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!”

An opportunity, indeed—for people like Jerry Eckert. In the weeds of Corbett’s selection are hints of old-boy patronage, a business decision based on shifty insider trading.

Two figures stand out. The first is Eckert, Millersville’s Vice President for Advancement—and an appointed member of Governor Corbett’s higher education committee. The second is Kevin Harley, a 1986 Millersville grad who doubles as a member of the Millersville University Council of Trustees and Corbett’s sitting press secretary. With these gubernatorial ties, the logic of Millersville’s “demonstration” works both ways. For someone whose infamy stems from the unpopularity of his budgetary decisions, Corbett’s selection gives him the opportunity to enter the politically no-frills space of a graduation ceremony and trumpet his abstract devotion to the state’s shrinking education system.

If Corbett’s selection is an under-the-table political play, Millersville has followed in step—violating its own bylaws in the process. For the commencement committee that Eckert chairs, which comprises students, faculty and administrators, “The terms of office begin 1 October, and the committee shall meet at least one time per year, usually during the fall semester, but at other times at the call of the convener or a majority of the members of the committee.” But according to university spokesperson Janet Kacskos, “They haven’t met in the last couple years.” Millersville has “a standing list of folks we’d like to speak at commencement,” she told The Nation, and as sitting governor, Corbett’s appearance is significant.

Eckert issued an apology to the president of the student senate (but not the university at large) for failing to follow procedure. Meanwhile, the governor’s overt stance on his selection has been collegial—that is, apolitical. “His commencement addresses are not—he’s not going to talk about budgets, he’s going to talk about the accomplishments of the students,” says Harley, who dismisses suggestions of any political maneuvering. “He considers it an honor to speak.”

For faculty and students, the university’s apologies are stacking up. At Millersville—and universities the world over—command-and-control governance is part-and-parcel of unforgiving budget politics. Over spring break, the university bulldozed “the Bush,” a patch of forest on campus used for biology research, to make way for a new student housing project. The Friday before the break, all faculty members were emailed about the move—far too late for any to speak up. In November, Millersville’s Council of Trustees overruled the school’s Presidential Search Committee in nominating a slate of potential new presidents for the state to choose from—a possible violation of Pennsylvania Act 188.

“It has become a slippery slope of people being disenfranchised,” says Jill Craven, a Millersville English professor. “There’s an old boys network that works in a particular way. It’s another thing when administrators want to take advantage of that.” Faculty have also felt the blunter edge of the Corbett axe. In March, the union representing the fourteen schools in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) settled contract negotiations with the state—after nearly two years of negotiations and a November vote authorizing a strike.

What to do about Corbett at commencement? 

When the governor spoke at Albright College in 2011, the faculty voted unanimously not to grant him an honorary degree—despite that Albright is a private school that’s off the governor’s operating table. At Millersville, the top-down governance that set the stage for Corbett’s selection has lit a fire under campus dissenters.

Over the course of the semester, student organizers have met with faculty members, faculty union representatives, students from other PASSHE schools and alumni. A SignOn.org petition saying that Corbett “does not deserve the honor of speaking at our ceremony” has amassed over 2,200 signatures (nearly half the size of the Millersville student body). “We have fostered a dialogue amongst ourselves to drive democracy in action,” says Rizzo Mertz, a 2011 Millersville grad. “The amount of collaboration among students, alumni and faculty has been fantastic.”

Come commencement, students and allies plan to stand silently and turn their backs on the governor when he speaks. “He turned his back on us, so we’re going to turn our backs on him, and show him what it feels like in public,” Mertz says.

Mertz has also filed right-to-know requests with the state, PASSHE and the university for documents related to the presidential search and commencement selection. In April, the state rejected most of Mertz’s requests, but did return now-former President McNairy’s November invitation to Corbett, which applauds his “successful professional career” and “commitment to community involvement.”

“Our students and staff are highly respectful,” Kacskos says, about the commencement stirrings. “They all believe in diverse opinions and free speech.”

“This isn’t a matter of free speech,” Mertz rejoins. “It’s a matter of self-respect.”

In the neoliberal university, speech may be free, but it’s also profitable. At a commencement ceremony, speakers have an ideal opportunity to make bank. With no room for rebuttal, counter-speech must be off the premises (as with “alternative commencement” ceremonies) or a silent jam.

Score one for Tom Corbett.

But score another for the forces of popular resentment—who, at an event where imagery trumps debate, don’t seem willing to give the governor’s image back.

For first-person takes on student uprising across the country, read StudentNation's Dispatches From the US Student Movement.