barely registers on the radar. Ford in Detroit could hold a bake sale and raise more money than is at stake in this little spat.

But because it engages the dogmas of both American political tribes, and because the core members of those tribes are sworn to try to wipe their enemies off the map, this suddenly becomes an issue of central concern - central enough to write a law threatening state funding to the University of Michigan (42,000 students), Michigan State (47,000 students), and the other state universities. UM and MSU alone are worth billions of dollars of economic impact to their communities and their state every year. The return on investment of the public dollars that goes to these universities is sizable, and in today's economy critical.

The fact that a few tribalists are willing to throw all of that away over a minor, largely symbolic zero-sum conflict is not surprising. What IS surprising - or at least disturbing - is that such yahoos get elected and re-elected to state legislators. Anybody willing to argue in public, "I would rather have my tribe be right even if it costs the state billions of dollars and makes us a backwater for education and research," should be disqualified from public office - not by law, but by the voters themselves.

And there is where we face the stark reality of tribal politics: it's our own darned fault. Democracy doesn't deliver great government; it delivers the government we deserve. If enough people join the tribes, and care more about their side winning and crushing the other side over the common interests of the community, that's what we'll get. Right now, those people are a majority (a fairly health majority) of our country. And they will use anything they can get their hands on - our taxes, our universities, our schools, our law enforcement systems, our fire departments, our libraries - to fight their petty squabbles and try to beat each other into the dust. Here's hoping that, at least for the moment, Michigan's great universities can be spared.

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