A Senate panel voted Monday to recommend confirmation of an outspoken and often controversial political blogger and lobbyist to the state Board of Regents.
The 6-1 vote of the Education Committee came after Greg Patterson promised to put his Espresso Pundit blog on hiatus, at least for awhile. And Patterson said if it comes back — an uncertainty at this time — he would not be writing about the state universities, their presidents or his other regents.
And Democratic state lawmakers, a favorite target, probably also would be off limits in his new position, he said.
But Senate Minority Leader David Schapira said his concern was not Patterson’s political attacks or even the fact that he had been on the pointed end of some of them. He grilled Patterson, a former Republican state legislator, about what he wrote about higher education, and why.
Much of Schapira’s focus centered on Patterson blog entries over the years questioning the value of a college degree, at least in certain fields like psychology, history, religious studies, political science, English literature and journalism.
“You refer to them as degrees that have little or no economic value,” Schapira said, asking whether Patterson would use his power as a regent to pressure university presidents to eliminate those programs.
“The degrees have academic value,” said Patterson, whose nomination by Gov. Jan Brewer now needs approval of the full Senate. But he said it’s necessary to ask whether someone who gets a degree in sociology can earn enough over a lifetime to exceed the cost of the education at the moment.
“In 1985, the answer was ‘yes,’” he said, when tuition was much lower. But Patterson said that probably is not true now, where tuition, room, board, fees and books can run $80,000 over four years at a state university.
“So, as an economic decision, it’s a poor one,” he said. “The way to fix that is to keep tuition low and to make sure that the degrees that are offered have enough variety of skills that people can be employed after.”
Schapira said having those kinds of comments coming from someone who wants to help direct the university system sends a bad message to students who choose a career that is “personally meaningful” for them. And he questioned whether the only role of a university is to prepare people for financial gain.
“I think a liberal arts education is wonderful,” Patterson responded.
“I think training in almost any degree has value,” he continued. “The question is: What is the economic value?”
Sen. Lori Klein, R-Anthem, said nothing that Patterson has said or written about college education is inappropriate or makes him unfit to sit on the board.
“I think it’s very important that our young people have a reality check to understand what’s going to happen to them,” she said.
“Tough love is one thing,” Schapira responded.
But he cited a recent blog entry where Patterson imagined himself delivering a welcome address to freshmen in the Honors College at Arizona State University who are supposed to be “future leaders.” Those would-be comments went beyond telling students they are unlikely to acquire the skills necessary to repay their college loans.
“By ‘future leaders’ we mean ‘middle management,’” Patterson wrote.
“I’m not disparaging middle management,” Patterson said Monday, saying people can buy a home and raise a family at that level.
“But you can’t take a group of 1,800 kids and tell them all they’re going to be the future CEOs and presidents of America,” he said. “They need to know that going in,” Patterson said, “or they will wind up like the folks in the Occupy Wall Street movement.”
“They’re not homeless kids who’ve decided that they’re just going to go live in a park,” Patterson said. “They have degrees, they owe a lot of money ... and many of them are finding themselves unemployable.”
Schapira also pointed out that Patterson, in a 2007 blog, said university presidents should be paid no more than $120,000 a year. Even with inflation, that is far less than the $620,000 in salary and benefits just offered to new University of Arizona President Ann Weaver Hart, and the $720,000 paid to Michael Crow at ASU.
Patterson said that kind of salary attracts those whose “vision” is toward creating a school heavy on reputation and research.
“The vision of the folks who make three-quarters of a million dollars a year is not giving as many kids as possible the education and skills that they need — and doing so as nearly free as possible,” Patterson said, referring to a state constitutional mandate.
“It is incumbent on the regents that when they choose a university president, that person has to keep the undergraduates in mind,” Patterson said. He said his own experience at UA made him feel like undergraduates were “a byproduct of a research institution,” pointing to his psychology class with 1,700 students.
“The vision that we need to have a No. 1 research institution is great,” Patterson said.
“But let’s not forget about the 100,000 undergraduates who are in that institution.
“And it’s possible that, if you had a president that didn’t make a million dollars a year or three-quarters of a million dollars a year, that you’d have more of a focus on (institutions like) ASU West,” where the focus is on undergraduate education.
Patterson also defended comments saying that some would-be college students might be better off deciding to do something else. He said there are plenty of good, high-paying jobs that go wanting, saying Arizona Public Service is going to need linemen to replace those who are retiring.
“There are people who need to make the rational decision to say, ‘What are my skills, what do I want to be when I grow up, and how do I get there,’” Patterson said. “And for some of them, it is not a degree in journalism.”