Is the GOP Trying to Kill Higher Education and Michigan's Economic Future?

Is the GOP Trying to Kill Higher Education and Michigan's Economic Future?

March 29, 2012/


By Susan J. Demas

A reasonable person might come to the conclusion that Michigan's Republican-led Legislature is on a mission to kill higher education in our great state.


Sadly, this is not the hyperbole of an overworked columnist.


It was bad enough when Gov. Rick Snyder, a product of three degrees at the University of Michigan, last year proposed a 15-percent cut to state aid for the state's 15 public universities -- and GOP lawmakers couldn't sign off fast enough.


That comes, of course, after Michigan has slashed state aid for universities over the last decade, putting us in the bottom five states in the nation (something for which both Republicans and Democrats, especially former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, deserve blame and shame).


It's bad enough that their clumsy actions could choke off what has been the only consistently vibrant part of our economy in the last couple decades. (Don't believe me? Check out the history of unemployment rates in Michigan in Ann Arbor, Lansing and Kalamazoo, local economies fueled by university employment and research).


But now, particularly in the House, GOP lawmakers have taken to haranguing universities about every little thing, as part of the culture war and their general distrust of what they consider to be "liberal" institutions.


The Legislature just passed and Gov. Snyder signed a ban on graduate research students unionizing at the state's public U's, because universities are apparently incapable of making their own labor policy decisions.


Last year, lawmakers passed a bill banning domestic partner (read: gay) benefits for the 15 public universities, which Snyder showed a rare independent streak and vetoed. But Republicans could still try to sneak language into the budget, as they did last year.


Why did the guv do that? The U's have constitutional autonomy -- which is basically a neon, flashing sign to lawmakers to butt out of their affairs -- not that term-limited, ideologically driven Tea Party-types appear to give a fig for the Constitution in this regard. But more on that in a minute.


This year, House Appropriations Higher Education Subcommittee Chair Bob Genetski (R-Saugatuck) has held hearings about Michigan State University's totally non-controversial decision to require students to have health insurance, as many Big Ten schools do. (But anytime Republicans get to say "Obamacare" in a frenzy for a couple hours, they're induced to a state of near-religious ecstasy, so that explains that).


There's also been talk about the "anti-business" attitude being fostered at U of M, so perhaps we can see action on that useless front, as well.


Now Rick Santorum's presidential campaign tanked after he declared in Troy, Michigan, that President Obama was a "snob" for wanting all kids to go to college because they're all a bunch of liberal indoctrination factories, dontcha know? So perhaps that brilliant political strategy is at work here.


But the real war against universities -- mainly the University of Michigan -- has been over embryonic stem cell research (ESR). In 2008, Michigan voters decisively decided to lift the ban on ESR in the state Constitution, but folks like Rep. Kevin Cotter (R-Mt. Pleasant) have been giddy and brazen in their zeal to nullify the will of the people. He's on record expressing skepticism that most Michiganders really want that kind of life-saving research.


Why is ESR important? Because this is the cutting-edge technology that is our best chance to cure debilitating diseases like ALS, Type I diabetes, Alzheimer's and more. I don't claim to be a scientist or doctor, unlike many Luddite lawmakers, so I'll leave it to the likes of Harvard-trained surgeons like former U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz.


"It is difficult for a layperson -- even one who is well-educated in issues other than scientific issues -- to understand embryonic stem cell research and its ramifications for the future of regenerative medicine, which is, in fact, very bright and will, in time, be the preferred treatment for numbers of disease processes that for now there are no treatments," he says.


Good enough for me. But sadly, it is not for the mostly non-scientists and non-doctors at Right to Life, which provide Republican and some Democratic lawmakers with most of their information on embryonic stem cell research.


Those against ESR, who famously deployed scare tactics and misinformation during the '08 campaign, believe that life-saving medicine is somehow anti-life. That's because it uses embryos couples no longer want after in-vitro fertilization -- cells that will never become a baby because they literally would be chucked in the trash bin. But one day, those embryos will help those with Alzheimer's, which claimed my grandfather 20 years ago this spring.


Because some of our finest universities -- particularly U of M -- do ESR, they've become targets in the state budget process. Right to Life, er, lawmakers have demanded a report of sorts on what they imagine are the sordid activities of ESR. No other state in the country does this.


This, of course, is meant to be a chilling effect on research that, it should be said, can have a big economic impact in Michigan -- not to mention on millions of people's lives. We've already lost world-class stem cell biologist Sean Morrison, who'd had enough of the Legislature trying to kill the biotech industry.


"You don't compete by looking for ways to put stem cell biologists in jail," he noted, before high-tailing it last year to the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School.


But lawmakers just seem emboldened to go even further. Genetski and Cotter had a sad over U of M's report and are now threatening to dock its state funding.


"If we roll over, I think it will have a precedent effect, and we'd be really weakening the power of the Legislature," said Cotter, a Cooley Law School-trained attorney who may want to read the Constitution.


Now Snyder, who is U of M-trained lawyer, doesn't want this fight. Neither does Higher Ed Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Tonya Schuitmaker (R-Lawton), who earned her J.D. from the Detroit College of Law and is pro-life.


They know that Michigan's university system is wholly unique because of its autonomy under the state Constitution. But somehow, the Detroit Free Press managed to spill 1,317 words on the ESR controversy last week without once mentioning the words "constitutional autonomy."


Schwarz, a GOP former Higher Ed Appropriations chair, could give lawmakers (and the Freep higher ed reporter) a primer:


"A friendly and respectful reminder to our legislators: the Michigan Constitution is very clear on the constitutional autonomy of our universities and the U-M, as well as all of our other public universities operated under that mandate. It is inappropriate for the Legislature to make threats or even hint of threats to university funding because a member or small number of members may have some objection to a type of research they do not understand."


This is not the first time higher ed has endured attacks from a meddling Legislature. In fact, since universities were granted autonomy way back in 1850, that's been a near-constant battle, with the state perennially on the losing side in court.


No wonder Genetski wants to do an end-run around the Constitution and "investigate" dumping the U's into a statewide system firmly under the Legislature's thumb.


It may be helpful for him and others to read up on U of M's history, like Science and Engineering Professor Emeritus James D. Duderstadt's "The Michigan Saga":


"From its founding in 1817 until the legislature made its first appropriation to the institution in 1867, the university was supported entirely from its Federal Land Grant endowment and the fees derived from students. During its early years, state government actually mismanaged and then misappropriated the funds from the Congressional land grants intended to support the university. Throughout its history, the state of Michigan has rarely been among the national leaders in its support of public higher education. Rather, many (including the author) believe that the real key to the university’s quality and impact has been the very unusual autonomy granted the institution by the state constitution. The university has always been able to set its own goals for the quality of its programs rather than allowing these to be determined by the vicissitudes of state policy, support, or public opinion."


The Legislature's fight with U of M over ESR, domestic partner benefits and the indoctrination canard are best viewed in this historical lens:


"it viewed itself as an enduring social institution with a duty of stewardship to generations past and a moral obligation to take whatever actions were necessary to build and protect its capacity to serve future generations. Even though these actions might conflict from time to time with public opinion or the prevailing political winds of state government, the university’s constitutional autonomy clearly gave it the ability to set its own course."


It's helpful to remember that this Legislature isn't the first to go on a power trip with universities and the venerable institutions have endured.


But it doesn't make this latest skirmish any less damaging -- or stupid.


Susan J. Demas is a political analyst for Michigan Information & Research Service (MIRS).


She can be reached at