Tea Party and the Right  
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Republicans Declare War on College

Bobby Jindal doesn't want the GOP to be the "stupid party," but fellow governors are plotting to wreck higher ed

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Inside Higher Education’s Kevin Kiley lumped the three governors together in an illuminating story last November:

The three governors have much in common when it comes to their approach to higher education, such as mandating low-cost options like the $10,000 degree; holding down tuition prices, particularly at flagship institutions; tying funding to degree completion, particularly in fields deemed to be in “high demand”; paying faculty on the basis of performance, including how they fare on student evaluations; and likely asking the institutions to do it all with less state money … All three have made calls for reducing the cost of producing a degree through online courses and competency-based assessment.

MOOCs  fit nicely into the 10K-or-bust model. The more courses that the University of Texas can offer students at rock-bottom-cost, the less the state, in theory, has to subsidize, a fact that led Perry to applaud the University of Texas’ decision last fall to join edX, the nonprofit MOOC founded by Harvard and M.I.T.

In Wisconsin, Walker has proposed a “flexible degree” program that incorporates MOOC-like online educational elements. In Florida, the state university system’s Board of Governors is considering, with Scott’s encouragement, whether to establish an online-only university, allow each existing college to do its own online thing, or put together some kind of collaborative approach.

At the same time, in all three states, the governors have made it painfully clear that they have no intention of increasing funding support for higher education. Quite the opposite! The University of Wisconsin system has been targeted for cuts of over $250 million under Walker. Scott approved a $300 million cut to Florida’s public universities last April . Perry approved massive budget cuts at all levels of public education in Texas in 2011, including a 9 percent across-the-board cut to the University of Texas system.

Budget cuts for higher education are not, of course, limited to states with Republican governors. In California, Gov. Jerry Brown has been quite vocal about his belief that MOOCs will play an important role in supplementing a congenitally underfunded public education system. But in Texas, Florida and Wisconsin, the push to cut costs is accompanied by undisguised scorn for the whole enterprise of higher education, insofar as it pertains to anything more than equipping people with marketable skills. That mission of the humanities to help us think more critically, to deepen our knowledge of the world? Forget about it.

In 2011, Scott told the Tampa Herald-Tribune that he didn’t think it it was in the “vital interest” of the state to have “more anthropologists.” Last November, a task force established by Scott went so far as to recommend higher tuitions for humanities majors. In Texas, one of the biggest conservative backers of educational reform, former oilman Jeff Sandefer, a huge supporter of online education who is closely connected to Perry, savaged the humanities sector as a place where “most of the rewards in the profession go to writing narrowly focused academic research articles that few read, the vast majority of which would never, and I want to stress never, be supported by the market.”

Sandefer may well be right about what the market will support. But do we want our great publicly funded universities to operate only with an eye toward market demands?

The answer to that question, from conservative higher ed reformers, is obviously yes. They’d rather see taxpayer money spent only on educational curricula that will target the subset of academia referred to as STEM: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Not uncoincidentally, the MOOC educational model is probably better fitted for STEM-focused education than it is for the humanities.