Tom Corbett speaks on the Pennsylvania state budget. (AP Photo/Bradley C. Bower)
After Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett proposed a 53 percent cut to the state’s 2011-2012 higher education budget, Millersville University President Francine McNairy sent an urgent campus-wide email. Corbett’s “massive cuts are upsetting,” she wrote on March 8, 2011. “We at Millersville are encouraging our students and their families, our faculty, staff and alumni to contact their local legislators and urge them to advocate on behalf of public higher education in Pennsylvania.” On March 28, the men’s cross country team ran a 40-mile relay from Millersville to the state capitol, where they met up with thousands of students and workers from across the state for “United We Stand, Underfunded We Fail.” Three months later, the Republican state legislature lowered a smaller axe—18 percent. Still, this would cost Millersville $6.34 million, including, despite their triumphant, crowd-parting display, all three men’s track teams.
This was Millersville’s first austerity-on-acid trip—a departure from previous, even Republican, administrations. Between 1985 and 2011, the state’s share of its budget plummeted from 60 percent to 25 percent; students’ contribution went from 40 percent to 75 percent. In 2010, Tea Partier Tom Corbett came in to sweep away whatever was left of the state’s blue economy. In 2011, the state cut public education by $860 million (after a Corbett-proposed $1.2 billion), hitting already under-resourced districts, like Philadelphia, the hardest. In 2012, Corbett scrapped the state’s General Assistance fund, a direct subsidy that mostly benefited people with disabilities. Meanwhile, the governor’s 2013-2014 budget, in keeping with previous years, includes a $68 million increase in operating funds and $166 million in capital projects for the Department of Corrections. For Pennsylvanians, these are known quantities: this year, Corbett earned the lowest approval rating in the eighteen-year history of the Franklin & Marshall poll (18 percent). His appearances in Philadelphia are routinely protested. (A September 19 town hall at the Museum of Art was sidelined by chants of “We want education, not incarceration!” and “Corbett go home!”)
Naturally, then, the man Millersville has chosen to usher graduating seniors into the world of debt and unemployment is the same one who rules it: Tom Corbett.
For those who have borne the brunt of Pennsylvania’s austerity politics, Corbett’s anointment as commencement speaker is a slap in the face. “The audacity for someone to bring him in to speak to us—I feel like it’s disrespectful, it’s a cruel joke,” says fifth-year senior Kyle Johnson, who has dealt with cuts to his campus work hours and financial aid issues. “But, you know, the university is a business. You come to find that out once you go along.” On March 8, Johnson received a less-than-reassuring email from Jerry Eckert, chairman of the Commencement Speaker Committee, reading, “I know this note will not satisfy you…this is an opportunity to demonstrate to the Governor and others what a fine University and its students are—a worthy investment by the state!”