Document Type

Article

Publication Date

12-2013

Abstract

Message from President: Discussion of higher education policy today takes place in the language or practicality: of productivity, of graduation targets, and of workforce development. Yet politics, even of the most pragmatic variety, is compounded as much of speculation and fantasy as of data, experience, or “reality.” Policy discussions quickly turn from what is to what should be. For decades—since the heyday of Margaret Thatcher—privatization has been heralded by “the silent majority” as the best way to increase efficiency. In academe, the twentieth-century dream of a lean, dynamic government has expressed itself in a faith in production line metrics such as retention rates or baccalaureate conferral numbers or in the fervid belief that universities should rely on self-generated revenues, whether derived from tuition, from philanthropy, from “F&A” charges on grants and contracts, or from winnings in the bingo hall. Like most movements, the drive to minimize state appropriations to higher education institutions showcases a “poster child” or two, usually campuses such as Michigan or Virginia, where state contributions have sunk to single-digit percentages. As God would love a repentant sinner if one could be found, so clear-thinking professionals would applaud a prosperous, purely private institution if one could be located. Even if one sets aside the obvious distortion in the “self-generated funds” scenario—that most institutions, whether public or private, rake in public funds from a variety of government sources, whether federally managed loans and financial aid or from state-funded scholarship programs such as Louisiana’s TOPS— there is still much to suggest that the privatization is a pipe dream. Advocates for privatization and for self-generated funding imagine that private money is 100% efficient. They forget about the gigantic, costly apparatus required to operate funding programs. Depending on how one reckons it, Louisiana boasts more than three dozen campuses. Each of those institutions maintains at least one foundation; medium and large institutions host as many as five foundations, each serving different constituencies, whether wealthy industrialists or sports boosters. Colleges, departments, and programs often enough have their own campaign leaders, as do research and economic development units. In the amalgam, these 24/7 philanthropy machines employee hundreds of highly paid professionals, all at a staggering cost. Also resisting calculation is the total philanthropic potential of either Louisiana or America. It would take a strong libertarian imagination to conjecture that voluntary philanthropy in a thinly populated state such as Louisiana (or Wyoming or Vermont or most anywhere else other than California or New York) could support multitudinous campuses by gathering scattered contributions. In need of assessment are the intellectual and cultural consequences of dependence on the various forms of selfgenerated or otherwise private funding. The big block of money gathered from tuition buffers the ups and downs of private giving and grantsmanship. Not all campuses, however, enroll students. Fine research institutions such as the Pennington Biomedical Research Center suffer disproportionately from oscillations in granting and giving. The most advanced research thus stands in the most severe jeopardy, with risk becoming the most reliable fact of high-tech life. Similarly, the need to maintain the “F&A” (facilities and administration) funding flow eventually proves counter-productive as institutions discourage the pursuit of alternative funding sources that pay low surcharges and encourage an often vain hunt for a finite pool of federal dollars, which come with higher supplements. Institutions also tend to conduct research in areas that fit the philanthropic delusions of donors—the “I can cure world hunger in the same way that I struck it rich” fantasy. On the other side of the research and teaching spectrum, the need to maintain the aforementioned buffer of tuition money creates an apparatus for the recruitment and retention of students that is nearly as massive as that dedicated to fundraising. Hence the “climbing wall debacle,” in which nearly every institution in America caters to current student taste by constructing costly rock-climbing walls in recreation centers, only to create work for the climbing wall demolition crews of the year 2025, when the fad will have passed (remember the parkour course?). Academic people need to speak out for public funding of universities, perhaps through the “block grant” method that seems to appeal to the current generation of post-neo-conservatives. A block grant could be used more flexibly than all the solicited funds with all their restrictions. Given the reluctance of legislators to support institutions outside of their districts and given the fear and trembling in which state-appointed administrators must live, an eligible approach would be a statewide referendum on the funding of higher education. If only owing to shame, few would vote against such a measure. Another thought experiment might involve questioning the linkage between university appointments and teaching. Many fine institutions employ professionals such as artists-in-residence, whose contribution is measured in quanta other than student credit hours but who usually attract large audiences. Disconnecting faculty from traditional faculty-to-student or faculty-to-class-hours ratios would help return attention to the use of money for academic and research purposes rather than for maintaining enrollment rates. Whatever solutions might be proposed, it is time to call the question: does the public want to fund cultural, educational, and research institutions and is private funding really lucrative for universities or only for the bureaucracy that manages it?

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