Yesterday, NPR broadcast a story about the notorious governor of Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker, discussing his plans to cut the funding to the University of Wisconsin – Madison by 13%. His news conference comments were rather flippant as he offered suggestions on how faculty might better serve the student body by “teaching more classes.”
Additionally, Gov. Walker’s comments were supported by the Speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly, Robin Voss. “Of course, I want research. But, I want research that focuses on growing our economy, not on, you know, the ancient mating habits of whatever.” (NPR; 2:23min)
Both Gov. Walker’s and the Speaker’s comments lay bare their complete lack of understanding of higher education, allude to their own hubris against higher education, reveal part of the Conservative agenda to co-opt public money by funneling monies to private and religious schools, and provide additional evidence of the extremely myopic perspective infusing vast portions of our U.S. population.
I’d like to pick apart the comment by State Assembly Speaker Robin Voss first. His soundbite begins with: “I want research.” The audacity in this simple statement underlies nearly all of the attacks upon higher education which began during the George W Bush’s presidency. Many within more conservative faction of the Republican party want to control who gets funded, they want to direct research down to approval of individual research projects, and want to dictate specific kinds of research. One only needs to look at controversial NSF funding hearings (“NSF bill with dire implications for social sciences moves forward;” Nature, May 2014.)
Now, to be clear, I want research, too. Politicians, nor any political lackeys, should have any input into determining what constitutes research or in devising criteria for what is funded or not. That is simply not their domain of expertise.
How does one go about determining if research “grows the economy?” Who gets to decided whether or not research helps grow an economy? Those questions are not as easy to answer as Gov. Walker or Speaker Voss would have their audience believe. For as much as their Republican cohort considers President Obama audacious in his drive to provide U.S. citizens with decent health care coverage, Conservative Republican are equally as audacious in their desire to winnow the intellectual capability of our American society. They are far too presumptive in their knowledge of education to understand how education and research are fundamental to our society, and naively believe that only those concerns having blatantly obvious economic ramifications are important. Please allow me to counter this grievous misconception.
Last spring, I met a member of our engineering faculty. His wife was a biology faculty. Her research involves the study of a variety of beetle species. Beetles are an essential part of a healthy forest’s ecosystem. Forest are an essential part of our human ecumene; forest cycle carbon, oxygen, and are an intrinsic component of our planet’s hydrologic cycle. Understanding how beetles procreate and the part each beetle species plays in a forest’s health is almost analogous to understanding the bacterial fauna in our own intestinal tract. Not only are forests part of our planet’s hydrologic cycle but forests and wooded areas provide habit for those who enjoy hunting. So even if one doesn’t have a particular care of beetles, one need to have an appreciate for all of the essential components which provide essential traits necessary for hunting, fishing, or any other outdoor pursuit.
So, yes, Mr. Voss we do need to understand the ancient mating habit of “Whatever Who,”Quicquid Qui, for the simple reason we have to understand the parts in order to understand the whole, the entirety. And in doing this research other research and other innovations might occur. In the image above, the engineering was developing a trap to gather a particular species of beetle. Made from a piece of 3D printed plastic – see, right there! – a plastic elbow joint bought at Lowe’s, and a cheaper Android-based smartphone, these simple components were coming together as a sophisticate field tool.
Here is how the trap works. Insects crawl into the trap. The smart phone’s sensor detects movement and snaps a picture. Custom image-processing software on-board the smartphone processes the image to detect what is in the trap and if the contents is the insect species of interest. If the wrong species, the trap bottom drops open and dispenses the insect. If the correct species, the image and GPS coordinates are sent via cellular SMS to a server for review. A small Arduino board controls the actuation of the trapdoor. Students assisted in the design, Arduino board programming, and field testing. Unfortunately, my university lost both faculty due to a refusal to allow the biologist to apply for a tenure-track position. I never saw the fully functional model.
Hopefully, I should not have to draw a picture of how beautiful the direction the above research was heading. Did it have economic implications? No doubt. Certainly to the crowd who read my blog posts. But, I have serious doubts among our current collection of legislators, both at state and federal levels, they have the ability to contemplate the potential of such research. After all, these underlying use of the technology is to gather beetles to examine their mating habits, at least in part.
No doubt, legislators would have no problem understanding the inherent significance of today’s Internet. Had these same people been in the position to fund a network of universities to exchange information on research, I daresay the Internet would have languished for years, and perhaps we would be asking China for share their network.
From the vulcanization process so important to the tire industry, penicillin, to our immensely valuable semiconductor sector, to tie-up research in politics is to lose out on the unseen ramifications, the so-called “accidents,” which have the potential to yield huge, industry-shaking benefits, and advance not merely the United States but the world.
Conservation Republicans who once held higher education in high esteem, need to return to those days which allowed the United States to develop the world’s greatest, unrivaled, intellectual capacity, i.e. our university system. They don’t need to cut back education; they need to expand higher education. Higher education is society’s “research and development division.” How does one continue to achieve and advance and grow; how does one compete against peers, understand and develop new technologies and expand understanding without investing in research and development?
The answers to my rhetorical questions seem obvious to me. I’ve been in education nearly my entire life. But, I’ve also cleaned toilets for a trucking company, worked for Wal-mart, cleaned toilets for churches, cleaned Section 8 HUD apartments, made and served pizzas, and managed a video rental store. I’ve thrown hay (which made me almost deathly ill due to asthma), helped my grandfather deliver a calf, I’ve ridden bareback to help corral cattle, and mended fence. It’s not like I have no sentiment for hard work. One grandfather was a farmer, one was an oil-field rough-neck his entire life, and my father operated a few trucking companies over the course of his life.
People like Scott Walker and Robin Voss confuse vocational education and training with a university education. Nearly all people, do, in fact. I have this argument with faculty at my own institution, on occasion, which I find mind-boggling. I credit my degree in geography with providing me a holistic education embedded with math, economics, computer programming, language, culture, English and writing skills. Even faculty in higher education operate with blinders. Frequently, I must point out to historians, economists, chemists, biologist, and even business faculty the presence of geography in their content. The prevalence of their oversight merely indicates they, too, share a lack of perspective, at times. When I cannot convince my own college dean to appreciate the importance of Make, Raspberry Pi, Arduino, 3D printing and scanning, and how those technologies are re-inventing portions of our manufacturing sector, I know how hard getting politicians to overcome their simple-minded nature must be. Or, can be. And, it shouldn’t be this way. Not at all.
People who know Gov. Walker never completed his degree at Marquette, and use his position as governor as evidence no one truly needs a college degree to successful argue against themselves, in fact. True, Gov. Walker complete three of the necessary four years for a degree at Marquette. Also, true, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Ted Turner, Larry Ellison, were never awarded a degree. Now, I think all have been granted “honorary” degrees in order to qualify them to give commencement addresses at graduation. There a couple very important distinctions between Gov. Walker and those other Gurus of Technology. First, they hire other smart people, and they encourage people not simply to remain with a static skill set but to continue their own education. These industry leaders realize for their company to remain strong and thrive employees must remain knowledgeable and educated. Each of these people also support education at all levels, K-12, community colleges, and higher education. None of these individuals seek to undermine one of the most important sectors of the U.S. economy, our Knowledge Sector. To group Gov. Walker along-side the likes of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs completely misunderstands the personal philosophies of true thought-leaders.
I recently accepted what has amounted to a 5% pay-cut at my institution. I was paid for all the course I taught. Now, I teach a course for free. My job description was re-written so any predecessor will also teach a course for free. 5%, I have discovered, hurts a little. For those who have made comments like, “my friend just completed residency in radiation medicine had now has a job paying $350,000 per year,” your single example is not the rule and really is evidence of nothing other than your friend is smart and has a good job. Many faculty and staff at universities across the United States pay, at least in part, for our own health care. Some low-wage employees may not pay anything, while others may pay 20% or more. Plus, we contribute into a state retirement system. And, if you live in Kentucky, you know our state retirement system is $20 billion dollars in red due to mismanagement. That is not an argument for privatization; that is an argument simply to prevent politicians from being allowed to gut retirement systems. The vast majority of faculty work 40+ hours per week already, including ours mandated for service, community outreach, serving on mandatory committees and councils, etc. I’ve known some faculty who essentially give up, but those faculty are exceptions, not the rule, and would constitute less than 1% of any university workforce.
Beginning faculty in the Humanities or Fine Arts might start around $30,000, depending on school, geographic location, and any special skills. Today, some of the best 3D design work and use of technology is coming from Fine Arts programs. Using some of the new microprocessor boards allows artists to make visualizations which move, glow, or respond to crowd or user input. Artists are now becoming programmers, using soldering guns, LEDs, and Arduino boards. Many game designers I know began in technical writing and English programs, using history or art minors to help them in game design.
For politicians like Gov. Walker and Speaker Voss to make statements which can only lead one to belief these people think they have the requisite knowledge to know best how education should be attended provides more insight into their own personal prejudices and presumptions. Unfortunately, they are not unique among their party. The U.S. House Committee on Space, Science, and Technology is loaded with narrow-minded, presumptive, and prejudicial members exclusively from the Republican party. I have no doubt these members believe they are acting in the best interest of the American people, their intransigence in updating their beliefs with real factual knowledge undermines U.S. productivity and, I would argue, undermines the competitive advantage the U.S. has enjoyed since the 1950s in higher education, which has the downstream effect of damaging both our global economic success and our very social fabric.
People should also be advised school vouchers are a means for shuffling public money into private schools, private schools which are predominantly aligned with religious institutions. Thus, whenever a Republican advocates the use of school vouchers this is essentially code for “we want to provide a way to funnel public money to religious institutions, we just can’t say this verbatim because Church versus State.” But from New Jersey to Louisiana, this is precisely what is going on. Public money, money from property taxes, being channeled into private religious schools and undermining our public schools.
Yet, they would rather argue civil marriage.
Thanks for reading!