This year marks my second decade as a college faculty member. I know I’m getting older now because students don’t recognize many, if not most, of the cultural references I offer in class. When it comes to cartoons I don’t even try. For example, Mr. J. Wellington Wimpy was a secondary character in the comic Popeye. He was famously ravenous when it came to hamburgers, even when he didn’t have the funds to pay for them. His catch phrase was “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.”
While my students might not recognize J. Wellington Wimpy, I think they and everyone else in Connecticut would recognize that our Board of Regents for Higher Education is pursuing his gambit to great effect.
The board has petitioned our governors and legislatures for many, many hamburgers and they are getting them in spades. In 2016 the “system office” of the Regents received $29.3 million worth of hamburgers. Keep in mind that they don’t share these hamburgers with students on our public higher education campuses. The “system office” doesn’t offer any lectures or a dining hall or a dorm.
In 2019-20 the studentless system office, not satisfied with its existing banquet of quarter pounders, is planning on spending a whopper of a budget — $49 million. That is a 67% increase in hamburgers for people that do not really do anything for students. It is simultaneously amusing, saddening, frustrating, and disillusioning to watch the leaders of this system bemoan the budgetary woes in Connecticut higher education as they engorge themselves on more and more resources.
A rapidly growing state budget is a “black swan” in Connecticut. If the board’s mandate had become more challenging over time then perhaps this makes sense. But it is exceedingly difficult to determine whether the board is actually doing its job as outlined by state law.
For example, the board is required to submit an annual report to the General Assembly’s relevant standing committees on its plan to maintain the “distinct missions of the Connecticut State University System” (Connecticut General Statutes Sec. 10a-1c).
I searched six years of archived reports and committee documents on the General Assembly web page and I could not find a single report on this topic. I could not find any such reports on the board web page either and an email to the Office of Board Affairs requesting them has gone unanswered. This leaves the impression of a board with vast resources gone rogue and not held accountable.
If J. Wellington’s free hamburgers did not impact the other Popeye characters then I suppose we might just cast awe at his power of persuasion and laugh it off as harmless. But from my seat on campus committees, where we make decisions involving real students, I can guarantee you that this is not harmless. Weeks ago on my campus we voted to slash funding for our students’ research by about 30%. I sat in that meeting thinking to myself, “why do we have to do this when J. Wellington could just cut off a tiny piece of one of his ever growing pile of hamburgers and we wouldn’t need to? Oh wait, did he just take some of those hamburgers from our students?”
The amazing thing about our Board of Regents’ sales pitch is that, in part, they have siphoned resources away from students while touting how doing so places “Students First.” J. Wellington is promising to pay our state on Tuesday for all these hamburgers he’s getting today. Although Tuesday is actually 2023. The promise is that, by then, magical hamburgers will materialize across our campuses and flow back into state coffers. We are spending more and more money on studentless offices in order to save money. And our Governor and legislature actually believe this, apparently.
My memory is that most of the characters in Popeye were skeptical enough to turn J. Wellington away despite his cunning ways. I hope our political class learns this lesson before it is too late. Otherwise our public college students will soon starve. Let’s also keep in mind that we’re voting in November so maybe we can help prevent this.
Brendan Cunningham is professor of Economics at Eastern Connecticut State University.