Impact of 2013 elections on higher education
Colleges in several states celebrated big wins in voter passage of bond and tax referendums on Tuesday.
Off-year elections can be difficult ones in which to bring measures to the ballot as anti-tax activists are sometimes the most motivated to vote. But colleges did consistently well Tuesday, with community colleges winning bond votes for new facilities.
In Maine, voters statewide approved bonds for the community college and University of Maine systems by large margins, while a vote to authorize bonds for the Maine Maritime Academy was narrowly ahead, according to unofficial results.
The votes authorize $15.5 million in bonds to update laboratory and classroom facilities at the university system, and another $15.5 million for facilities at the state's community colleges. The community college funds are designated "to increase capacity to serve more students through expanded programs in health care, precision machining, information technology, criminal justice and other key programs."
The biggest win of the night (in value of bonds authorized) went to Central Piedmont Community College, as the voters in its North Carolina district by a large margin approved $210 million in bonds for facilities. College officials based their case on needing to respond to 37 percent enrollment growth since 2006. A key statistic cited by Central Piedmont: North Carolina has a standard of 100-square feet of instructional space per full-time student, while the figure at the college is currently 58 square feet.
Officials in Maine and North Carolina cited a common reason for their success: connecting the bonds to state job needs. James Page, chancellor of the University of Maine System, issued a statement late Tuesday saying: "The $15.5 million approved by voters will be used for necessary upgrades and renovations to classrooms and labs throughout the University of Maine System. Those upgrades will create immediate local construction jobs, and they will create a better learning environment for our students to receive education and training for careers that Maine needs."
Tony Zeiss, president at Central Piedmont, said via email Tuesday night that "voters understand and appreciate that we help people get jobs, retrain dislocated people, including veterans, for jobs, and help incumbent workers retain jobs and get promotions."
Central Piedmont was not the only North Carolina community college to be successful Tuesday. Voters in Pitt County approved a plan to issue $19.9 million in bonds for expansion of Pitt Community College, The Daily Reflector reported. And voters in another county approved $7 million in bonds for Johnston Community College, The News & Observer reported.
In Wyoming, voters approved $25 million in bonds for Laramie County Community College to build two new buildings. About 60 percent of voters backed the measure, according to unofficial results.
Joe Schaffer, president of the college, said via email after the votes were counted that, given "the difficult and tumulus time we live in regarding political leadership, it is a testament to the value of the community college when voters step up to tax themselves and invest in higher education facilities." Shaffer said that "I can't say that it is confidence in the economy, or our federal government, or anything external that led to the positive outcome, but I think people have become committed to the notion that in the our future, and the future of our students, a higher education will be the gateway to a successful and productive life."
The narrowest win for higher education Tuesday may have come in Ohio, where 50.07 percent of voters in Lorain County approved a small increase in their property taxes to provide additional support to Lorain County Community College, The Plain Dealer reported. That's a margin of 75 votes. "My gracious. Amazing. But we'll take it," said Roy Church, the president.
A Candidate Who Fought With Academe
Higher education was not a top issue in the governor's races in either New Jersey (where Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, won re-election over Barbara Buono, a Democrat) or Virginia (where Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, defeated Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, a Republican).
Cuccinelli scared many in academe not so much for his platform, but because of his record as the state's attorney general, a role in which he repeatedly clashed with higher education leaders in ways that many saw as intruding on institutional autonomy and academic freedom.
He spent several years in litigation against the University of Virginia, trying to get the records of Michael Mann, an environmental scientist who formerly taught there. Academic groups and university officials criticized Cuccinelli, and said he was trying to discredit a scientist who (like most scientists) believes that climate change is real. And the Virginia Supreme Court last year rejected Cuccinelli's suit.
But that was only one of the issues on which Cuccinelli differed with the state's universities. He questioned whether they could ban guns on campus. And he told them not to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.
While university presidents have not spoken out on the race, some scholars have. Mann, who is now at Pennsylvania State University, produced a video denouncing Cuccinelli's push for his records, and said that the attorney general should not have forced U.Va. into court on the matter.
New York City Mayor's Race
In New York City, Bill de Blasio was easily elected as the next mayor -- and he will be the first Democrat in the post for 20 years. He focused on education during the primary and general election campaigns, and while most of the attention was on K-12 issues, he also spoke repeatedly about the City University of New York, saying it deserves more funding and that it would play a crucial role in his plans.
In a speech last month, de Blasio spoke about creating new science and technology programs at CUNY, and working to be sure that the graduates of the programs have good employment opportunities in New York City. And he specifically cited spending on CUNY as a budget priority. "Instead of pouring billions of dollars into unnecessary and often overly generous tax incentives for big corporations, we need to invest in small businesses, in workforce training, and in CUNY — the most reliable pathways for those seeking a shot at entering the middle class," he said.
In several speeches, he has talked about finding $150 million in new funds for CUNY.
In a Q&A with the Professional Staff Congress, the CUNY faculty union (which endorsed him), de Blasio was also asked about Pathways, a program opposed by the union to align the two-year and four-year programs at CUNY to smooth the transfer route. (While faculty critics and administrators generally agree that transfer is an important issue, they differ on whether Pathways is the best approach.)
Asked what he thought about Pathways, and the faculty criticism of it, de Blasio said: "As mayor, I would take additional steps to evaluate the effectiveness of a curriculum that has been rejected so dramatically by faculty. The experience and training that faculty members bring to their profession must be taken into consideration during curriculum development, or we risk sacrificing the academic quality of our city’s institutions."