Thomas Jefferson

Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

This Valentine’s season, there’s been no love lost between Chancellor William McRaven and the Texas state legislature.

Ever since the state of Texas dissociated itself from setting tuition prices in 2003, the cost of attending UT has risen exponentially, falling in line with a worrisome national trend. As a response, former Gov. Rick Perry began to champion a $10,000 bachelor’s degree. In keeping with Perry’s line of reasoning, a number of bills under the Dome this session seek to restore the legislature’s power to set tuition costs, on the grounds that elected representatives will represent student interests better than university bureaucrats. Most school officials, as well as McRaven, fear that such an arrangement would prevent Texas schools from maintaining their top-tier faculty and facilities.

Perry and his lackeys are correct about one important point — college educations are expensive. So are hospital visits, plane tickets and entrees from Franklin’s BBQ. But no one’s demanding price cuts on those goods without first securing other sources of funding. That would require turning MD Anderson into the M*A*S*H tent and St. Louis ribs into McRibs. And any politician pushing such an agenda would get run out of the Capitol so fast that they’d qualify for an NCAA track scholarship, which means that they could at least guarantee themselves the cheap education they’d like to foist on everyone else. 

At the same time, high tuition at state universities is completely antithetical to the original purpose of public education. Before Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia, effectively establishing the concept of the state school, he wrote that “by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people,” because “no other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness.” But as it currently stands, the public university system is a major barrier against upward mobility and an affront to America’s equal-opportunity ethos.

And even though he was a slaveowner whose agrarian ideals probably would’ve made him an A&M fan, Jefferson wasn’t wrong that anyone who wants a college education deserves access to one. There are a number of federal programs that help the very poor in that regard, but families sputtering along right above the cutoff point for federal aid are sunk, and even middle-class parents find themselves stuck between sending their kids to college and saving for retirement.

In its most recent price increase, approved by the UT System Board of Regents last year, UT attempted to mitigate that problem by only raising costs for out-of-state students, jacking up their already exorbitant tuition by 2.6 percent. While that’s an understandable approach toward keeping UT competitive without hurting Texas citizens, it jeopardizes the University’s commitment to maintaining a diverse student body. As far as the admissions office is concerned, Texas might as well be a Lone Star — only 10 percent of students come from outside the state. Given Texas’ exceptional ethnic and cultural diversity, that’s not such a terrible number. But if it drops any lower as a result of the price increase, Texas natives might wind up graduating from college without ever encountering a good bagel or a moderate Republican. Enrolling students from a wide variety of backgrounds is an easy way for a school to mold an educated citizenry, and disincentivizing non-Texan applications will diminish UT’s ability to do so.

It’s admirable for Texas to look for ways to keep costs down. But instead of turning its universities into degree factories or cutting into its vaunted diversity, the state should target the underlying causes of tuition hikes. According to UT’s donation webpage, state funding for the school’s budget has declined from 47 percent to 12 percent over the past 30 years. That puts us at a stark disadvantage relative to peer institutions. For instance, the flagship University of California gets 28 percent of its funding from Sacramento. Given that the UC System would likely serve as a model for the UT System under Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan to get five Texas schools ranked among the nation’s top 10 public universities, the governor must consider some sort of increase in public funding. Even small-government Jefferson understood the value of a truly public university. Abbott wouldn’t have to abandon his Republican ideals to do the same.

Without stronger state support, Texas universities will have to scrounge for cash in order to meet his lofty goals, either by cajoling donors for Christian Grey levels of financial support or by raising tuition. Unfortunately, the latter scenario is more likely, if only because Texas’s sadomasochistic billionaires typically pour their fortunes into anti-education political campaigns like Perry’s.

Shenhar is a Plan II, government and economics sophomore from Westport, Conn. He writes about campus and education issues. Follow Shenhar on Twitter @jshenhar.

Today, as millions of Americans are firing up the grill, waving flags and remembering our nation’s birthday, hundreds of politicos, pundits and one Rick Perry are gearing up for a crack at the White House. If the media buzz is any indicator, the upcoming election presents a historic crossroads, making the 2012 election the biggest thing to happen to American politics since the 2010 midterms, which themselves were the most momentous event since 2008, and so on.

Sadly, political arguments might be the most explosive aspect of your Fourth of July, since the only fireworks in Travis County will come complements of Katy Perry and an iPod.

In the past two years what was once patriotic has become decidedly political. After all, when one side claims to draw inspiration from the Founding Fathers and the original Boston Tea Party, Valley Forge and “Yankee Doodle” take on whole new meanings.

But just what is the connection between the Boston Braves and their modern-day counterparts? The original tea party participants weren’t protesting against health care costs or spending on social services; there was no King George-care in 1773. They protested against taxes, specifically the Tea Act of 1773 and the previous Townsend Acts that were levied to at least in part, pay for mounting expenses relating to the defense of the empire. One wonders how today’s Williamson County Tea Party feels about cutting defense spending.

Nor did the Founding Fathers worry that their declaration might be considered politically incorrect. It was Thomas Jefferson who pinned that King George had “begun with circumstances of cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the head of a civilized nation.” Whoa there, Thomas. Cool down that heated rhetoric. You’re just asking to be mocked by Jon Stewart or Bill Maher.

We live in an amazing country with an incredible history of democratic traditions and innovations. When our Founding Fathers penned the Declaration of Independence, they created a model for democracy that nations the world over have strived to replicate. That said, we have never been a perfect country. A civil war and countless other injustices stand testament to that fact. But it was Alexis de Tocqueville who said “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”

But perhaps the most awe-inspiring facet of our American system government was not given birth on the Fourth of July, but rather, on the Fourth of March.

On that day in 1801, our second president, John Adams, handed over the most powerful position in the country to his bitter rival, the aforementioned Jefferson. For those of you who slept through History 315K, Adams was a Federalist and supported a strong central federal government, while Jefferson was an anti-Federalist, who advocated for many powers to be retained by that states. European wars, the Alien and Sedition Acts and other issue critical to the infant nation all fueled a heated debate as two former friends with contrasting philosophies lead their parties against each other.

The event, which would go down in history as the Revolution of 1800, was remarkable for what did not happen. There were no riots, no coups or bloodshed. Bitter political enemies deferred to the greater interest of their country and, in doing so, set a precedent for the transition of power from presidency to presidency that has endured for centuries.

There was no European precedent for peacefully changing governments. Attempts at political reform in France had led to the guillotine just a decade earlier. To this day, democracies around the world often crumble when the wrong side wins an election.

In the past two years, the tone of political rhetoric in this country has taken a decidedly spiteful turn. Our current president is one of the most polarizing figures in recent memory. Conservatives have spawned a fetish dedicated to trying to discredit Obama, and the only thing liberals seem to hate more than Sarah Palin is the idea that someone doesn’t agree with them. Yet, as much as Republicans and Democrats may hate each other, we can take comfort in knowing that the civic institutions of this country are greater than whichever individuals they happen to house.

This Fourth of July, take time to reflect on the courage and wisdom that this nation’s founders displayed when they declared our independence. But also remember how their deference and humility helped to shape our country.

— Dave Player for the editorial board.