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Simon Meiners: higher ed just another bought-off industry

May 31, 2015
May 31, 2015

From The Courier-Journal

Higher ed is a “bought-off industry”
Simon Meiners 11:58 a.m. EDT May 30, 2015

Fielding criticism about his bonus payments, University of Louisville President James Ramsey recently warned that if the school’s board of trustees absorbs the U of L Foundation then “political appointees” will seize control of its $1.1 billion in assets. But how would that make things any more agenda-driven than they already are? An economist by training, Ramsey already shills for an ideology that serves him and few others.

The U of L business school just announced a $6 million gift-backed “free market economics institute” whose stated mission is to trace the pattern between free market policies and gains in individual well-being. That mission itself is blatantly partisan. Worse, the project only keeps its funding so long as its donors — Romney fundraiser “Papa John” Schnatter and libertarian dark money mogul Charles Koch — stay satisfied with the curricula.

But partisanship isn’t really the problem: false dogma is. Why try to peg human happiness on free enterprise when the evidence says just the opposite? Non-partisan think tank studies show that while free market policies do improve individual well-being, they do so only for the razor-thin highest slice of earners. That’s the upper crust to which Schnatter, Koch, and (to a lesser extent) Ramsey belong. Meanwhile, these very same policies — opposing livable wages and labor rights, opposing affordable health care for all, deregulating the economy — wreak havoc on the poor and the middle class.

Also keep in mind that while payouts to Ramsey and a few of his staff have soared, U of L’s tuition has steadily risen. This matches the national trend of low- and middle-income students taking out loans, saddling themselves with debt just to finance degrees — too many of which the job market has no use for, anyway. And as that student debt bubble grows, it transfers wealth out of the pockets of the ailing poor and middle class.

Letters | On Ramsey and UofL salaries

On a national scale, 10% of those loan payments go to the same banks and financial institutions that lend predatorily, foreclose on homes, and reward their top executives with hefty salaries. The other 90% — an amount in excess of $1 trillion — gets added to the federal debt. That shift hurts the economy, kneecapping the millions of already struggling lower and middle class debtors: their credit scores drop, credit-financed spending falls, and consumer spending overall stagnates. All as the wealth divide widens and the richest get richer.

And that’s really the crux of the matter: letting market values empower the fat cats while the rest of us squeak by. A public university president ought to be a local role model, someone who looks out for the students, faculty, staff, and community. In reality, our departments face budget cuts and freezes, short-term hiring contracts destabilize our faculty, and our students shoulder crippling debt. But when the media shines a light on his seven-figure lump sum bonuses and Cadillac Escalade perks, Ramsey jumps to his own defense. “I can’t let people attack my integrity,” he says.

Once held up as a great equalizer and common good, higher education is now just another bought-off industry; another lever used to ratchet up wealth inequality. As one of the elite higher-ups who benefit from this model, James Ramsey is part of the problem. That’s why when he gripes about the dangers of politicizing our school and its spending habits, I call foul.

Simon T. Meiners is a graduate student at the University of Louisville. He has previously written for The New Republic.

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