Back To Ignoring The Future

Books @ Shakespeare and Company Bookshop by Aaron Rogers on Flickr The Commons

The recently announced $7.1 billion Oklahoma budget deal for next fiscal year short changes higher education at a time when a college degree is becoming more essential than ever.

As media pundits have pointed out, parents and students will undoubtedly have to make up for the more than $24 million cut to higher education through the raising of tuition and fees, but there will be no improvement to what some analysts refer to as “the product.” This means, for one thing, no or limited additional faculty lines.

The cut will be likely distributed evenly throughout the higher education system, and it wouldn’t be surprising if tuition and fee hikes soon follow. This has been a pattern for many years now when it comes to public higher education throughout the country as many states continue to cut funding to colleges and universities.

Cuts to higher education here and elsewhere mean higher tuition, which translates into higher student debt. It also prices many students out of a degree or places them in debilitating debt after they graduate. In a state such as Oklahoma, which has a low college graduation rate, it doesn’t bode well for the overall future economy. The state needs a better-educated work force to help the economy thrive, but that takes investment.

An income tax cut from 5.25 to 5 percent scheduled to go into effect in January will take an estimated $50 million or so out of the budget, which would have covered the cut to higher education. The average middle class household will pay an estimated extra $29 to $31 less ANNUALLY in income tax. That’s it. Wealthy households will benefit much more, of course, so it’s simply true that the poor and the middle class will get stuck with higher college tuition to make the rich even richer.

The apologists for cuts to higher education will say that Oklahoma still has overall low tuition rates when compared nationally and that the cut is minimal given the budget shortfall of $611 million. They will also use some version of “money isn’t the answer to everything” when it comes to education. But those remain shortsighted and reductionist arguments in a state that historically has not provided adequate funding for education. Oklahoma should be investing much more in both K-12 and higher education to improve the quality of life here. That would do more than tax cuts to attract new businesses and to entice people to come live here.

Study after study through the years have shown that college graduates not only make more money in their lifetimes than non-college graduates but also lead healthier and more enriching lives. One recent study showed that the gap between what college graduates earn and what non-college graduates earn is at an all-time high.

Studies have also shown through the years that Oklahoma lags behind the national average in its number of college graduates.

What’s especially distressing about the higher education cut is that it appears the budget situation could remain stagnant or even become worse the following fiscal year because of the use of what is referred to as “one-time money” this coming fiscal year. So this could mean even more cuts down the road.

The budget doesn’t cut K-12 education but funding remains so flat that the state will continue to deal with a teacher shortage because of low salaries.

Some lawmakers may herald this budget as a good compromise, but usually when a state cuts funding to one of its education systems it shows a disregard for the future. This is one of those times.

Editorial Apologia

Religion? By Ron Jansen on Flickr The Commons

I would be remiss if I didn’t dissect a recent sophomoric editorial in The Oklahoman lamenting the decline of Christians in the nation and the rise of people describing themselves as agnostic or atheist.

The editorial, titled “Declining Christian numbers in Oklahoma, elsewhere no cause for celebration,” referred to a recent Pew Research Center survey that shows the number of people who identify as Christian dropped by more than seven percentage points from 2007 to 2014. It also showed people who described themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” rose by six percentage points during those seven years.

The survey found that 70.6 percent of the U.S. population still identifies as Christian, a high number for sure, but the editorial really doesn’t stress this point. The commentary is just a reductionist apologia for Christianity rather than a fact-based and truthful historical analysis of the religion. The editorial omits important information and relies on cringing generalizations.

The overall gist of the editorial is fairly simple. The number of Christians in the U.S. is in decline and this is a bad thing overall.

Let me be clear before I go through three “points” made by the editorial that although I identify as “nothing in particular,” I do think there are ways to academically and intellectually defend Christianity. For example, I think of famous Christians, such as C.S. Lewis or Cardinal John Henry Newman, who held sophisticated Christian views that still resonate and provoke.

But The Oklahoman isn’t interested in an intellectual defense. Here’s one of the first big points the editorial makes:

. . . there’s no denying that people genuinely devoted to a religion emphasizing love for others, denial of self, and belief that one answers to a higher power have generated far more societal improvement than what’s been rendered by those pursuing a self-directed “do whatever makes you feel good” ethos.

Our nation is undoubtedly a better place when there are more of the former than the latter.

The idea that it’s mostly non-Christians who pursue a “do whatever makes you feel good” personal philosophy is simply a gross generalization. According to one writer looking into the issue only 0.7 percent of inmates in the federal prison system identify as atheist. This number has long been in dispute, especially by Christians, but it's at least worth exploring on an empirical basis if one is going to make a generalized argument about “self-directed” people.

In addition, the idea that our nation is better off because of Christianity is simply not provable. It can be compared to the colonization argument that countries that have been colonized by empires are better off than if they weren’t colonized. But here’s the point: We will never know. It’s pure speculation. Along these lines, I might add that Christianity on a historical basis has been used to help empires exploit people throughout the world under the term “missionary work” and to give a moral basis for slavery in the U.S. The Southern Baptist Church, for example, was founded based on its pro-slavery position.

I could go on and on along these lines, but my overall point is the editorial doesn’t engage in anything close to a dialogue about the issue.

Here’s another big point the editorial makes:

Critics will counter that Oklahoma typically ranks among the top states for church attendance, yet ranks worse on the aforementioned measures than states with lower levels of religious observance. This may suggest some people are hypocrites, but it doesn’t mean Oklahoma would be better off if fewer people adhered to a religion that advocates against murder, adultery and theft. A classroom full of pregnant teenage atheists would still be a sign of societal decay.

The editorial gets it exactly wrong, especially when it comes to teenage pregnancy. It’s backwards. Open-minded people in this state for years have advocated for comprehensive sex education in our schools. We have been thwarted by religious conservatives and fundamentalists who believe such education will lead to promiscuity. Thus, there’s been a long-held argument here—stretching over decades—that religious conservatism is responsible for the state’s high teenage pregnancy rate because many teenagers are not getting the information they need to either abstain from having sex or to use birth control.

But The Oklahoman is having none of that basic logic:

Oklahomans’ problems aren’t the product of Christianity. But the compassionate response of many Oklahomans, who even make dramatic personal sacrifices to aid struggling people, is often a product of their Christianity.

Yet polls through the years have shown that Oklahoma is especially Christian. A 2004 Gallup poll showed eight out of 10 people in Oklahoma identified as Christian. That number is dropping, according to the Pew survey, but the fact remains that a majority of people identify as Christian in Oklahoma and have done so for a very long time.

So who IS responsible for Oklahomans’ problems? If the majority of Oklahomans, including its politicians, are Christians, then it would only be logical to presume they are the ones responsible for the state’s social problems, such poor medical outcomes and childhood poverty. Undoubtedly, there are Christians who do great social work in the state as the editorial mentions, but when the state’s leaders—politicians like U.S. Rep. James Lankford, U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, state Rep. Sally Kern, Gov. Mary Fallin, etc.—won’t do anything about our “problems” and instead exploit impoverished people to serve the wealthy, then one has to reach the conclusion that Christianity is exactly what ails this state.

Email Shows Hamm Meddling In Earthquake Issue At OU

Image of Harold Hamm by Concordia College

Oil baron Harold Hamm’s apparent zealous meddling at the University of Oklahoma over the state’s major earthquake problem is a threat to academic freedom and shows an obvious pitfall of the corporate model of education.

On Friday, Bloomberg reported that Hamm, the billionaire chief executive officer of Oklahoma City-based energy company Continental Resources, apparently told an OU dean he “would like to see select OGS staff dismissed.” OGS stands for Oklahoma Geological Survey, which is located at the university and is affiliated with the Mewbourne College of Earth and Energy.

The OGS, among other projects, has been studying the state’s dramatic surge in earthquakes, a surge it and other scientists believe has been caused by wastewater disposal wells used in the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, process.

The information about Hamm comes from an email written by Larry Grillot, dean of the Mewbourne College of Earth and Energy, which was obtained through a public records request by Bloomberg News. The email outlines a “visit” between Grillot and Hamm “to discuss [Hamm’s] concerns about reporting of earthquake activity by select OGS staff.” Hamm requested the meeting.

Along with referring to how Hamm wanted specific staff dismissed, the July 16, 2014 email reveals Hamm planned to meet with Gov. Mary Fallin about moving the OGS out of OU. The email also reveals Hamm wanted to serve on a job search committee for OGS Director.

You can read the full email here. It was earlier reported in widespread coverage that in late 2013, Hamm and OU President David Boren met with Austin Holland, an OGS seismologist and discussed the earthquake issue. Hamm is a major financial donor to the university. Boren made nearly $350,00 serving on Continental Resources Board of Directors in 2014, according to The Oklahoma Daily.

No one has been dismissed from the university over the issue, Hamm didn’t serve on the search committee and Fallin’s office has issued a statement that the governor doesn’t have the authority to take over the OGS and has no plans to try to do so.

A university spokesperson also did say OU “will not tolerate any possible interference with academic freedom and scientific inquiry,” but Grillot’s email and the earlier meeting with Holland seem, at the very least, to bring that into question.

I will state the obvious. The oil and gas industry has a vested interest in escaping responsibility for the hundreds of earthquakes Oklahoma now experiences each year, and it’s also in the industry’s interest to continue to use wastewater disposal wells in the fracking process. Hamm’s statements, as presented in Grillot’s email, collectively are as about a direct assault on academic freedom and academic integrity as you can get. Trying to get people fired for speaking the truth and doing their jobs is an ugly business. Is the OGS only supposed to report information that is beneficial to the bottom line of oil and gas companies?

In recent decades, many, if not most, public universities have adopted some form of what has been referred to as the corporate model of education, which emphasizes business-like models in managing institutions. With decreasing support from taxpayers and operating under a business philosophy, universities have also turned to rich donors to help support their missions. These donors have their own various agendas and beliefs that don’t always coincide with intellectual integrity.

Yet if a university ceases to honor academic freedom, it also really ceases to exist as a place of true learning and intellectual discovery.

The oil and gas industry is a vital part of the Oklahoma economy and will remain so, but right now the state faces an earthquake emergency. Daily earthquakes of 3.0 magnitude or higher are not uncommon here now, something unimaginable just a few years ago. Some scientists claim the state is destined to get hit by a major quake. A 2011 quake near Prague registered at a 5.6 magnitude. In 2014, there were 585 earthquakes 3.0 or higher, the most in the lower 48 states, including California.

In the wastewater disposal process, water laced with chemicals used to frack for oil and gas is injected into underground rock formations and stored there. It’s believed by scientists that it’s this process that causes instability along fault lines and triggers the earthquakes.

The prudent action would be to issue a moratorium on wastewater disposal wells for now, but that, of course, could disrupt oil and gas drilling activities. A sudden moratorium could also, at this point, trigger even more earthquakes, according to seismologist Holland.

Meanwhile, rich and powerful oil and gas executives such as Hamm are probably going to try to influence how the state addresses the issue, and they will be worried mostly about their companies’ bottom lines. But at this point, given the mounting scientific evidence, a major quake that hits a highly populated area in Oklahoma would raise questions about the industry’s liability on both a moral and financial level.

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