by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist
The great MOHELA monster has finally emerged from its den in the Missouri Senate and has lumbered over to the House of Representatives. Soon it might be released into the wilds of Missouri’s higher education system.
For months this creature has been growing, mutating, and, dare I say it, evolving in the Senate. What started out as an idea to generate pork that could be handed out to higher education has turned into an ugly, slimy monstrosity that only a governor could love. This bill is no hellbender, but it is a bit of a mind-bender.
The Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority monster has several unique properties, including the ability to turn a four-term representative or a two-term senator into a tenure-track professor of political science at any one of Missouri’s colleges or universities.
Professors with real-world experience are valued in academia, but for some silly reason, they are also expected to be qualified to teach and conduct research in the academic field in which they are employed. Political science is a rigorous academic field of study focused on politics and government, with little if any emphasis on practical politics, i.e., how to get elected and how to get legislation passed.
Which retiring member of the General Assembly is really ready to teach “Linear Models in Politics” or “Quantitative Approaches in International Relations” in the fall? I’d bet Ed Robb could do it with some serious preparation work, but he already has a doctorate in a field that is steeped in statistics and mathematics. I’d bet that most members of the legislature are a little rusty on their algebra, let alone remember anything about quantitative methods or linear models. And once these former legislators are in academia, what type of research are they going to undertake and publish as part of the process of receiving tenure?
The MOHELA bill reveals how little the legislature really understands about higher education. For example, most people understand that constructing new buildings on college campuses will mean that the annual cost of operating those campuses will increase.
But in the legislature, this has yet to sink in.
While working to pass the MOHELA bill, they are simultaneously trying to pass tax cuts that will likely lead to budget deficits and cuts to higher education in the years ahead. What good are new buildings if you can’t afford to pay the heating and electric bills? Or pay for the staff and faculty who will be located in the new facilities?
But if the MOHELA bill was really about using public money for public benefit and not about using public money for political benefit, it wouldn’t be the monster it is today. Instead it has become just another vehicle for the Republican leadership to dole out political payback and to please their various political supporters.
The one thing that the MOHELA bill should do is to provide some supervision and control over the MOHELA board itself – a quasi-governmental corporation that operates with excessive secrecy and enjoys way too many perks for a board that controls public money. Besides its loan assets, the MOHELA board has been sitting on millions in cash that could have been used to help lower the cost of tuition for students. And last year the board gave a $830,000 severance package to it’s outgoing director, whom they fired because he expressed reservations about the plan to sell MOHELA’s loan assets. Of course, none of these issues are addressed in the current bill.
Only a few members of the legislature have not been slimed by the MOHELA monster in one way or another. One such member is Rep. Paul Quinn. Throughout his campaign for the Ninth District House seat last year, Paul consistently said that while he loved Missouri’s universities and colleges and would like to see them have money for new buildings, he thought that any money generated from MOHELA should go to making higher education more affordable for Missouri students.
At the time, most people thought Quinn was just being naive. But with tuition at all of Missouri’s public institutions continuing to skyrocket, Quinn is starting to sound more like a political prophet.