Five Reasons Politicians Hate Us

October 02, 2007

As a government-relations officer, I actually talk to people who dislike higher education.

Most of you don't. You talk to colleagues and family members, students and a few alumni. Your neighbor. Pretty unlikely any of those people dislike higher education. (Well, maybe your neighbor, if you've borrowed his snow shovel and haven't returned it.)

Anyway, many politicians do not like higher education and don't mind telling me so on a regular basis. They wouldn't mind telling you, either, as long as you're not from their districts. When I hear a rant against academe, I've learned to make a certain odd clicking sound with my teeth that gives the impression that I, too, dislike higher education without actually having to admit to it. That clicking sound is similar to a squirrel on a tree limb mocking my dog's attempt to climb up.

I can think of five reasons why politicians hate us:

Tenure (of course). Let's just rename it. Politicians rail at me about the absurdity of tenure. Yet the same politicians give a thumbs up to union lobbyists promoting work guarantees for industrial plant employees.

Politicians prefer workers to be employed for long periods of time. Those workers raise stable families and are consistent taxpayers -- sort of like faculty members who have tenure. So from now on, let's not say that certain faculty members have tenure, let's just say they have "long-term work guarantees."

Lack of accountability. Politicians like to measure things. To be precise, politicians like to have institutions that receive truckloads of money be at least minimally accountable for that money. I'm told that back about 1949 some university president was able to convince politicians that higher education had the state's best interests in mind and to just trust that university presidents would always spend that money wisely. Over time, that trust has evaporated.

Grass cutting. Please, if you love higher education (and why else would you be reading this), don't cut your grass on a weekday afternoon. I know that the faculty-are-goofing-off cliché is the oldest in the book. But all politicians swear that they have received reports of faculty members mowing their grass on weekdays. And that means government-relations officers will have to explain, once again, that while the rest of the world is asleep, those same faculty members are writing brilliant research papers.

The president's salary. Of course, we know our presidents don't make nearly the same salary as corporate CEO's. Nevertheless, our executives do make a lot of money and have conspicuous perks (like living in some of the nicest houses in town for free). Politicians tend not to pound on that topic too much. Not nearly as much as the local newspaper will. Nevertheless, given the meager salary most politicians receive, it's still a thorn in the side.

Other sources of revenue. Public and private colleges and universities receive money from a multitude of sources including tuition, fees, alumni gifts, foundation investments, on-campus commercial ventures like bookstores and restaurants, research grants, parking tickets, the list goes on and on. Politicians should like that because it reduces how much institutions need in public subsidies.

But that's not the way it works. Politicians don't like the fact that higher education is, to some degree, free from being a slave to political largesse. So, politicians end up meddling in higher-education financial matters, such as legislating tuition rates or complaining that the college union's pizza parlor unfairly competes with the privately owned pizzeria across the street. And God forbid a politician drives on your campus and gets a parking ticket (except, of course, if he or she is illegally parked in a handicapped spot).

Most politicians have resigned themselves to the fact that higher education won't ever really change. That is the good news for government-relations officers because we are seldom put on the spot of saying to a politician: "Let me look into that tenure thing for you." Politicians also are loathed to be labeled anti-education. Education, after all, is viewed as a good thing in most voters' minds.

But the bad news for government-relations officers is that the old clichés -- bashing tenure and grumbling about grass cutting on weekdays -- just won't go away.

Maybe that's because higher education promotes its own set of clichés about politicians. They're dumb. (They're actually smart, and most of them are college educated.) They're corrupt. (They're generally honest, and higher education would be wise to replicate some of their ethical standards.) They've been in office too long. (Some have, but in this era of term limits, the turnover is frequent.)

As a government-relations officer, I navigate between those extremes. I like to think of myself as Odysseus sailing between Scylla and Charybdis. Perhaps that's a little pretentious. All right, a lot pretentious. Still, between the worlds of politics and higher education there is a lot of misunderstanding and it will take more than the efforts of a few government-relations officers to eventually find a comfortable middle ground for everyone.

Peter Onear is the pseudonym of a vice president for government relations at a university in the Midwest.