Blog: Senator Durbin’s Political Theatrics the Thinnest Yet

By Kevin Kuzma, Editor

This is not a column about language or civility. We’ve seen enough of those in recent weeks. I’ve been trapped inside my apartment for two days now by the blizzard that’s "paralyzed" the Midwest according to reports, so I don’t feel especially capable of addressing either language or civility at the moment.

This column is about Illinois Senator Richard Durbin’s speech delivered yesterday to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. And, it’s also about needless political posturing.

Gathered before a "hometown crowd" at a meeting of independent college presidents, Senator Durbin spoke with the most vehement language yet to be directed from the government toward for-profit schools. Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, used aggressive words and battle phrases to enrapture his audience, to bring the flames of anger to full rise by claiming traditional colleges and universities were “under assault” from for-profit schools that want to, he said, “take your students.” We’ve heard for close to a year now that for-profit colleges were “under attack,” but that phraseology was derived from the media, and it was directed one way – toward for-profit schools.

But yesterday Durbin pitted for-profits directly against the traditional schools. His ammunition, I suppose, was the fact that profit-driven colleges receive a quarter of all Pell Grant money despite comprising only about 10 percent of all students. While we’d heard in the advance that Durbin’s speech was likely not to flatter for-profits, the final result was surprising given the recent shooting of US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona on Jan. 8, and the subsequent discussion that resulted over inappropriate rhetoric and the need for civility in political conversations.

There was no more animosity needed in this debate since emotions are already running high, and both sides are amped up.

I won’t attribute the lack of civility we’ve seen in this nation solely to language, though, or call out Durbin for bad word choice. I merely find it unusual that such strong words should come so quickly – and in a discussion essentially over financial aid money. His purpose was to show that Democrats aren’t backing down from their efforts to defame for-profits and ultimately redirect financial aid to other types of institutions. Durbin’s speech was all show, and it’s especially easy to see through as you read his statements after the fact in staunch black and white.

In the last few months, we’ve seen that one man’s comments can impact the feelings about an entire business sector and shake up stocks. This seems naïve to me, especially when the intent is clear. I realize that it depends, sometimes, on who the person is and what he or she says, and the degree to which the public or investors believe what’s been said. When the person is a Senator who’s only been loosely connected to a debate, and not a member of the committee that’s set out to deliberately defame for-profit schools in a series of hearings, though, it’s even more clearly a sham — more obviously political theatrics — that we have to sit and watch (or read) from our own places in the country.

My thoughts on this could be caused by blizzard-induced claustrophobia, and yet they are crystal clear. This could be attributed to the snow-blind filling my windows, the white sheet Mother Nature’s tossed in the air and for a full day now has been settling on the ground, the cars and the rooftops. The space I can move around in comfortably is limited, and because I’m rooted here the outside world seems larger. In fact, the world seems much larger than Senator Durbin and the few Democrats and members of the Department of Education that want to bring down for-profit schools.

For-profit schools serve a valuable and irreplaceable role in supplying our country’s work force. As educators, you have your own space to move around in, and it’s more restricted in the for-profit education realm than it is on "traditional" campuses. Every step for you is more heavily scrutinized, from the approaches you use to market to students and what you say to them during the enrollment process to their placement in jobs related to their fields of study, and, eventually, the salaries they make.

No one knows your space better than you. No one knows how to operate under those restrictions as efficiently as you do. As unfair as the rules might be — as clear as double-standards are — you go about your job in preparing students for careers that will last a lifetime. You do it with the media and the current administration looking down on the job you do.

For-profit education doesn’t need a government that doesn’t understand the lengths you go to criticizing your work. Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) has perhaps lost whatever influence he had on efforts to undermine for-profit education. Durbin is merely upping the ante. But they will never succeed until they understand the real value in what our schools deliver – in the work you do. And they will never see it – not when they have other intentions in mind.

Senator Durbin’s speech was a reminder that the opposition is still there. Was his intention, though, to remind us, or perhaps himself and others who want to follow his lead but are losing confidence in the battle plan?

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