Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Petty Temptations of Power

I've written before about the tendencies of state legislators to meddle in the affairs of universities they don't understand. Now comes this story from Michigan about the state legislature giving a little bit more money to universities (a 3% increase over last year's allocation, which was itself down some 14% from previous years) and marrying that tiny carrot with a series of sticks designed to prod those eggheads into doing what politicians want them to do:

Michigan Lawmakers Attach Strings to State Higher-Education Spending

There are all sorts of goodies in here, in typical legislative sausage-making fashion: everybody with a voice (or, more likely, lobbying dollars) gets to add their favorite ingredient. But the real poison pill is near the end:

The most far-reaching restriction bars the institutions from having a relationship with nonprofit "worker centers" that protest against a Michigan business, a provision supported by the Michigan Restaurant Association, after the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Michigan picketed and sued a restaurant it accused of mistreating workers. At the time, a graduate student in social work at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor was completing a field assignment with the group.
A single graduate student does a field assignment with an organization that somebody doesn't like - an organization exercising its First Amendment and legal rights - and legislators decide to slap a ban on all public universities in the state? Keep in mind that field assignments are for studying things. Will the distinguished gentlemen of the Michigan state legislature now be telling social work students - or anthropologists, or physicists - what they should or shouldn't be studying in their fields? Apparently so.

This is petty politics at its worst. Yes, it's a violation of academic freedom - not that politicians have the slightest idea what that is, or any respect for the concept. But more importantly, this is third world tribalism. It's the same kind of politics that leads the African dictator to give government jobs to his family and friends, or withhold contracts from people who are of a different tribe or clan. It's the political logic that says, "you are different from me - I will take everything I can away from you - I will keep myself and all I can reach 'pure' from your difference."

If the legislature and, ultimately, the voters of Michigan drive their university system down this road they will get what they deserve. I will shed a tear or two for the University of Michigan and Michigan State (not too many - I am an OSU alum, after all), because those have been great research universities. But their ability to remain so, especially in any field that has any political controversy attached to it, will be radically attenuated.

This suggests, at its core, a failure of pluralistic democratic politics. If every arena of difference becomes a life-or-death struggle, where the winner takes everything and the loser gets nothing, we will have failed as a society. Hopefully some in Michigan can get in touch with the better angels of their nature before they travel too far down the road of tribal division.

No comments:

Post a Comment