Senator Russell Olson (R-8/Wentworth) declares his view that our public universities are mere vocational schools:

Section 2. The Legislature hereby finds, and declares to be the public policy of this state, that the purpose of public postsecondary education is to provide the following:

  1. A workforce that meets the current and prospective needs of the state's economy;
  2. Affordable postsecondary educational opportunities for all state citizens;
  3. Access to postsecondary education programs that serve to increase the educational attainment of the state's citizenry and thereby enable citizens to provide leadership in all sectors of life in the state; and
  4. A foundation upon which the state can grow the development and innovation capacities of the state's economy.

Section 3. The Legislature hereby recognizes that the current goals for public postsecondary education systems and institutions are as follows:

  1. To increase the number of graduates for the state's workforce; and
  2. To increase the growth capacity of the state's economy by increasing the innovation and development capacity of the state and by increasing the skills of the state's current workforce.

Such are the declarations at the top of Senate Bill 5, introduced by Sen. Olson and colleagues on behalf of the interim committee that met this summer to discuss the purpose and funding of higher education in South Dakota. In the eyes of this bill, the liberal arts, the humanities, the broadening of creativity and culture have no central role in university education. Senate Bill 5 says the point of public university education boils down to the economy, to churning out workers and GDP.

The bill creates a Council on Higher EducAtion Policy Goals, Performance, and Accountability (CHEAP-GPA?) to make sure our public campuses pursue the enumerated purposes and goals. The state will promote its narrow-minded vision of the purpose of higher education by offering the campuses performance funding. The amount of performance funding our public universities receive will hinge on two simple metrics: the number of science, technology, engineering, and math graduates; and the growth of spending on research.

Now the purpose statement includes the blanket language about promoting "leadership" in all sectors of life in South Dakota. The performance funding mentions other "critical areas" that the CHEAP-GPA may identify. But the liberal arts clearly are not "critical" enough to warrant the specific mention that STEM and the workforce get in Senate Bill 5. This legislation is just one more sign that our legislators don't understand the true nature of university education. They want to narrow the universe of knowledge and culture that should be at the core of every university's mission to a checklist of workforce metrics that serve no higher purpose than Gross Domestic Product.

But hey, if you want to streamline South Dakota's university system to focus on vocational training, go right ahead. Professors and students seeking something richer in their lives than a paycheck will simply seek their fuzzy-headed notions of philosophy, creativity, beauty, and the greater good elsewhere.