01/23/2019 - LUKE QUILLEN
Public higher education has lived in a perpetually tenuous position this decade. Existing at the intersection of academia, politics, and culture in a region has many upsides, but stability is not one of them. And since the tea-party wave in 2010, public cuts to institutions, like ours, have been drastic and devastating, rhetoric demonizing professors has been utilized as a culture wedge and campaign tactic, and narrative surrounding political bias in college classrooms has been repeated on conservative cable news and radio ad nauseam.
And yet, for leaders of an ideology so hell bent on tearing down public institutions of higher learning, it’s ironic how many conservative politicians transition from earning your (statistically likely) liberal tax-dollars as income to earning your (statistically likely) liberal tuition money as income.
• Mitch Daniels, former Republican governor of Indiana, became president of Purdue University in 2013.
• Sam Olens, former Republican attorney general of Georgia, became the president of Kennesaw State in 2016 despite significant objection from both faculty and students (he has since resigned).
• Glenn McConnell, former Republican State Senator and Lt. Governor of South Carolina, became the president of Charleston College in 2014 despite significant faculty and student protest (he has since resigned).
• Henry McMaster, Republican Governor of South Carolina, worked for University of South Carolina as a fundraiser for the law school from 2010-2014 before becoming Lt. Governor himself.
And while, of course, there is nothing new about Republican politicians acting hypocritically, I believe that there is something particularly sick about them advocating for, and enacting, policies that are detrimental to public colleges (including policies that have led to students paying much higher tuition rates), and then taking highly visible, well paying jobs there.
Does that mean that everyone working in public higher education should be non-political? Of course not. There are eminently qualified professionals who have served in electoral politics, and that distinction should not be disqualifying – in fact, legislating or governing at any level is a unique skill set and experience that should be considered an asset on its face. But how one governs and campaigns should also be taken into account.
For example, former Democratic State Rep. and former Democratic nominee for Governor, James Smith has taken a job as USC’s new executive director of military strategies and programs for the online school. But James Smith is also a general in the SC National Guard, has done a tour in Afghanistan, and has consistently stressed the importance of public higher education during his tenure as a public official. Similarly, State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, another former Democratic nominee for governor, has been floated as a potential successor to USC President Pastides, who is retiring this summer. Sheheen has also been an advocate for public higher education throughout his time in office. Both Smith and Sheheen occupying roles in our state’s University system would be consistent with their values as a public officials and that of the institution.
Public institutions of higher learning have a responsibility to their students and faculty to hire administrators whose careers haven’t previously been wholly inconsistent with the college’s values – and the fact is that they’d be hard pressed to find a politician of today’s Republican party who fits that bill. Which brings us to Mick Mulvaney.
The career-minded politician (he’s a former S.C. State Representative, State Senator, Congressman, Office of Management and Budget director, and is now acting-White House Chief of staff), and self described "right-wing nutjob” has reportedly been angling for the job of USC president for the past few months, and I cannot think of a more incompatible person to be the figurehead of our University system. The mastermind of the 2018 “tax reform” bill whose early versions included draconian, anti-higher education provisions such as a new tuition bill waiver tax on graduate students (which would inevitably make programs unaffordable for most), Mulvaney also sided with student-loan corporations over college students in the Navient suit following his hostile takeover of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Now, if we’re being honest, would Mick Mulvaney do less damage to the country as president of USC than as budget chief of the entire country? Perhaps, but until Mulvaney becomes as comfortable spending tax money on public schools as he does blowing up the deficit for his rich donors, he should never be considered a serious option to lead our university system, and his appointment would be as immoral and illogical as his Ayn Rand fever dream style of governance.