Republicans Must Stop Their War on Education

by Neil H. Buchanan

Wishing to avoid the insta-pundit analyses that saturate Election Night coverage, and wanting to delay knowing the partial outcomes of the elections (which is all anyone can know at this point), I have succeeded in isolating myself entirely from the news for the past 24 hours.  This column very much addresses partisan differences, as I will describe presently, but I am choosing to write without knowing where things now stand politically.  (There might or might not be a reference to Schrodinger's cat here -- indeed, this sentence might or might not be a meta-reference thereto -- but because I know nothing about physics, I will leave it at that.)

In what amounted to my closing argument about the election, I published two related Verdict columns on Monday and yesterday.  The first considers what Republicans' believe is their strongest case to the voters (the economy, if you can believe it), while the second considers by far their weakest (the pandemic).  Here, I want to discuss how the Republicans' failures in both areas are undermining one of America's most important assets: higher education.
Politicians, and certainly Donald Trump, spend a great deal of time pandering to workers in particular lines of business.  Mitch McConnell and his Republican colleagues invented the supposed War on Coal, which blames President Obama's policies for the loss of jobs in what was already a small and economically doomed sector.  Similarly, I grew up in the upper Midwest, where the former dominance of automobile production (and all of its ancillary businesses, such as auto glass, tires, and so on) elevates a tiny number of workers into a mythic status.

This means that we still think of certain cities as attached to industries that are simply not significant anymore.  Pittsburgh still has the Steelers as an NFL football team, but it has moved on from Big Steel in a big way.  Kodak dominated Rochester NY for decades, but at this point, the biotech sector is what drives that city's revival after the shrinkage not only of Kodak but of Xerox as well.  Politicians want to play to those biases, but the real economic action in this country is in what I will reluctantly call "the business of education."  I will return to that particular word choice soon, but first, it is important to understand why higher education is so important to the United States.

Politicians, especially those of a nativist bent like Trump, are constantly talking about how we are "losing" to the rest of the world.  "They're killing us" is his favored way of describing situations in which a once-powerful American industry loses market share to other countries.

And in the normal churn of economic advance, some industries will rise while others will fall.  That is not to say that "the free market alone should decide winners and losers," in the dishonest and opportunistic phrasing of conservative business types.  Government policies will, after all, inevitably have some effect on various businesses, and pretending otherwise simply means that we are choosing to fly blind.

Even so, some businesses are more difficult to save than others, even if we have good reasons to do so.  Beyond that, however, it is important to think about our greatest strengths and how (or whether) to enhance them.  We should think not just how or whether to bring up the laggards but how or whether to build on our successes.
There is no greater success story than American's universities and colleges.  Why would anyone want to harm them?  Yet that is exactly what Republicans have long tried to do.  (Note: I am not talking about K-12 education in this column for a number of reasons, but that is an area in which Republicans and Trump have been doing serious damage as well.)

How successful is higher education is America?  Obviously, we did not invent modern universities, as those had come into existence across Europe in the centuries before the Declaration of Independence was even the germ of an idea.  But if one looks at any of the world rankings of universities, America's institutions clearly dominate.  They share the stage, of course, not only with Oxford and Cambridge but other top institutions like ETH Zurich, National University of Singapore, and the University of Edinburgh, to name a few.  Even so, go down any list (e.g., the QS rankings), and American universities swamp every other country, separately and combined.

Moreover, the rest of the world knows this and has long accepted it.  They want to send their best students and researchers here, and they want to get American academics to visit their universities.

I am a tiny part of this world, but my situation is instructive, because even though the political system in the state of Florida is dominated by some of the most conservative Republicans that one could imagine, the political class here decided that they wanted their universities to be competitive at the highest levels.  Independent of ideological concerns, they know that their state benefits enormously when its universities are globally respected.

This leads to a virtuous cycle of competition, as Florida's universities compete for the best faculty and students.  In my case in particular, moreover, I was hired not only to continue to do the scholarly work that I do, but specifically to do so while engaging with universities abroad.  Part of my portfolio is being the Director of Global Scholarly Initiatives for our law school, which sounds bureaucratic but actually simply says that a huge part of my job is to increase contacts with foreign scholars and students by traveling and doing scholarly work abroad.  The most obvious immediate goal is to "advertise" our top-flight LL.M. programs in Taxation and International Taxation, but more generally, the people who run a rising university system know that engagement with non-U.S. universities is good for U.S. universities.

Good in what way?  As I suggested above, I cringed when typing the phrase "the business of education."  I am not in any way one of the people who thinks that universities are only worthwhile if they are doing "practical" things.  One of the reasons that the great liberal arts universities are not turning themselves into MIT clones is that both the universities and their host communities (including states and countries) benefit when the university is strong in all fields, not merely the dreaded STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math).  MIT itself finds it useful to house very strong departments in fields like economics and even arts and humanities.

And when a great university is great, its coverage across all fields of learning is good for everyone.  I mentioned above that biotechnology is a big part of Rochester's recovery from Kodak's demise, and that could only happen because the University of Rochester (fed by decades of Kodak money, among other things) sets the stage for it to happen.  Whether public or private, the existence of a university is all but a necessary condition for local prosperity and beyond.  Republicans do not want to listen to epidemiologists right now, but we are lucky that so many of our universities have created so much knowledge that could be used to enhance public health.

As I noted above, moreover, this is something that the United States has long done at least as well as everyone else (only the U.K. is close in terms of the sheer numbers of top-ranked universities), and we do it more deeply and extensively than the rest of the world combined.  Whether it is philosophy majors, gender studies scholars, or anything else in the array of programs that universities house, the benefits are undeniable.

As I also noted above, however, one political party in the United States at best takes this all for granted and at worst actively undermines it.  And I am not talking only about Trump or his cult, or even the aggressively anti-intellectual types like Fox's Tucker Carlson (who attacks universities as a matter of sport).  Even loud NeverTrumpers like former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough frequently talk about the "crazy universities" and essentially insist on believing that it is possible to have a great university system while imposing conservative political correctness on people in higher education.

This is where my two-part Verdict closing argument comes in.  Even if one focuses solely on the immediate, practical, measurable benefits of universities, and even if one is purely neoliberal in thinking about "competitiveness" in the world economy, supporting and enhancing American higher education ought to be the one thing about which even the fiercest partisans can agree.  Our universities will never be perfect (indeed, it is not even possible to know what perfect would mean), but one might at least think that there is no arguing with success.

Yet Republicans are stuck making a closing argument that boils down to "but taxes."  That is, they wanted Trump not to talk about conspiracy theories and personal grievances, and they certainly did not like the optics of being so clearly connected with white supremacy (although the reality does not seem to bother them much).  Fine, but they were instead hoping to sell people on their old trickle-down snake oil.

As I noted in my column on Monday, one of the funniest things that Republicans tried to do was to turn trickle-down economics -- the idea that showering benefits on businesses and the wealthiest Americans who own and run them will ultimately cause some of the money to drip onto everyone else -- into a populist appeal.  A Republican advertisement showed an attractive, concerned young-ish woman (who is wearing a mask, because they are trying to appeal to non-cult members) going down an imaginary checklist of all of the supposedly good policies that Republicans support and all of the presumptively bad things that Democrats support.

The actress playing the concerned voter then says to herself incredulously: "[The Democrats want] higher taxes on employers? My husband’s looking for work!"  I will forevermore think of this as the "My husband's hypothetical future boss needs a tax cut" commercial.

But it is not merely that Republicans think that regressive fiscal policy is somehow politically salable or even that they might believe their own hype about trickle-down economics.  They take for granted the benefits of universities even as they undermine them, and they undermine American greatness in so doing.

As I argued in my Verdict piece, Republicans' attempt to run on a pre-pandemic economy ("If it weren't for this thing over which we had no control, we'd still be doing great!") was ridiculous, because the economy was not actually very strong even before March 2020.  But it is even worse for higher education, because Trumpian policies -- especially his anti-immigration stance, but many other policies as well -- were a dagger to the heart of what makes our universities so globally dominant.  People from other countries have long wanted to be here and to have us visit them, but Trump and the Republicans have made that less and less appealing.

COVID-19?  Well, that is where things became even worse.  Again, I do not mean to say that a bloodless neoliberal framing is the best way to think about things, but if one does so, the effect of an uncontrolled pandemic on this country's strongest sector is especially disastrous because it directly affects what allows us to be so strong.  We have learned that a lot of things can be done via Zoom, but a lot of what universities do -- and certainly what I need to do -- cannot be done well without traveling across national borders.

Now, however, almost no countries even want to let us in.  I literally cannot travel to any of the places where I would best do a key part of my job, and I am hardly an outlier in the great American system of higher education.  And foreign scholars and students -- the ones who were willing to ignore the nativism that Trump and the Republicans are peddling -- are now staying away in droves.  This is a trade war that we cannot win, because the benefit is from the process of trading ideas.

We thus have the worst of all possible responses from Trump and the Republicans.  They have long been undermining universities for gratuitously narrow-minded reasons; they were disparaging people from other countries; they were attacking the fullness of higher education in an attempt to sideline the arts and humanities; and now they are making it literally dangerous for universities to do what benefits this country.

No matter what happens at the end of this year's counting of votes and lawsuits challenging those results, a lot of damage already has been done.  One future path could see us rebuild our greatest strength and move forward.  The other will continue to destroy it.
There are many reasons to hope that we will soon see better public health responses and improved economic policies, the most important of which is that people are suffering and dying now for no good reason.  But for anyone who wants to focus on what makes America competitive, maybe grinding down our university system is not a great idea; and getting control over the pandemic will not only save lives but enhance future prosperity.