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GEORGE KENNEDY: Gov. Jay Nixon could stand to act like more of a Democrat

Thursday, June 23, 2011 | 4:58 p.m. CDT

While having lunch with a fellow liberal the other day, I was moved to ask a question that’s been bothering me: What do we gain from having a Democratic governor when that governor is Jay Nixon?

My companion said he’d been mulling the same question. We both were embittered by the governor’s retribution against our university for having the gall to try to make up for declining state support by raising tuition a bit beyond his guideline. After Gov. Nixon announced that he would propose a 7 percent cut in the university budget for next year, the curators raised tuition by 5.5 percent (5.8 percent on the flagship campus).

The legislature, led by Sen. Kurt Schaefer, managed to find a little more money and reduce the size of that cut, but the governor poured salt in the wound by withholding 8.1 percent, citing the budgetary impact of recent disasters and making clear that he was exacting a price for crossing him. Apparently, a 5 percent tuition increase would have been OK.

The dollar impact of his vengeance is $4.4 million. The curators last week began mulling a series of possible measures in response. None of the choices is good.

  • Cap enrollment, except, of course, for high-paying out-of-state enrollees? Gov. Nixon, who wants to increase college graduations, wouldn’t like that, and tuition has become more important than state aid. (I heard this week that administrators expect 34,000 students on campus this fall, the most ever.)
  • Reduce financial aid or impose a surcharge? Students and parents certainly wouldn’t like that.
  • Reduce or eliminate the paltry planned pay raises for faculty and staff? Why not? University pay is already at the bottom of its peers, and the increases would hardly be noticeable anyway.

We moved on to grumble about the governor’s refusal even to consider new revenue while approving tax cuts for business. To take the most egregious example, our cigarette tax is the lowest in the country, and raising it would provide millions of dollars while encouraging better health. No deal.

An analysis piece in Monday’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch demonstrated that others are asking the same question. Jason Hancock wrote that before July 14 the governor will have to decide whether to veto at least three Republican-backed bills — one imposing drug testing on welfare recipients, one lowering the age for concealed carry gun permits and one banning most abortions after 20 weeks.

His decisions, Hancock wrote, “could once again drive a wedge between the one-term Democrat and much of his party’s base.” Or, depending on what decisions he makes, not.

Gov. Nixon was mainly invisible during the legislative session that produced those bills. He played little role in the 2010 election that produced that legislature. He’ll be on the ballot again next year. Will that inspire him to be more, well, Democratic?

There were a couple of clues last week. One was his speech Friday night at the annual gathering of the party’s faithful. Gov. Nixon derided, though he didn’t identify, “right-wing extremists” who play, he said, a destructive role in Missouri politics. He won a standing ovation. Of course, you could say — I would say — that’s just throwing a hunk of red meat before a pack of starving carnivores.

A more substantive clue came earlier that day when he vetoed a Republican-backed bill that would have required photo identification of voters. That’s one of those superficially plausible requirements that actually addresses a nonexistent problem and would have made voting more difficult for thousands of older and poorer citizens. We all know how people with those characteristics are more inclined to vote.

When Matt Blunt was governor, he signed just such a bill. The state Supreme Court later ruled it unconstitutional.

A few weeks ago, Gov. Nixon also vetoed a bill that would have made it harder for victims of workplace discrimination to seek redress. The boy governor would have signed that one in a heartbeat.

So there is, in fact, some evidence that having even a cautious and conservative Democrat in the governor’s office does matter. I’m going to guess that he’ll also veto the abortion restriction and the drug-test requirement. He’s a gun guy in a gun-loving state, so he’ll probably sign the concealed weapon bill.

Maybe he’ll even heed the curators’ plea and rescind the withholding from the university budget. I’m not counting on that, though. As my lunch companion, who spends a lot of time in Jeff City, observed, the governor really, really dislikes being crossed.

That’s a function more of personality than of partisanship.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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Comments

Ellis Smith June 24, 2011 | 6:14 a.m.

This university system has a flagship campus? Newspapers are truly educational!

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield June 24, 2011 | 12:56 p.m.

"University pay is already at the bottom of its peers, and the increases would hardly be noticeable anyway."

Unless a professor is a star in his or her field, good luck finding a better gig at another school -- or even one that's tenure track. Except maybe for engineering, law and medicine, tenure-track positions are increasingly difficult to find.

And if you're a newly minted Ph.D., you're even farther up the creek. Your choices probably are to take a relatively low paying position at a school such as MU and hope you can publish enough to get on the tenure track, or you can spend the next decade moving around the country for adjunct gigs and teaching evenings at community colleges.

Ask any English prof or Ph.D. candidate who's been to MLA in the past two decades: Finding a tenure-track job, regardless of pay, is as hard as a Congressman from New York. In fact, it's so bad these days that there are now programs (e.g., www.acls.org/programs/publicfellows ) designed to find non-academic jobs for humanities Ph.D.s.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith June 25, 2011 | 3:25 a.m.

Bearfield's comments seem apropos, but need they be confined to faculty matters alone?

A primary purpose of any college or university is to educate students so that they have the means to become productive members of society. So, in what disciplines do we currently see a strong need for such education? Health care, engineering, mathematics and the so-called "hard sciences." I haven't listed law, because I'm unsure of future needs in that field, but it appears that law might be classed with the disciplines I've mentioned.

Could we also make a list some disciplines for which there is a seriously declining demand? How about print journalism as a start?

Granted that public funding for public universities in Missouri has declined as a percentage of overall funding, how much money should Missouri taxpayers be expected to shell out to maintain university programs whose graduates will face declining employment prospects? Like it or not, that's a legitimate question.

The future will belong to those who are prepared for it.

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield June 25, 2011 | 11:23 a.m.

Ellis, I suspect that departments such as the humanities will quickly dwindle in terms of students and faculty once the inevitable trend toward three-year degrees really takes off. MU is among the many schools that are considering three-year Bachelor's degrees as a way to respond to parent, student, legislator and pundit concerns about tuition costs. The obvious and easiest place to cut is requirements that aren't directly related to the student's major. For example, EE or journalism majors wouldn't be required to take XX hours of humanities courses.

Of course, there will be plenty of George Wills, Henry Louis Gates, Jrs. and even famous engineers crying, "But the liberal arts feed our hearts!" But those arguments will fall on the deaf ears of those more concerned about college debt and job prospects.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith June 25, 2011 | 4:22 p.m.

@ Bearfield:

As I posted earlier this year, three year bachelor programs in several majors are already in existence in some other countries, such as New Zealand. If you compare the "core" subject content to the same major taught here there is substantially no difference in the "core" content. THE IDEA OF CUTTING 25% OFF THE COST OF A BACHELOR'S DEGREE IS APPEALING. Of course this might also mean some reduction in university faculty.

However, this practice does NOT apply (in New Zealand, anyway) to all majors. Engineering, chemistry, biology and other sciences are only four year programs. I neglected to ask the Victoria University administrator I've corresponded with about that, but I suspect any major requiring a lot of laboratory hours can't properly be condensed into only three years. Maybe 3.5 years, but not 3 years.

I have a family member with a degree (not from MU) in broadcast journalism and from her I understand that journalism programs are deliberately structured such that students can only take a maximum number of J-school courses and must take a substantial number of courses outside their major.

I'm going to take this opportunity to repeat something I said about this matter before. The Victoria University admissions officer I corresponded with was asked (by me) whether their three year programs were equivalent in knowledge to our four year programs. "Of course they are," she said, "You waste an entire {freshman} year teaching students what they should have learned in high school."

Right on, lady!

PS: Knowing how things are done in this country, three year programs if they come to pass will be constructed without consulting countries like New Zealand who have valuable experience with them.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith June 25, 2011 | 4:48 p.m.

PS to prior post:

Engineering programs (bachelor level) in this country are structured, controlled and audited regularly by an organization called ABET. Structuring and auditing apply to individual engineering majors, not to engineering education in general. Universities, colleges and technical institutions can't tinker with ABET-mandated curricula without running the risk of losing ABET accreditation, and who the hell wants to spend time and money matriculating at a school without ABET accreditation?

Don't know about MU, but this has been a bone of contention at University of Missouri System's largest engineering division, which has steadfastly refused all System requests to cut credit hours (citing ABET).

(Report Comment)

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