Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Public vs Private Good: Options for the Public University

Speaking at a Penn State conference, “The Legacy and the Promise: 150 Years of Land-Grant Universities,”on June 24, 2011, Penn State President Graham Spanier noted five challenges to the future of the land grant ideal:  privatization, globalization of public higher education, the erosion of public commitment to land-grant mission, 21st-century students' complex needs, and the quality of student learning in the context of today's faculty reward system.

"The privatization of American public higher education is one of the key trends out there, and the reason it is so relevant to the land-grant discussion is that many of the functions that universities like ours provide for our states have no offsetting income source. There is no tuition for what we do in fulfilling our land-grant mission," Spanier said. "There may be support for undergraduate education, but there is little or no opportunity to generate income in many of the units that we have considered fundamental to our land-grant activities. That is why decreasing commitment from state government has increasing implications, particularly in this area."

This is not a new issue, but it is gathering momentum in the current political climate.  As early as 2005 President Spanier warned of “public higher education’s slow slide to privatization” due to skyrocketing tuition costs.   At the same 2005 event, Katharine Lyall, president emeritus of the University of Wisconsin, commented on declining state support for higher education, noting, “America is rapidly privatizing its public colleges and universities, whose mission used to be to serve the public good.  But if private donors and corporations are providing much of a university’s budget, then they will set the agenda, perhaps in ways the public likes and perhaps not.  Public control is slipping away.”  (See the New York Times website for a full report on the 2005 discussion: )

Even earlier, in 1999, the Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land Grant Universities (which Graham Spanier chaired) noted in its report, Returning to Our Roots:  The Engaged Institution:

One challenge we face is growing public frustration with what is seen to be our unresponsiveness. At the root of the criticism is a perception that we are out of touch and out of date. Another part of the issue is that although society has problems, our institutions have “disciplines.” In the end, what these complaints add up to is a perception that, despite the resources and expertise available on our campuses, our institutions are not well organized to bring them to bear on local problems in a coherent way.

The problem, it seems, is both external to the university and internal.  On one hand, there is the increasingly market-centered conservative political leadership, which believes in reducing the size and scope of government in favor of the private sector.  Healthy markets, this view believes, will create healthy societies.  The purpose of higher education (in fact, education generally) in this view is to create professionals who will fill roles in free markets.  Education, seen as purely vocational, is thus a private good.   On the other hand, a significant number of faculty members see our state and land grant institutions primarily as research universities; their careers increasingly are reliant on corporate research grants, private sector consulting, and building relationships with alumni who work in the private sector.  For these academics, serving the public good is confined to the largely unrewarded “service” component of the tripartite mission of teaching, research, and service.

These trends have been unfolding for a full generation.  Its roots might lie in a reaction against the social activism of the 1970s or in the wide acceptance of free market philosophy during the 1980s.   However, it has also been a transformative generation: the first full generation of the Information Revolution.  One could argue that this transformation has exacerbated the problem.   In fact, if we look back at the same period in the 1800s—the first generation into the Industrial Revolution—we can see that the existing higher education system was not particularly responsive to the societal needs generated by the Industrial Revolution.  It took new institutions—the land grant universities and state universities—to ensure that higher education was engaged in the social transformation of that era:  the need to create teachers to educate the children of immigrants, the need to create new kinds of professionals for an industrial economy, and the need to engage academics in improving agricultural production needed to sustain urbanization and immigration.  Interestingly, it is the social purpose of the same institutions that, in today’s transformation, is now being challenged.

How should higher education respond to this challenge?  I can see at least four options:

1.            Accept the fact that the public no longer sees education as a public good and speed the move to privatization.  This option recognizes that, if there is no substance left to the land grant covenant, it would be best to simply move on to other sources of funding.  I suspect there is already a sizable cadre of faculty and administrators that would be happy to privatize their institutions in order to better position them for closer, multi-dimensional relationships with corporate sponsors. 

2.            Maintain the social mission of our institutions, regardless of whether state government is able to fund that mission.  The underlying problem with the first option is that it assumes that the public good mission of land grant universities is not really a mission, but just something we did because money was there to do it.  That makes it easy to walk away from the relationship if the money dries up.   However, Option Two assumes that serving the public good is, in fact, the mission—the soul—of the institution.   If public funds are not available to support the mission, then funds must be found elsewhere, but the mission itself must not fail.  Today’s public universities attract far more money from other sources than from direct state appropriations.  The challenge is to direct these funds to support the core mission—the public good mission.  One option is to reserve a specific percentage of all gifts, sports revenue, auxiliary enterprises, and other discretionary dollars to support the public mission.  For instance, if a donor gives money for a building, then 5% of that amount could be set aside to reduce the cost of tuition for in-state undergraduate students or to support county Extension offices.  Similarly, indirect costs recovered from federal or corporate research grants could be used to support core public good activities.  The key to this option is to ensure that all activities that generate revenue contribute to the public mission at one level or another.

3.            Organize the institution so that the public purpose can co-exist with the private purpose.   It is often difficult for the public mission to find a voice in an academic conversation that is dominated by individuals whose research and teaching is more directed to private good.  Public good activities are diverse—they range from evening/weekend programs to conferences to county-based Extension activities to branch campuses, community-based action research, and summer camps for kids to name a few—and, too often, they are unconnected.  The institutional urge to decentralize the administrative and operational support for these activities further weakens the ability of the institution to speak with one voice on its public mission.  The solution at some institutions may be to bring all of these activities under one senior administrator so that there is a leadership voice for the public mission.  This does not mean that individual academic units would be free to ignore the mission (in fact, there should be a strong governance system to ensure that academic units also have a voice in these activities), but that there would be an organization that would help them innovate at very little financial risk or investment by the individual academic unit. 

4.            Embrace the public mission and work with the public sector to develop a new strategy for engagement.  Ultimately, if the commitment to and understanding of the university’s public mission has become blurred both by the public and by the institution, perhaps the best step would be to start from scratch:  to bring together both university and public thought leaders to (1) define and better understand the problems facing the state a generation into the Information Revolution and (2) agree on how the university can help individuals and social institutions (including government, employers, and social service organizations like K-12 schools) better respond to the challenges of the new societal context presented by the Information Society.   A first step would be to convene a relatively small group of thought leaders to discuss the issues facing the state and to identify the broad areas where the university can best engage to help address issues.  This would result in a strategic vision for engagement, which would be used as a discussion paper with smaller groups organized by region and/or by common interest (schools, health care, workforce development, industry, etc.).  The original thought leadership group would then convene again to review the results of these smaller workshops and to agree on a five-year engagement strategy that would drive state funding, institutional fund-raising, and outreach programming.  A subset of the thought leadership group could meet annually as an advisory panel to review progress.

This final option would result in a new and openly accessible covenant with the public and a new focus for engagement.  It would also entail risk—especially the risk of the university losing its ability to act independently based on its own assessment of public need.  This and other risks would have to be accommodated in designing this new approach to engagement.  In the end, the challenge is to ensure that the public good that is generated is worth the risk.