Last week the PASSHE secessionists rolled out their PR wagons and hit the trail. On Tuesday March 11, Senators Tomlinson (R) and Dinniman (D) unveiled Senate Bill 1275 branded as “Stronger Pennsylvania Public Universities” during a morning press conference. The accompanying social media branding campaign sought to reinforce and cement a narrative of crisis, downplay any negative impacts of allowing universities to secede from the State System of Higher Education, and frame their legislation as being pro-student, pro-faculty, and pro-public education. Later in the week, the Senators took their road show to West Chester University to hock their snake oil. Their legislation and PR blitz attempted to heighten the level of fear and crisis to create a market for their cure. Fortunately for Tomlinson and Dinniman, the Pennsylvania legislature and PASSHE administrators have done much of the heavy lifting to establish the crisis narrative (see my previous reporting on this HERE).
This is shock doctrine in slow motion – again – with one significant difference: this time around, there was a slow, quiet campaign to persuade faculty and administrators at a select number of PASSHE universities to get behind a plan to dismantle the 14 university state system.
(Listen to full press conference here: Tomlinson & Dinniman PASSHE Secession Press Conference)
Secession as Freedom
As I first reported back on February 22, Senators Tomlinson and Dinniman – Tomlinson in particular – engaged in a low-profile campaign on West Chester University’s campus to build support for PASSHE Secession legislation. Discussions between Senator Tomlinson – a member of West Chester Universities council of trustees – and the university’s administration had advanced enough by the end of the fall 2013 semester, that WCU President Weisenstein began holding small group meetings with faculty and staff to build support for secession. Sources who attended some of those meetings report that Weisenstein made a pitch that echoes the message that Tomlinson and Dinniman are peddling – the tired, worn anti-pubic, pro-privatization, market-is-the-answer message that the right-wing in this country has spent 30 years drilling into our consciousness. At its core, the message is that having a commitment to the whole, to the public, to a “WE” is a drag. That message was taken to the next level at the press conference officially announcing the propose legislation.
At the press conference announcing SB 1275, Tomlinson began with the now familiar (and tired) story of government bureaucracy “taking” from the innovative entrepreneur, the locality:
I think over the years what’s happened is, power has collected to Harrisburg and power has been taken away from your local schools to run their institutions. I would like to try and put some of that back. And I’d also like to put some money back and get some autonomy in my local school.
That’s all Tomlinson wants. To put back what’s been taken from him – I mean from West Chester University. But, at times, Tomlinson did seem to claim ownership over WCU, well beyond his role as a member of the university’s Council of Trustees (and with recent revelations that the WCU Council of Trustees instructed the university’s foundation to bankroll the PR/lobbying firm advocating for Tomlinson’s legislation there seems to be a direct expressway between WCU’s Council of Trustees and Tomlinson’s advocacy for secession legislation):
We’re supposed to be getting 30% from the state, we’re getting as a system about 24%, West Chester is down to about 22%. I’m willing to take that number down to even to 20% and then free us up and let us run our institution – I’ll take the same amount of money as a state-related. Why would they get more money, why would they have more to say and get the same amount of money.
OK. Then things get interesting and we begin to see a much more troubling logic. Just watch as Tomlinson moves his discussion from “we want freedom” to “you’ve got to increase the controls on those ‘Other’ universities” and those other students:
So, I’m willing to step back, let the System have more of our percentage, I’m willing to buy the buildings, I’m willing to not take any more capital money, I’m willing to go away from DGS and let us do our own thing at our university, freeing up more capital money to the Cheneys and the Mansfields and the other schools. But I think you are going to have to have a serious discussion about what those schools are going to teach, what is relevant for those schools. You just can’t keep the same old system going by taking money from one institution and transferring it to another. You have to really talk about where’s that school relevant to those children.”
Got that? Tomlinson wants to make sure that “his” university gets autonomy, freedom, flexibility – pick your neoliberal catch phrase – but for the “Cheneys and the Mansfields and the other schools,” it’s time to have a “serious discussion about what those schools are going to teach, what is relevant for those schools.” It’s time for West Chester and the “successful” universities to stop giving hand outs to the those other schools, right? The beauty of a public university system is that it exists to serve all citizens of the Commonwealth – with an emphasis on high quality, accessibility, and affordability. Your access to higher education is not supposed to be determined by your ZIP code, whether you live in a rural area of the state or within commuting distance of a major city. If anything, we can say that a public university system exists to ensure that you need not live within an hour of a major metro area in order to have access to a high quality education. But Tomlinson seems perfectly fine painting rural Pennsylvanian’s as looking for handouts. Rural Pennsylvanians and those wishing to attend an affordable, state-owned historically black college, that is.
Tomlinson was certainly not alone preaching the Gospel of makers and takers at his March 11 press conference. After all, a press conference is also an opportunity to show who your allies are – they are the people who take the stage with you, say a few words, and let the world know they’ve got your back.
So, who has Tomlinson’s back?
Senator Smucker was on hand to talk about how Millersville University has been “squeezed” and to drive home the divide between supposedly “successful” PASSHE universities and the Others:
Within the system, the shift of resources away from the more successful schools means that instructional capabilities of professors and learning opportunities for students, go unrealized. Just about every avenue of advocacy imaginable has been tried. But no one reasonably foresees any state revenue revival riding to the rescue.
Smucker’s prepared zinger was to label PASSHE as a “straitjacket on innovation.”
Senator Pat Vance also lent her support to SB 1275, with a dual message of concern and fear. “Lest we forget this is all about the students and how we can prepare them,” she reminded no one, “If we really care about the students, if we do nothing there will be no schools left for them to attend.” Be afraid! Be so afraid of losing your school that you will personally advocate to let the largest PASSHE universities cut-and-run.
But for my money the most interesting character on the stage last week was Chris Franklin – a West Chester alum, member of PASSHE’s Board of Governors, member of West Chester University’s Council of Trustees, and the former President of the Board of Director’s for West Chester’s Foundation (yes, the same one that hired the Bravo Group to lauch the Pro-Secession PR offensive). As a member of PASSHE’s Board of Governors you might expect a more measured statement, especially given that the Board of Governor’s newly hand-picked Chancellor, Frank Brogan, had publicly come out against the legislation just days before the press conference. Instead, Franklin provided a slickly packaged pro-secession message:
It’s no secret that PASSHE is facing some enormous financial challenges. Those challenges will not disappear in the coming years without a very large infusion of funds or a fairly dramatic restructuring of the State System as the Senators have already suggested.
PASSHE’s financial woes won’t be bailed out long-term by asking the taxpayers simply for more money. So we need structural change at the System level to make this really work…Allowing the State-owned universities to purchase and construct buildings in a similar fashion that the state-relateds do, so it can really be done in the most cost-effective way; allowing collective bargaining to be done where it really belongs, at the local level, at the university level; ensuring that tuition dollars stay with the student at the university where that student attends; ensuring that state funding to each university is based on a formula that’s fair to all universities and not just to subsidize those that are in more desperate need. Now, structural change in business comes hard, but it’s particularly difficulty in government and in academia.
It would be notable by itself that Chris Franklin was being so public in his advocacy given his positions at WCU and on the PASSHE Board of Governors. His role in West Chester University’s Foundation opens a whole series of questions about his influence.
But, it’s what Franklin does when he’s not advocating structural transformation of PASSHE that got my attention. Chris Franklin is the President and Chief Operating Officer of Aqua America Inc. His executive profile on Aqua America’s web page describes Franklin’s 20 year work for the company as follows:
Franklin, a 20-year veteran of the company, has held executive roles in public affairs, customer operations and most recently as regional president of the company’s southern and mid-western operations, where he managed eight states. While holding that post, Franklin significantly increased the performance and earnings power of these diverse state operations, while simultaneously serving as senior vice president of the company’s corporate and public affairs, where he was also responsible for the company’s federal, state and municipal legislative affairs, investor relations, and communications. Prior to his current position and since December 2009, Franklin was regional president for the company’s Southern and Midwest operations as well as senior vice president of its customer operations, which included the national customer call centers, national meter operations, billing and collections.
Since joining Aqua America in December 1992 as director, corporate and public affairs, Franklin headed several successful projects, including leading the effort to get favorable utility legislation passed in several states, attaining national print and broadcast media coverage for the company, changing the name and rebranding the company and its subsidiaries, and expanding its investor relations outreach to increase analyst coverage of the company.
Prior to joining Aqua America, Franklin worked at PECO Energy Company (an Exelon Company) where he was regional, civic and economic development officer, responsible for the review, recommendation and promotion of economic development initiatives in the Philadelphia region.
Why is this interesting? Well, because Aqua America is the second largest publicly traded water company in the United States and had taken a leadership role in the privatization of public water supplies. In a 2008 report, Food and Water Watch described Aqua America this way:
Aqua America is the second largest publicly traded water and wastewater corporation based in the United States. It has pushed its way to the top through a strategy of aggressive acquisitions and drastic rate increases.
Aiming to make several dozen acquisitions a year, the company targets smaller systems to avoid a citizenry armed with resources to fight the takeover. And it pursues systems in states that have fast growing populations, corporate friendly regulatory environments and considerable investment needs.
Of course, all of this is done with an eye toward its bottom line.
Not long after taking over a system, the company begins its almost continual process of increasing rates. In just the first nine months of 2007, the company increased rates in nine locations. It has nine additional rate increases pending and plans even more over the course of 2008.
While families see skyrocketing water bills, the company sees booming revenue growth: 13 percent in 2007 alone. But rather than reinvesting all the money from community bills into improving their water and sewer systems, as a public utility would do – the company is delivering solid returns to its shareholders.”
And that was before the Marcellus Shale fracking boom really kicked into high gear. In a May 2012 interview with Bloomberg News, Aqua America president Nicholas DeBenedictis lays out how Aqua America positioned itself to be a major player in the fracking industry by being the leading supplier of water to the drillers:
Activists opposing fracking have been putting a spotlight on Aqua America’s role in the natural gas industry for years. And, Aqua America was at the center of the “Save Riverdale” series that Wendy Lee reported on right here in Raging Chicken Press in 2012.
The fact is that Chris Franklin is a veteran privateer and he has cut his teeth developing the most effective tactics to privatize public resources with one of the most aggressive privatization corporations in the country. And now he’s standing shoulder to shoulder with Tomlinson and Dinniman seeking to dismantle Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education.
If Chris Franklin was the rock star privateer, it has been Democratic Senator Andy Dinniman’s co-sponsorship of SB 1275 that has given the bill the necessary bi-partisan veneer if there is any hope in it passing. Dinniman’s role may give pro-privatization Democrats in the state, especially those in and around Philadelphia who are deeply invested in the privatization of public education, a reason to get on board the secession train.
Dinniman certainly did his job in making the “transformation” of PASSHE seem like a foregone conclusion:
I think what we see here, the keyword you should take away from today, is ‘transformation.’ Our bill tries to create transformation. Transformation in the sense of meeting change; transformation in the sense of ending the centralized bureaucracy which has prevented flexibility and agility in our institutions; and, transformation in the sense that under this bill we will be able to provide the resources – which aren’t going to come from the budget at this point now and the state does not exactly have a lot of cash – but provide the resources to our sister institutions which have no other means of getting those resources.
And while the Dinniman and Tomlinson seem on the same page for the most part, Dinniman’s support of the bill will not guarantee additional support from his fellow Democrats. Dinniman is a well-known advocate of vouchers and other privatization schemes and he publicly supports Gov. Corbett a little too much to gain him leverage among his party colleagues. And, even Tomlinson was reported as having joked earlier in the year that he might let Dinniman introduce the bill because other members of the Senate see him as less reasonable to begin with.
One of Dinniman’s remarks – clearly rehearsed – provided a case-in-point and some comic relief. He said:
The bottom line is that no bitcoin fiscal fantasy will change the current physical reality.
What the hell does that even mean?
In the coming days Raging Chicken Press will continue to investigate the PASSHE Secessionists and their institutional affiliations. In the mean time, we’ll leave you with some audio from Senator Bitcoin from last week’s press conference.