Proposed cuts would destroy the University of Arizona as we know it

Whenever I think of Arizona legislators, I think of Nathan Huffheins. He's the guy in Raising Arizona with five babies, one of whom gets kidnapped by Nicolas Cage. Huffheins is a rich, self-made businessman with a tacky business, a tacky wife and a tacky house filled with tacky brick-a-brack. His life is tacky, because his mind is tacky. He equates material wealth with success. He doesn't know any better. He never went to college.

Arizonans might not have that college option much longer if the Joint Legislative Budget Committee has its way. Barack Obama's snatching of Janet Napolitano to head the Department of Homeland Security seemed swell for about five minutes--yeah, it was cool to be part of The Big Change. But when the hoopla died down, and we cast our eyes toward Phoenix, the horror descended: We've got a Republican as governor now. The guard dog has left the yard.

And the University of Arizona is in trouble. In the wake of economic recession, the university took a $20 million budget cut at the beginning of the 2008-2009 fiscal year. An additional $20 million midyear cut was also planned. When Napolitano left, the UA was girded for $100 million worth of budget cuts over a period of two years--a serious but not quite fatal wound. But things have changed.

The current proposal by the JLBC is a midyear budget cut of $103 million. This means the UA heading into the 2009-2010 fiscal year is facing a total budget cut of 40 percent.

There's no way it can survive this.

I've heard loads of economic arguments, all of them good, as to why these budget cuts would be fatal to the economy of Southern Arizona. As a Research-1 institution, the UA brings in upward of $500 million in research money per year. It employs thousands of citizens and educates our children, creating higher earners and enriching our tax base. It attracts research/development companies and high-tech industries, and produces advances in medical care and agriculture. The list goes on and on. Without the UA, Tucson would be just another podunk Western town.

But amidst all these panic-driven, eminently reasonable economic talking points, other arguments are being ignored: The colleges that bring in the dough--those of the science, engineering, agriculture and medicine variety--are not realistically on the block. But the liberal arts are.

One UA representative spoke of "cutting off branches of the tree." If the proposed budget cuts go through, this means probable forced closures of some colleges and departments in the fine arts and humanities, and among so-called soft sciences like anthropology, sociology, psychology, environmental biology, American Indian studies, photography, creative writing, Hispanic studies and education. The list goes on and on.

What will be left in the end? A trade school or a university? Contrary to popular belief, there is a difference.

I'm not rich. I'm a piss-poor freelance writer, a Luddite and a closet technophobe. But one thing I'm not is a Nathan Huffheins. I studied the humanities in school, and due to the efforts of a classics professor, I can look at the temple of Athena at Paestum in Italy, recognize its architectural and geometric perfection, and weep. I can look at a 500-year-old painting in an art gallery and, instead of being bored, feel awe and wonder at the red of a Madonna's drape, recognizing the brilliance of the artist who concocted it. An art history professor taught me how. I can read Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass and get it, because an English professor inspired me. I remember Plato, the shadows on the wall of a cave and the idea that nobody sees what's really there, because "it" can only be guessed at. I remember vividly getting so angry at Rene Descartes and his Meditations that the feeling of relief provided by a determined philosophy professor who made me explicate and argue my objections felt like an end to torture.

These are things that no one can ever take from me. I learned them at a university. They aren't really part of what I do so much as a part of who I am.

I get that it all comes down to dollars and cents, but as the factions line up to do battle, it's my sincerest hope that the question of who--and not simply what--we want to be doesn't get trampled into the mud. True education doesn't just teach. It transforms.