Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Board of Regents responds to Jeff Cox

On Tuesday, I posted a link to this piece by Jeff Cox in the Press-Citizen, where he accuses Vilsack of being "Iowa's most anti-higher education governor," politicizing the Board of Regents and pushing a political agenda which caused the U of I to slip in rankings of public universities.

Today, Michael Gartner responds. On funding:

Cox criticizes Gov. Tom Vilsack as Iowa's "most anti-education governor" because the state universities' funding was cut during the first years of Vilsack's governorship. In fact, the funding was cut by the Legislature, not the governor. In fact, the governor has consistently requested more money than the Legislature has appropriated. In fact, the governor has been phenomenal in his support of education at all levels for all Iowans.

On politicizing:

Cox says that under Gov. Vilsack, the Board of Regents has "become politicized." In fact, that is impossible. By law, the board, like most state boards, can have no more than half-plus-one of its members from the same party, just as it must be balanced in terms of men and women. I suspect Cox and most other Iowans would have a hard time naming the parties of the nine members, who volunteer their time, their energy, their ideas and, quite often, their money in the cause of public higher education in Iowa.

He remains silent, however, on Cox's accusation that the Regents have de-emphasized research in favor of entrepreneurship. I tend to believe that's true. At any rate, I had hoped the Regents would do more in their response than pass the buck on funding issues and negate charges of politicizing the board.

I think there is a difference of opinion in Iowa on the need for public funding of education (see this exchange), but I think there's also a less-discussed difference of opinion on the role of education. The two sides I see in this debate are:

Intellectualism, or education as the gathering and sharing of knowledge. I think Jeff Cox would fall under this criteria. Simply put, people on this side would value educators decision to publish a paper or write a book, much as the Regents universities had largely done before the Vilsack era. The end result is institutions of higher learning focused more on debate, discussion and research than real-world applications.

Utilitarianism, or education as training for the real world. Education done under this model would focus more on end results. Test scores, economic impacts and job-preparedness are the goals here. As a result, institutions are produced which drive students towards specific destinations, removing creativity and learning for the sake of learning from the equation.

Both arguments have some merit and I don't think most people would advocate for the total use of either side. But I do think Vilsack and the Board of Regents have shifted the scales too much towards utilitarianism, and the result is an educational system that emphasizes production of cogs in a machine, not higher learning.


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