Hank Huckaby has heard such rumblings before. The University System of Georgia chancellor wants to silence these before they start picking up volume, and bravo to him for trying.
There is, probably by the very nature of the responsibilities and the personalities involved, an inherent tension between politics and academia. The economic crunch, which in Georgia took a bite out of the HOPE scholarship fund as well as virtually every other education line item, has no doubt intensified that tension.
What concerns Huckaby, judging from his comments in a Friday newspaper interview, is that some lawmakers are trying to get more direct control over higher education.
“There is a perception in the Capitol – and this surprised me – that the university system is arrogant, unresponsive,” Huckaby told the Athens Banner-Herald in a story published Friday. “So they want to clip our wings a little bit.”
There might be worse ideas, but at the moment it’s hard to think of one.
The chancellor readily admits that higher education, in Georgia and elsewhere, is far from perfect and that the University System has created, or at least aggravated, some of its own political problems. The Athens story alludes to the prickly relationship the previous chancellor, Erroll Davis, had with the General Assembly – Huckaby didn’t go there, but he did say the Board of Regents “will have to be more proactive, more responsive to the needs and wants of legislators, whether they’re legitimate” or not. Huckaby, a former state budget director who also served a term in the legislature, might be able to navigate those political waters with less turbulence.
Not mentioned in the interview, but no doubt high on lawmakers’ list of grievances, is the perception that HOPE, especially in better economic times, made tuition increases too easy, and now the political heat is turned up on the Gold Dome instead of the halls of academe, where legislators think it belongs.
None of which changes a profoundly important principle: Political meddling in higher education is, has always been and will always be toxic.
Huckaby is obviously concerned that higher education’s independence could be at risk if enough voters are vulnerable to anti-intellectual demagoguery.
Before he became a long-tenured U.S. senator, Gov. Richard Russell saw the wisdom of a higher education system funded by the state but governed by an independent board. That wisdom was made even more obvious when the political tampering of a later governor, Herman Talmadge, temporarily cost the state’s colleges their accreditation.
More recently, in Alabama, Auburn’s accreditation was jeopardized by the micromanagement of its own board – specifically (and unsurprisingly), trustee Bobby Lowder – in academic matters.
Public institutions of higher learning are answerable to the taxpayers who help support them. What they should be most answerable for is independent academic and intellectual inquiry.