Editorial— Rauner on Campus: The Proper Reaction

As part of the university’s commencement ceremonies, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner is slated to speak S
Chris Wissmann

As part of the university’s commencement ceremonies, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner is slated to speak Saturday, May 16 at the SIU Arena. Students have circulated a petition to disinvite him and campus employees, especially union members who rightly feel themselves in the governor’s budgetary crosshairs, are planning to picket his address.

Protesters, however, might keep in mind the following.

Rauner’s proposed austerity budget is indeed a knife in the gut of SIU in particular and Southern Illinois in general. It has forced the university to raise tuition and fees and might require SIU to lay off significant numbers of professors and staff.

Nevertheless, we need Rauner to come to SIU. He must visit the campus and surrounding community. He needs to see first-hand the places and look into the eyes of the people that his budget proposals will devastate. And we need to change his heart, or at least see if he indeed has one.

If the petition to remove Rauner as a graduation speaker succeeds, however, that won’t happen.

Picketing, meanwhile, must have as its goal more than simple agitation. Rauner doesn’t appear concerned with popularity— especially in traditionally liberal bastions like higher education, whose citizens can’t intimidate him into backing down. Rauner’s antiunion attitude verges on the pathological, and faculty unions aren’t exactly composed of swing voters. Rauner can ignore all of their threats because they didn’t vote for him last year, they won’t vote for him in 2018, and he knows it. He long ago wrote them off in his election calculations.

Instead, professors, as educators, need to approach picketing at the graduation ceremonies from the perspective that everybody is capable of learning, including Rauner. Theirs should be less of a protest than an informational campaign designed to teach the governor about the harm that will befall SIU should his fiscal plans find approval with the General Assembly. They need to demonstrate the tangible benefits of funding SIU (Rauner isn’t prone to esoteric arguments about the inherent value of, say, liberal-arts education) to prove that the state is getting more than its money’s worth.

And their approach cannot be so myopic as to be easily dismissed as self-serving. Every other state university in Illinois is facing a similar budgetary attack from Rauner. Meanwhile, many other state departments and contractors are also on the chopping block, and SIU’s unions need to find common cause with them rather than fall victim to Rauner’s divide-and-conquer tactics. Proposed cuts to Amtrak, for example, would drive down already near-record-low SIU enrollment numbers by depriving students of low-cost public transportation to and from Chicago, where the university draws vast numbers of its student body— and that could cause just as many layoffs as direct cuts to SIU funding. Proposed cuts to the Local Government Distributive Fund would multiply these problems by devastating municipal budgets, resulting in even more unemployment and further impoverishing an already economically depressed region. And on and on.

But a tight misfocus on the governor could prove wasteful. Rauner himself isn’t without importance— a governor’s proposed budgets can set the tone for what state government ultimately decides to fund, and at what levels. The real power in state government, however, rests in Speaker of the House and Illinois Democratic Party chair Mike Madigan. Democrats hold supermajorities in both chambers of the General Assembly and are not necessarily buying into Rauner’s proposed solutions to the state’s very real budget crisis.

Outnumbered Springfield Republicans might not have the spine to back Rauner’s budget cuts, either—on May 6, when House Democrats unanimously voted against Rauner’s cuts to human-service programs, G.O.P. representatives unanimously voted present rather than in favor.

A similar legislative smackdown is probably in store when Madigan calls for a vote on Rauner’s proposal for union-busting “right-to-work” zones.

Shoring up support for funding in the General Assembly would prove more fruitful than picketing the governor’s graduation address.

Ultimately, however, the targets of state funding cuts need to understand the magnitude of the deep financial hole in which Illinois finds itself after decades of mismanagement and malfeasance. Rauner’s austerity approach will not help the state climb out of debt— it’s sunk Kansas into its own deep fiscal pit, and Rauner has hired as his administration’s chief financial officer Donna Arduin, who helped shape the Sunflower State’s economic policies.

 

But budgeting for SIU and other important state institutions takes place in the context of Illinois’s ability to fund them. Those who don’t want to find themselves on the unemployment line must develop politically viable but legitimate solutions to the budget crisis and help cultivate the critical mass necessary to win their passage in the legislature. And then, if Rauner doesn’t support them, they should organize behind someone who can defeat him in four years.