Maybe Illinois' Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the U.S. Senate, was having a rough morning. Or maybe he was simply making his point as memorably—and colorfully—as he could.
Whatever the case, students at the Illinois Institute of Art—a player in the burgeoning for-profit education industry that Durbin has been assailing of late—say they’re offended by the way the assistant Senate majority leader dismissed their concerns about a proposed new government regulation that would severely limit their eligibility for federally subsidized grants and loans.
“I don’t give a tick’s shit about I-L-I-S or any of these other guys,” witnesses say Durbin told sign-carrying student-protesters on a downtown Chicago sidewalk.
“I don’t give a tick’s shit about I-L-I-S or any of these other guys,” witnesses say Durbin told sign-carrying student-protesters on a downtown Chicago sidewalk, referring generally to for-profit colleges and specifically to the Illinois Institute of Art-Schaumburg (for which “ILIS” was the acronym printed on many of their T-shirts). “In the end, I’m here for you,” the students say their home-state senator added.
This was after Durbin, according to two witnesses I spoke to, demanded of the protesters: “Is someone paying you to be here?”
Durbin’s staff disputed this account, denying that the senator made the “don’t give a tick’s shit” comment. “The heart of your story is a lie,” said Durbin’s press secretary, Joe Shoemaker, who was not present for the encounter. While admitting that Durbin chatted with the protesters last Tuesday morning, Shoemaker heatedly denied that the senator invoked the feces of a tiny, blood-sucking arachnid. “I’ve worked for him for 10 years and I’ve never heard that language from him.” Shoemaker spent much of the past week trying to dissuade other reporters from printing the comment.
But two on-the-record witnesses insisted to The Daily Beast that Durbin definitely said it. The comment is obviously open to differing and even benign interpretations, including that the senator was merely trying to convey that he cares about students, not corporate profits.
ILIS student and Navy veteran Dave Mahan didn’t take it that way, however. Mahan, who’s working toward a bachelor’s degree in digital photography at the Schaumburg campus just outside Chicago (and provided photos of Durbin’s encounter to The Daily Beast), said he wrote down the senator’s quote verbatim a few moments after he said it. Another protester, Matt Reams, a 20-year-old culinary student at the Illinois Institute of Art’s Chicago campus, corroborated Mahan’s version.
Mahan, who said he’s attending ILIS on the Post-9/11 GI Bill, told me he’s “insulted” by a paternalistic attitude that suggests government bureaucrats know better than students what’s good for them, and thus must protect them from what Durbin has branded the for-profit education equivalent of subprime mortgages.
“I’m investing myself in this school, I’m putting myself through this school, and if you’re insulting my school, you’re pretty much insulting me,” said the 28-year-old Mahan, who described himself as a veteran of the Navy Seabees Mobile Construction Battalion 74, attached to Marine combat units during two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2009. “Even if his intentions with what he said were completely the opposite of how I took it, I think it’s really poor taste and shows he’s completely out of touch with our concerns.”
Mahan added that he asked Durbin if he had a solution for students who, because of the proposed new loan and grant restrictions at for-profit schools, wouldn’t be able to secure federal aid and thus couldn’t afford tuition. “He said, ‘No, I don’t have a solution, but we’re working on it,’ ” Mahan recounted.
The way Mahan frames his sidewalk debate with Illinois’ senior Democratic senator, it fits snugly into the prevailing narrative of the 2010 midterm elections, in which voters are increasingly angry at allegedly arrogant incumbent politicians who have become creatures of Washington and don’t listen to ordinary people.
ILIS President David W. Ray, who acknowledged that his college provided bus transportation from Schaumburg, T-shirts, placards, and breakfast snacks for about 30 protesters, told me: “Nobody was paid… I’m shocked and disappointed by Senator Durbin’s comments, because these students were simply reflecting their desire to have their voices heard.” Ray added that he wasn’t present for their sidewalk encounter last Tuesday morning, but instead was inside the Dirksen Federal Building, where Durbin had scheduled a public hearing on the Department of Education’s proposed “gainful employment rule” aimed at for-profit schools, which account for 20 percent of higher-education institutions. Unless derailed by Congress, the rule is scheduled to take effect in November. Alarmed by the change, the schools are battling back—one took out a full-page ad in Sunday’s New York Times—and Kaplan, a division of The Washington Post Company that helps prepare students for entrance exams, has also gone into high gear.
“The gainful employment rule is very detrimental to the future of our students because it includes calculations that, if implemented, will limit or prevent our students from getting access to Title IV funds”—the government-supported collection of Pell Grants, loans, and other tuition assistance, Ray says.
The rule calculates a student’s hypothetical projected income after graduation and requires a for-profit school student to meet strict debt payment-to-income ratios (ideally 8 percent or less, but no higher than 12 percent) that are far more stringent than for a student at a traditional nonprofit institution, such as the University of Chicago or Harvard.
“These calculations are fundamentally flawed,” Ray said, noting that if they were applied to a major university’s typical medical student, who normally takes on hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to obtain a degree, hardly any doctors would be produced, and many medical schools would have to shut down.
“The rule will affect hundreds of institutions, and the math right now is fuzzy,” Ray said, noting that while there are certainly “bad actors” in the for-profit education sector, his school, which was founded in 1916, has passed muster with all the appropriate academic accrediting authorities.
Shoemaker, Durbin’s press secretary, told me his boss is a relative newcomer to the for-profit education controversy, having taken up the issue “three or four months ago.” He said his boss is worried that for-profit schools “saddle their students with tens of thousands of dollars worth of debt and never produce the payoff” of a decently compensated job.
When I asked Shoemaker if his boss serves on any of the Senate committees with jurisdiction over the for-profit education industry, he tersely replied, “He’s the Assistant Majority Leader of the United Senate!” He added: “My patience is just about at an end with you.”
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.