Erroll Davis Jr. is an engineer and businessman by training, having served as CEO of two major utility companies. He now serves on the boards of directors of General Motors and Union Pacific, and as chancellor of the Georgia university system, he has brought a business perspective to academia that frankly, it badly needs.
In a conversation earlier this fall, for example, Davis said the nation’s higher education system operates under “a medieval business model that has changed at the margins, but it has to change dramatically.”
The current delivery system is too capital-intensive and can’t be sustained long-term, he said. University faculty have to become “more productive and more efficient,” and while he says he’s willing to defend tenure, “I will not defend its excesses. Tenure was never designed as a cover for boorish behavior or insubordination.”
In other words, Davis knows the importance of focusing on real problems while ignoring the distractions. And the debate over illegal immigrants in the state university system is clearly a distraction in his eyes.
Those who claim otherwise make three basic claims, Davis explained: Georgia colleges and universities are overrun with illegal immigrants;
those illegal immigrants are costing state taxpayers millions of dollars;
they are also taking slots in top universities that would otherwise go to academically qualified Georgians.
Davis, who later announced his retirement on June 30, 2011, then rattled off the reasons why none of those concerns is valid:
Of the 311,000 students enrolled in the university system, 501 — one-sixth of 1 percent — are undocumented, he said. Of those 501, every single student pays out-of-state tuition.
As university spokesman John Millsaps said this week, the university system actually makes a profit on out-of-state tuition. In other words, the 501 undocumented students do not generate costs for taxpayers and subsidize their counterparts’ education.
Furthermore, of those 501 undocumented students, only 29 attend the five state schools in which applicants must compete for a limited number of slots. (Those five schools are the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, Georgia College and University, the Medical College of Georgia and Georgia State University. The other 30 schools in the state system are open admission.)
Just two of those 29 undocumented students in competitive-entry schools are taking slots that would otherwise have gone to academically qualified Georgians, Davis said. And as a result of a change in policy, those two will be the last two. No undocumented students will be admitted to schools that do not allow open admission.
Nonetheless, Davis was reminded, state legislators seem intent on making the ban complete, barring the undocumented from enrolling anywhere.
He listened, then paused to measure his words.
“I’m hopeful legislators will spend their time on legislation that will solve problems,” he said.
Did I mention that Davis is also an optimist?
The next legislative session doesn’t begin until January, but state Rep. Tom Rice, R-Norcross, this week pre-filed legislation that would allow Georgia to join South Carolina as the only two states in the country that outright bar undocumented students from attending state colleges. There’s every reason to believe that sometime next spring, Gov. Nathan Deal will be signing such legislation into law.
It’s important to note that other states greatly affected by illegal immigration, including Arizona, balk at such a step. And there’s a reason for that.
It is widely acknowledged across the political spectrum that our borders have to be tightened as much as possible and that hiring practices have to be improved. Illegal immigration is a legitimate problem that needs to be addressed.
But in practical terms, it is also true that most of the eight to 12 million illegal immigrants already in this country are here to stay. There’s no political capital to be reaped at the moment in acknowledging that reality — to the contrary, telling the truth comes at a high cost — but it is reality nonetheless.
The question is whether we keep those people as a perpetual underclass, available to do our dirty work but little else, or whether they will be allowed to contribute their talents and ambitions. Georgia seems intent on taking the first option.