Fighting Cuts and Rightwing Attacks on Education in Tennessee

Michael Principe

Posted June 14, 2022

At the Battle of Stones River in Middle Tennessee the Union Army of the Cumberland won a strategic victory that opened the way to the capture of Chattanooga and Atlanta, Sherman’s march to the sea, and the defeat of the Confederacy. 160 years later we still have to fight. (Image: Kurz and Allison, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

This is the second of a series of presentations to a February 22, 2022 Solidarity webinar on current struggles in higher education. See Current Struggles in Higher Education for the first article in the series.

I’ll provide a report on some elements of the crisis in higher education from a particular place and perspective while also making a few general comments from that same perspective. I am a professor of philosophy at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) where I have taught for 35 years.

Students here do not come from well-to-do families. Parental income for our students is roughly half that of the state’s flagship state university, University of Tennessee-Knoxville. Republicans hold a super-majority in the state legislature, while our Republican governor is more conservative than our previous conservative Republican governor.

In this rather daunting context, student and labor activism has been real and at times quite effective. In 2008, my department, along with physics and some others, was recommended for elimination. Student activists here organized demonstrations, gained media attention, and coordinated with students on other campuses to prevent many of these budget cuts. It was also during this time that the campus union chapter was formed.

The campus union, which is part of United Campus Workers/Communications Workers of America, Local 3865, covering the entire state of Tennessee, draws its membership from all campus employees (full-time faculty, adjunct faculty, staff, maintenance, graduate students, etc.) This integration has led to important developments in worker consciousness for our members.

Having begun in Tennessee, the union and its organizing model has moved into 12 states, mostly in the south. We are active and have won a number of victories. Most notably, we fought hard and successfully stopped our billionaire governor’s scheme to privatize facilities services jobs across the state. For this, UCW was honored with the Troublemakers Award at the 2018 LaborNotes conference.

To speak more generally, we can observe through my institution and the state of Tennessee how neoliberal economics and attempts at rightwing ideological colonization of higher education intertwine.

MTSU is a campus that celebrates one of its most famous graduates, libertarian economist and Nobel laureate, James M. Buchanan. This includes a monument as well as prestigious named scholarships. As Nancy Maclean points out in her book, Democracy in Chains, Buchanan and Charles Koch began a long-running collaboration about 50 years ago, with Koch funding Buchanan’s institute at George Mason University. Part of the vision of the Charles Koch Foundation is an attempt to fundamentally change higher education.

It’s helpful to go back to Buchanan’s 1970 book, Anarchy in Academia, published as he began working with Charles Koch. There, Buchanan wanted to address the issue of “radicals” on campus. He proposed making higher education more expensive. His proposal has, of course, been thoroughly realized. The rising cost of tuition and crippling student loan debt have become realities, undermining academic, political, and cultural life on campuses across the country.

Our union and Solidarity branch have fought against the Koch-funded institute that was recently brought to our campus, sponsored by the Business School and Honors College which awards elite “Buchanan Scholarships” each year. With budget cuts from our state legislature and legislatures across the country, private, rightwing funding sources are ready to fill some of the gap to serve their own ideological interests.

The irony of a public university happily allowing what amounts to a cancerous attempt to defund public goods in the front door is obvious. The MTSU Koch institute’s director left Troy University’s Johnson Center (also Koch-funded) in part over a leaked recording of his colleague bragging that he, “has kind of taken it upon himself to try to bring down the state pension system.”

While the right has long claimed that universities attempt to indoctrinate students with leftist propaganda, these claims and calls to action have increased in recent years. Tennessee Governor Bill Lee in his most recent State of the State Address claimed that “colleges and universities have become centers of anti-American thought,” with “internal enemies.”

To address this “problem,” the Governor has signed a bill banning the teaching of “divisive concepts” in college classrooms. The list of concepts is long, but mainly reflects Fox News-style concerns over race and gender, while also disallowing the promotion of class division, and requiring that schools survey students and faculty regarding the political climate on campus. He has also earmarked millions of dollars for a new institute in American Civics at the University of Tennessee to produce “informed patriots.”

To bring things full circle, the director of MTSU’s libertarian, Koch-funded institute recently had a guest editorial in The Tennessean, Nashville’s major daily newspaper, arguing that private funding of institutes and professorships on campus was an important way to help “diversify” the political atmosphere on campuses. With real attempts to limit academic freedom promoted by the right and ongoing cuts in state funding, rightwing private-sector money and targeted state funds present themselves as “diversifying” solutions.

I’ll make one last point regarding the neoliberal economics of the university. An under-analyzed issue is that of competition between different colleges and universities for student tuition dollars. Schools do this in a variety of ways. One is by spending on new facilities, which increasingly need to have a level of “wow” appeal. This may well result in unnecessary costs, but also provides an element of advertising to the school as it competes with others.

Schools, including MTSU, put substantial money and effort into advertising. This advertising carries all of the irrationalities of advertising within capitalism generally, including wasted money and effort. It requires the hiring of additional administrators, which also drives up costs. And, of course, the most obvious degenerate aspect of advertising — lies, deceit, and, exaggeration regarding the benefits to students of attending.

A constant danger is that faculty and staff, seeing their security as tied to the economics of the university, willingly participate in the deceit, especially regarding the high-paying jobs that supposedly await students and are needed to pay off student loan debt.

Degrees that are increasingly job-training not only do the work that businesses once did, but also serve as promotional vehicles for the schools. Students, many of whom will not get these high-paying jobs, still wind up with diminished educations and, ultimately, more alienated existences.

Of course, there is much more, including the explosion in use of contingent faculty, ongoing attempts at outsourcing, attacks on tenure, and bloated administrations. I’ll stop here. The fightback continues.