The anti-education governor

February 22, 2018

Budget cuts and tuition hikes are just two planks of the broader anti-education agenda being spearheaded by Missouri's political class, explains Jeff S.

LET'S PLAY a game of "guess who": Allegations of sexual misconduct. Questions about the ability to govern because his faux-populist style has burned too many Republican bridges. Tax cuts for the rich and austerity for everyone else. Stays in the good graces of his billionaire backers.

Here are your final two clues: one, it's not Donald Trump; and two, he was a Democrat until 2015, when he switched to the Republican Party.

Give up?

The answer is Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, who recently proposed a state budget with $800 million in tax breaks and $98 million in cuts to social spending, particularly spending on higher education.

Amid a sex scandal that includes allegations of blackmail, Greitens released his neoliberal proposals for the 2019 state budget.

NEOLIBERALISM IS a political project whose main features are privatization, cutting taxes on the rich, gutting the social safety net and undermining workers' rights.

In the realm of higher education, this has meant cutting government spending on public universities, and using tuition increases and attacks on academic and other university workers to close the gap. Universities have also turned to billionaires and corporations for donations and to fund research partnerships, which operate to silence dissent from the neoliberal project.

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens
Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens (CAFNR | flickr)

As scholar Henry Giroux wrote for

If this tendency continues, it will mean the death of critical thinking, and higher education will simply become another ideological apparatus dedicated to training rather than education, stifling critical inquiry rather than nurturing it--and will narrow if not kill the imagination rather than cultivate it.

The Greitens budget calls for slashing funding for higher education by $68 million and Medicaid programs by $40 million. The proposed cuts are part of a broader planned austerity for higher education in the state.

One of the ways that the budget reduces taxes by $800 million is by reducing the corporate tax rate from 6.25 percent to 4.25 percent.

This comes on the heels of last year's budget that cut social spending by $251 million, including $159 million in higher education.

Those cuts resulted in the loss of 474 jobs in the University of Missouri system.

Prior to the current proposed budget, a committee at Mizzou--the University of Missouri flagship campus in Columbia--recommended getting rid of 13 graduate degree programs. Many of the programs on the chopping block are, unsurprisingly, humanities and social sciences--the very areas of higher education that can help students understand and fight racism and sexism on campus, and develop a broader understanding of how neoliberalism exploits and oppresses them.

GREITENS' 2016 gubernatorial campaign was his first foray into electoral politics, yet his primary campaign generated millions of dollars from right-wing mega-donors outside Missouri, who see a future presidential candidate in him.

The biggest right-wing donor in Missouri, Rex Sinquefield, did not back Greitens in his campaigns, but they've collaborated on the agenda of cutting taxes and wrecking workers' rights since Greitens took office.

Greitens, a muscular former Navy SEAL, made national news during the general campaign when his TV commercials featured him firing high-powered guns at "special interests" and "Obama's Democrat Machine."

His fake populist style, much like Trump's, has alienated most Republican legislators in Missouri capital Jefferson City. Some were quick to pounce when the sex scandal broke and are openly critical of his governorship thus far.

Yet--stop me if this sounds familiar--Greitens and state legislators have had no problem uniting to further the neoliberal project together.

Within months of taking office, he signed a union-busting "right-to-work" law and a bill (SB 43) that shields employers from legal trouble if they fire an employee based on ethnicity, sex, national origin, religion, age or disability status.

The University of Missouri, for its part, lobbied in favor of SB 43--revealing to its students and workers that its role as "boss" takes precedence over creating institutional changes to address the anti-racist protests in the fall of 2015.

Mizzou has struggled during the last couple years with shrinking freshman classes. The trend was partially due to fewer graduating high-school seniors in the state. Republicans in state capital of Jefferson City like to blame the drop on the activism of Black students and liberal professors.

But if the enrollment numbers from the 2016-17 school year are any indication, the drop had more to do with students of color and out-of-state students deciding to go elsewhere because of the disgraceful reluctance of school administrators to address directly racist incidents on campus and the Concerned Student 1950 movement in fall 2015.

More budget cuts will mean less support for students of color and first-generation students, and fewer faculty of color willing to take jobs at Mizzou. We can expect the campus to get richer and whiter if Greitens gets his way.

SO FAR, the administrators at Mizzou and the University of Missouri system have shown a shameful lack of courage in fighting for students' interests--with the exception of starting full-tuition grants for low-income students this year.

But they also find themselves in an impossible structural position. As highly paid public relations managers, trying to get their feet in the revolving doors of large-research university administration, their only consistent approach has been to spin each new budget cut as an "opportunity" to make the institution stronger.

Yet they are currently lobbying for state legislatures to raise the cap on tuition in an attempt to increase revenues without standing up to Jefferson City neoliberals. Such an increase would effectively force working-class families to subsidize tax cuts for Missouri billionaires, like the Walton and Kroenke families.

If the campaign is successful, undergraduates could see a 17 percent increase in tuition, which is already $11,000 per year.

The first reason administrators can do very little is because they owe their jobs to an undemocratically appointed Board of Curators that does not have staff, faculty or students' interests in mind.

Five of the nine curators were selected by Greitens. Five are corporate attorneys, and the rest include a business executive, a senior vice president at Morgan Stanley, a real-estate developer and an investment adviser. Most of the curators were either athletes at Mizzou or got a business or economics degree from the system.

The second reason school administrators have little incentive to protect higher education from the budget ax is that, as state funding disappears, their budgets (and enormous salaries) have become dependent on high tuition and private donors.

High-dollar donors are mostly older white male alumni who have little interest in addressing institutionalized racism or defending and funding the principles of a higher education that challenges authority.

They tend to favor capital-intensive construction projects and conservative-leaning research institutes on campus, rather than ensuring that the library has enough money to operate or maintaining adequate levels of faculty and staff in the critical humanities and social sciences.

ONE OF Mizzou's largest donors also happens to be the biggest political donor behind cuts to higher education--Rex Sinquefield.

In 2015, he announced he was donating $10 million to build a new School of Music building.

In 2016, it was announced that his wife Jeanne would co-chair a University of Missouri Review Commission. The commission submits overextended faculty to quantitative metrics to evaluate their job performance, which must be justified to Mrs. Sinquefield, simply because she is a billionaire.

Meanwhile, the Sinquefield libertarian think tank, the Show-Me Institute, is pushing for Greitens' tax cuts.

Thus, the ruling class in Missouri is strangling higher education through its influence in Jefferson City, while making administrators dependent on their donations.

Missouri Democrats have no answer to this assault on working Missourians. Their only prescription for action is to wait until the midterm elections and vote Democratic, even though they won't even have an opportunity to take back the governorship until 2021.

Further, one of the Board of Curators members most openly hostile to addressing racism on campus and workers' rights is David Steelman, who was appointed by former Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat.

Students and workers simply cannot afford to wait for the next election cycle to fight this attack on their futures by the ruling class. The budget will be voted on this summer.

So what can students and workers of the University of Missouri system do?

Collective action must be organized against Greitens to raise the political stakes of his proposed budget before it is taken up in the summer. Action must also be taken to publicly embarrass the Board of Curators into opposing the budget and to openly back school administrators if they choose to lobby against the bill. Work stoppages and student walkouts may also be necessary.

The continued attacks on higher education--and the students of color and working-class students who bear the brunt of them--must not stand.

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