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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


‘Draconian’ misuse of language

In a presentation during the March 31 Associated Students of the University of Arizona Senate meeting, Arizona Students’ Association chair and UA student Elma Delic called the reductions in funding to education in recent years “”truly draconian.”” In doing so, Delic has entered the proud ranks of politicians, news commenters and Dan Browns in psychologically convenient misuse of this oft-touted adjective. A cursory Google News search reveals that the word has been used over 3,000 times in news articles published in the last 24 hours.

The etymology of this overused term dates back to 1876, when it was used in reference to Draco, a Greek statesman, who mandated a code of law for Athens that sought death as a punishment for minor crimes. The modern usage for the adjective is closer to a general sense of undue severity, usually in regards to punishment.

While Delic can undoubtedly make the argument that recent reductions in funding to higher education are both harsh and undue, to call them “”draconian”” removes perspective and misconstrues the reality of state funding to higher education. The reductions in state funding are not punitive, and the conversation surrounding education funding would be a very different one if they were.

The state allocated a smaller dollar amount to universities in this fiscal year than it has in previous years because there is less money to allocate, not as a result of something the universities did or did not do. To say the cuts are “”draconian”” implies that the institutions (universities) being “”punished”” were on trial, and the state (the proverbial Draco) pursued an unduly harsh decision for some theoretical crime committed by the prosecuted. As much as students may feel like they are being persecuted as a result of ever-higher tuition and fees, no such trial occurred.

The universities are not being punished. The state government managed its money poorly and was, like most Americans, unlucky — it did not anticipate the sudden reduction in economic prosperity, resulting in less available funds for everything, including higher education. This is not a result of something the universities did or did not do, and to imply that it is creates a false and indulgent sense of martyrdom.

The institutions of higher education in Arizona might be in a better place if there had been such a capital-D Draconian trial to determine what funding they deserve. Only one in nine high school graduates in the state of Arizona becomes a college graduate. The UA, arguably the most academically rigorous of the three Arizona universities, admits 83 percent of applicants and less than one third of freshman who enroll graduate within four years. The university has no incentive to improve those statistics, as they get their money from the state no matter how terrible their report card is — in fact, they probably prefer that student take longer to graduate, as it means more tuition, fees, textbooks and “”temporary”” surcharges. 

The PR wonks and the UA administration talk often of this school’s commitment to “”excellence,”” but what does that mean? Who determines excellence, and does it matter? If the amount of funding the UA received from the state was based on its level of “”excellence,”” it would certainly become more than a shiny word to distract the fresh-faced incoming class while the school inserts a siphon into their parents’ wallets. If there was money involved, students might see improvements that are more in pursuit of an improved academic experience and less in pursuit of a face-saving ploy to delay the inevitable tuition increase.

Only if this system of determining funding as a result of the as-yet-undefined relative “”excellence”” of the UA were implemented would any reduction in funding be “”truly draconian.”” While the thought of reductions in funding to higher education is as wince-inducing as hearing a word misused, thoughtful voters should consider the real definition of not only “”draconian,”” but of “”excellence”” and “”education”” as well.

— Anna Swenson is a sophomore majoring in English. She can be reached at


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