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Colleges get short end of budget stick

Beyond measuring the prospects of the Georgia football team and the misuse of credit cards on a grand scale at Georgia Tech, you don't hear much about the goings-on in higher education these days.

Well, that's not quite true. A couple of university system regents, led by aging playboy and liquor magnate Don Leebern, have been in hot water for making illegal political contributions. Ex-Regents Tim Shelnutt of Augusta and the Hugh Hefner-esque Leebern have paid thousands in fines for handing out illegal cash to aspiring public officials. The FBI has been looking into the matter.

Shelnutt has separated himself from higher learning. And it's hard to get upset with the mostly good-natured and generous Leebern. He's poured tons of money into UGA, the Medical College of Georgia and into the pockets of several governors. So what if he punched out a guy in an argument over a dog? And who cares that Don's 69th birthday celebration had not been equaled since the Christians barred bacchanals? It's the Bulldog way. If you got it, flaunt it.

Beyond those blips and the routine personnel dust-ups, Georgia's halls of ivy are mostly off the public radar. Tech used to be called the MIT of the South. And Gene Odum at UGA was the Moses of ecology and a greener world.

Times change. The bubba from Bonaire took charge of Georgia and its schools. Tech and MIT are no longer mentioned in the same sentence. Though environmental protection is in vogue throughout the world, Georgia has somehow lost its seat at the Green table. Gene Odum is long gone.

Our mossback leadership would rather pray for rain than prepare for growth and possible economic disaster.

When the university system is mentioned in most cracker circles these days, the boys with fat cigars lose interest if the talk strays beyond starting quarterbacks.

When budget tightening is brought up in the Gold Dome, Gov. Sonny Perdue's decision to slice $1.5 billion from Georgia's pitiful K-12 education budget is invariably mentioned first. Don't forget the colleges, folks. The University System of Georgia has suffered similar billion-dollar cutbacks. Tuition keeps going up and up to compensate for the cuts, with the perhaps not intentional side effect of erecting more education barriers for the poor.

Why was this allowed to occur? That's easy. The guys running the calculators and charting Georgia's future are idiots. They would rather fund a boat ramp than underwrite a professorship.

Georgia gets more bang for its buck from a growing university system than from just about anywhere else. And college money is mostly clean white-collar cash, which begets additional clean white-collar money.

The University of Georgia published a news release last week on the good works that UGA does for Athens plus what the whole 35-school system does for the state.

Sure, the handout may contain puffery, but it is puffery worth considering, if the numbers are even close to correct.

For instance, the university system directly impacts Georgia to the tune of $11 billion. UGA's slice of that economic pie is $2.1 billion, making it the single largest contributor to the system's statewide impact.

Each on-campus university job creates 1.2 jobs off campus. In Athens, the total number of UGA-related jobs is 20,200. Imagine Athens, Statesboro, Valdosta, Milledgeville, metro Atlanta or a half-dozen other bustling areas without their great and growing schools.

So what are we waiting for? Why aren't we making the schools bigger and better? Or will our elected bubbas insist forever that an SEC championship is always worth more attention than academic research?

In Georgia, because of our benighted history, ginning up emphasis on higher education makes for poor politics. Georgia voters don't trust elitist bookworms to run their government.

Several governors in the past (Carl Sanders, Jimmy Carter, George Busbee and Zell Miller) disguised themselves as rubes in order to become reformers. Gov. Perdue is different. We finally figured out that he is what he seems to be. Now we know why education, high and low, has suffered throughout his tenure - even when the upside of investing in education is so obvious.

Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. E-mail him at shipp1@bellsouth.net.