It’s easy to regard a public university as more benevolent than its fellow government bodies. After all, no one is imprisoned or killed on UW’s account; quite the opposite. Whether it is obscenely high incarceration rates for minorities or a gay marriage ban that could have been written by Pope Benedict, UW frequently tries to serve as one of the more thoughtful counterweights to government stupidity.
Unless it comes to property rights. Then, in cases like that of Brothers Bar, the UW System Board of Regents has proved it can play like the big dogs — solving complex questions with sweeping displays of heavy-handedness that would put even the state’s flourishing minority imprisonment business to shame. Brothers Bar — a clean, well-lit place for bros of all flavors — has been ordered to move its location to make way for a new music school building. And while the university administration and the bar’s owners agreed to move for the cost of the property plus relocation fees, the regents nixed the somewhat costly deal and told all parties it would buy the bar at market price, but would only pay $150,000 in relocation money — far less than the actual cost of moving a business whose revenue grosses millions each year. When Marc and Eric Fortney, the bar’s owners, called the deal unacceptable, the regents informed them they were moving either way because the location was being condemned by eminent domain. Eminent domain is a legal exception commonly applied to the patriotic destruction of people’s homes to make room for WalMarts. As the regents put it, the purpose of the measure as it applies to UW is to make sure taxpayers do not foot too large a bill for new buildings.
Alec Slocum argued in yesterday’s paper it was “arrogant” of the Fortneys to hang a gigantic poster that seemed to oppose a music school on the wall of their building. In doing so, Slocum distilled the Fortneys’ approach to an effort to exploit “that uniquely American lack of respect for the societal importance and contribution of the arts.”
Sweeping generalizations are often more to the detriment of their authors than their intended targets. In an interview with Eric Fortney, the co-owner of the bar apologized profusely for any potential offense the sign may have caused, saying he and Marc are not, as was implied in yesterday’s article, opposed to the existence of a music school building. Fortney further insisted he is willing to speak to any student interested in knowing the origins of the admittedly na?ve gaffe. His contact information is listed below. Actually speaking with somebody can have a profound effect on your evaluation of his or her motives. But, however a column written without an interview interprets an admittedly dumb sign, it is appalling the regents would engage in the pathetic spectacle of using the taxpayer as a justification to destroy a business that itself pays taxes. If such poorly construed autocracy is necessary to preserve this rather disgusting pursuit of erudition, the shadow anti-music populists of Slocum’s column — if they existed — would still have a better case.
In lieu of considering the Fortneys’ point, the regents have stated they only use eminent domain in extremely rare cases. However, like swearing you didn’t inhale, arguing that repugnant policies are somehow less unacceptable when seldom used is not only wrong, it’s unworthy of anyone’s attention who can speak English. Institutions of higher education have little business deciding which intentions for a piece of land are more critical to society. And the implicit statement that government has the right to confiscate property if the cause is good enough leaves universities in a moral paradox, where the proverbial sifting and winnowing is overshadowed by the somewhat less scholarly middle finger of Sarah Palin’s redneck-friendly “real” America with which the Fortneys were identified yesterday.
The fact is that even if the bar’s owners were appealing to the lowest possible denominator, the counterargument doesn’t appeal to anyone. The regents would be better advised to leave the forced relocations to Costco and realize that wanting, even wanting badly, is not deserving. Otherwise, all our friends atop Van Hise will have proved is that it is really Big Brother — ivory tower or no — who should be living in a van down by the river.