By Dustin Hurst | Watchdog.org
HELENA – Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester trumps Republican challenger Denny Rehberg in individual campaign donations, but he holds a particularly stunning advantage among academics.
Perhaps Tester’s edge is so striking because Montana college and university professors and workers haven’t given a dime to Rehberg, the state’s lone congressman since 2001.
According to June 30 Federal Election Commission reports, academics pitched in just more than $7,300 to Rehberg’s U.S. Senate campaign. None of that money, however, came from professors or workers at in-state schools.
Four donors provide the small take for Rehberg: A professor at the University of Mississippi, a chancellor at Florida’s Keiser College, an instructor at Northern Illinois University and a vice president for ITT Technical Institute, a for-profit tech school with 130 campuses nationwide.
Tester, on the other hand, is flush with money from academics.
The first-term Democrat’s June 30 FEC report shows $87,708 in academic donations, with just less than half of that figure — $41,264 to be exact – coming from in-state schools such as Montana State University in Bozeman and University of Montana in Missoula.
Professors and instructors from campuses spanning the country put money toward Tester’s re-election bid. His FEC report includes donations from workers at the University of Wisconsin, the University of Washington, Temple University in Pennsylvania, Cornell University in New York and the prestigious Massachusetts Institute for Technology, just to name a few.
The money disparity between the two men could reflect Rehberg’s tough stances on education issues, or it could reveal a larger, more startling problem on college campuses.
To be sure, Rehberg’s rhetoric on academic issues hasn’t won him many friends among campus-goers. His comments last year about Pell Grants — federal money students use to pay for school and don’t pay back — sparked fierce backlash.
“So you can go to college on Pell Grants — maybe I should not be telling anybody this because it’s turning out to be the welfare of the 21st century,” Rehberg said in a radio interview last year.
The congressman walked back the remarks. “I’m not suggesting that college students are welfare recipients,” he said, as reported by the Huffington Post. “I’m just saying that the program itself is expending so quickly it’s moving beyond the federal government’s ability’ to pay for it.”
Pell grants are a big deal of students nationwide, and in Montana, too. Some 24,000 Treasure State college students take Pell Grant money. That’s more than half of all students attending Montana’s colleges and universities.
For the 2009-10 school year, Pell Grants paid more than $74 million on behalf of Treasure State students, according to a year-end U.S. Department of Education report.
If Rehberg’s rhetoric doesn’t endear him to Montana’s academics, then neither will some of his congressional actions.
Last year, the Republican congressman supported a measure to cut individual Pell Grants maximums by more than $800, or from $5,500 to $4,705. The vote would have also narrowed program eligibility a year after Democrats expanded it.
While Rehberg saw the vote as one of necessary fiscal restraint, students and academics may have seen it as a direct threat to their funding flow. Had that change been implemented, Montana students – and thus colleges and universities – would have lost $15 million in federal money next year.
Rehberg’s move disappointed some school officials. University of Montana enrollment services director Terri Gruba told The Missoulian why.
“That might be the straw the breaks the camel’s back,” Gruba told the paper in March 2008. “I dread having to tell a student that ‘although we thought you could afford college, unfortunately Congress has cut your grant and it looks like you can’t afford school after all.’ We need Congress to keep the full funding for Pell grants for our students.”
Is Rehberg’s Pell Grant stance the sole reason academics prefer the Democrat Tester in Montana’s U.S. Senate race?
Maybe, maybe not.
That trend holds in Montana, too. According to OpenSecrets.org, a nonpartisan campaign finance tracking tool from the Center for Responsive Politics, Montana professors prefer Obama to Romney, though a few supported Texas U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, also a Republican.
OpenSecrets.org shows Montana State University and University of Montana workers donated $5,250 to Obama’s re-election campaign, but nothing to Romney’s. Workers at the two schools also pitched in $1,750 to Paul.
Explanations for this common inclination could be many, but some publications and studies suggest a few common themes.
Emory University professor Drew Westen gave Colorado Watchdog his take: Liberals and Democrats are just smarter than conservatives and Republicans.
“That suggests that people who think logically and have been selected for intellect are more convinced by Democrats than Republicans,” Westen told Colorado Watchdog recently. “Perhaps that’s not a surprise when you take into consideration that Republicans defy basic math by arguing that you can cut deficits by throwing public employees out of work, which cuts the number of taxpayers (and hence reduces tax revenue), or that you can increase revenue by cutting taxes to the rich. Democrats tend to believe in science, e.g., they don’t believe in angels or Satan, but they do believe in evolution.”
Others have different, less controversial views on the situation.
University of British Columbia professor Neil Gross and Harvard Ph.D candidate Ethan Fosse studied the tendency and concluded that more liberals aspire to academic ranks.
Gross and Fosse wrote in a study that the academic world “has acquired such a strong reputation for liberalism and secularism that over the last 35 years few politically or religiously conservative students, but many liberal and secular ones, have formed the aspiration to become professors.”
Gross and sociologist Solon Simmons issued a different study on the topic of professors’ political persuasions in 2007, revealing about 80 percent of academics self-identify as liberal.
Yet, there may be a darker side to politics on college campuses.
While some researchers, such as Gross and Fosse, suggest liberals simply aspire to academia, others believe there might even be a hiring bias against conservatives.
Yoel Inbar and Joris Lammers of Tilburg University in the Netherlands suggest in a study set for release next month that liberal academics would discriminate against conservatives if given the chance. The Washington Times reported last week that Inbar and Jammers sampled a “roughly representative sample of academics and scholars in social psychology” to find that liberal professors wouldn’t hire conservatives or would choose liberal candidates over more right-leaning prospects in jobs interviews.
The findings surprised the duo, the Washington Times reported, because the questions “were so blatant that I thought we’d get a much lower rate of agreement,” Inbar said. “Usually you have to be pretty tricky to get people to say they’d discriminate against minorities.”
Contact Dustin Hurst via email at Dustin@Watchdog.org. Tweet him using the @DustinHurst handle.