Document Type

Article

Publication Date

4-2013

Abstract

Message from President: One of the surest signs of error is unanimity. Unchallenged agreement among a very large number of people always suggests either a conspiracy of silence or a fear of seeming retrograde or a plain old suppression of dissent. Among the axioms that are nervously and not altogether freely endorsed by that large cadre of clever persons who comprise the academy and its administration is the assumption that privatization is the way of the future. This shibboleth sometimes takes a melancholy form, as in the lament that the big public dollars that built American academe are “never coming back”; sometimes this premise receives an optimistic articulation, especially among those who seek high office and who like to chatter avidly about undefined “opportunities.” These optimists applaud the successes of purportedly “state” institutions with low percentage state appropriations such as the University of Michigan—as if nearby Detroit were a monument to the successes of privatized education. At an unknown point in higher education history, universities replaced their chief assignment—that of questioning, that of the adept use of skepticism to abrade errors and to polish truths—with the new, lesser goal of productivity. In its metric mania, academe forgot that error and chaos are far easier to produce than is knowledge. The fiasco of the LSU System presidential search, for example, has produced fierce criticism from the AAUP, a no-confidence vote from thoughtful faculty, public outcry, at least a pair of lawsuits, and the teaching of youngsters that the shortest route to advancement is through backroom dealing. The presidential search was a case-study in modern privatization, a private charity and a boutique search firm having been used as a shell in which to hide the appointment of a public official from public scrutiny. Development of a case against both privatization and against its inevitability is long overdue. Such a case can be built on many foundations in addition to the obvious example of the breach of public trust by LSU’s management board. A classic strategy for concealing costs is the dissipation of expenses across a range of phenomena wider than the item being priced. Those who linger outside the world of library science will never know whether the cost of maintaining thousands of computers, of subscribing year-in and year-out to databases, and of using services from units, such as IT, that hover outside of library budgets is really cheaper than buying long-lasting paper copies of publications. We have yet to receive the calculation of the cost of maintaining what are euphemistically called “development officers” (a far nicer term than “beggar”) at every college and university in the land. Similarly, we will probably never know the full cost of the doubling of the administration now that most campuses require a Provost to run the campus while the President or Chancellor spends his or her days plucking the philanthropic purse. Also unknown is the cost of the bevy of professionals at charitable foundations who deal with campus-based petitioners (the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, is currently searching for at least three highly-paid campus philanthropy specialists). Then there is also the cost arising from the split attention from the intelligentsia as clever Deans and deft Chairs also give up program-building to engage in alms acquisition. Extant examples of privatization give pause. Few would assert that entities such as the United States Postal Service or the German National Railway System have garnered unqualified praise for improvement since they exited the public sphere. The ballyhoo over the privatization of space exploration conceals the modesty of the ambition of private space ventures, in which tourism and commercial exploitation have eclipsed basic science and exploration as primary goals. We can expect a similar minimization of ambition when Louisiana’s public hospitals pass into the hands of foundations that are thin disguises for business interests or into straightforward commercial hands. Propelling the drive toward privatization is a loss of confidence in the very same public that has been educated by privatizing universities. Privatization is a symptom of a withdrawal from the sense of common or least worthwhile purpose that builds nations—that supports such values as the freedom of thought and expression. The strange blend of leftist materialism and 1990s neo-conservatism that fuels both the privatization and the workforce development drives is thus the favorite solvent of those who fear the judgment of an educated, debating public.

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