Eric “The Kid” Greitens may be gunning for MU. A couple of weeks ago Missouri’s new, young Governor took out his budget spleen on Missouri’s higher education system, hitting already lean institutions with the loss of a considerable amount of state support – while planning even more of the corporate and higher bracket income cuts responsible for the budget shortfall that prompted the cuts in the first place. Recently he announced the appointment of three new members to the University of Missouri Board of Curators, two of whom come from the business community. In his comments he remarked that higher education needed to be “improved,” specifically by encouraging “more intellectual diversity,” and bringing “real world experience to the table.”
These three facts, budget cuts, loading the university governing structure with business people, and pointedly stressing “intellectual diversity” – shorthand in rightwing circles for inculcating conservative viewpoints in higher education – reflect the influence of both the shadowy and the more overt conservative supporters of Kid Greitens, the folks he needs to please if he expects them to fund his future presidential aspirations.
Intellectual Diversity: While intellectual diversity in academia is an admirable value, the phrase itself has taken on a life of its own in conservative circles. Most notably, it has been popularized in rightwing circles by the reprehensible bigot and conservative provocateur, David Horowitz – who is funded by the Scaife family foundations, the Koch brothers’ DonorsTrust, and the Bradley Foundation, all of which, according to Jane Meyer in her book, Dark Money, have attempted to establish conservative beachheads in American universities. Horowitz has used the term to justify witch-hunts to eliminate what he deems undue leftist influence on campus as well as his demands for what amounts to affirmative action for conservative academics in humanities and social sciences faculties.
In the mouth of Kid Greitens, recipient of over two million dollars of that same “dark money,” likely from one or the other of the same spigots that fund folks like Horowitz, the phrase should raise the hackles of all fair-minded advocates for higher education. Responsible apologists for conservative thought such as Mark Lilla have noted that the “hysteria” whipped up by the intellectual McCarthyism of those like Horowitz who agitate for one-sided “intellectual diversity” contributes “to the dumbing down” of higher education.
Market-based educational priorities: At least two of the appointees to the Board of Curators are drawn from the business world. Jeff Layman, who was also the finance chair for the Greitens campaign, is a senior vice-president at Morgan Stanley. Jamie Farmer runs a company that supplies materials for fracking operations. Both supported Eric Greitens’ campaign financially, and it’s safe to assume that they’re hunky-dory with his intimation that he wants to introduce “intellectual diversity” to the University, very likely to the detriment of the more traditional understanding of diversity, intellectual or otherwise.
It is also likely that, as at other institutions with governing boards that are top heavy with business types, they will try to move the University into more of a supporting role for business and corporate interests, giving priority to the training of engineers, accountants and other cogs of industry – and, incidentally, to disciplines where the dreaded “liberal bias” is less pronounced.
Another goal may be to decrease the institutional control of faculty and administrators who are viewed as untrustworthy by many wealthy conservatives. Greg Lewis at The Century Foundation observes that public universities are now predominantly governed by boards that skew toward businessmen and women who are often at odds with the values of the institutions they oversee. He claims that their approach fails to “reflect the broad diversity of fields and experiences at public institutions,” and instead emphasize decision-making that is hasty, top-down, often uninformed and reflecting market-driven rather than intellectual priorities.
Cracking the Budget Whip: So it seems that Greitens has hinted at his goals for MU: “intellectual diversity” that emphasizes conservative philosophy and values, the elevation of intellectually neutral, technical disciplines, and the devaluing of more traditionally liberal areas such as humanities and social sciences. His appointees to the board seem likely to find these goals simpatico. He only needs one more thing to facilitate the type of change he seems to be promising to initiate: a crisis.
Budget cuts can be just such a crisis. Lack of funds decreases options and makes institutions more open to rapid change. Fear of even more budget cuts are also effective when it comes to whipping recalcitrant administrators into shape. And finally, scarce state resources opens the door to conservative donors who have long been seeking to assert a stronger presence in public higher education. For example, John Warner observes that:
Arizona has reduced its spending on higher education by 41%, zeroing out its contributions to two community colleges entirely. Meanwhile, the libertarian Koch Foundation has stepped into the void, offering funding to Arizona State in return for favorable treatment of their ideas inside the institution.
Conservademia: Jane Meyer remarks in her book that the 1969 Columbia University protests by Afican-American students were the catalyst that helped initiate conservative efforts to turn American universities rightward. Similarly the complaints of the MU African-American Concerned Student 1950 group stirred latent racist indignation in the state and left Missouri right wingers fuming at what they saw as administrative capitulation to the demands of the Black students.
There are clear signs that Kid Greitens is going to try to ameliorate such conservative criticism of the university’s administration while furthering the educational agenda of his conservative supporters. Indications are that he will be just as willing to take aim at liberal campus culture and try to shift it rightwards as he has been to go gunning for labor unions. The guy who in his campaign ads literally aimed a big gun on what he metaphorically designated Jefferson City political culture, may soon declare open season on campus liberals.