the era of public university privatization
Olderwoman has written a fascinating post on Scatterplot about the political conflict brewing (or boiling over perhaps) in Madison as the UW-Madison contemplates separating itself from the larger Wisconsin university system. The move would allow them to raise tuition and would grant the university some autonomy from the state. Of course, the change is complicated by the current, messy politics of Wisconsin and is made even messier, as OW describes in her post, by the conflicts of interest that faculty have as citizens who typically support more progressive policies while also being stakeholders in a research institution striving to maintain its elite status. Here’s a highlight from her post:
As I have debated this issue with grad students (who are mostly lined up in opposition to the plan), I have been trying to unravel the threads of interest involved. The students tend to emphasize concerns about tuition. Issues of access and affordability are real ones. They are issues now, as state funding continues to decline. All predictions about how this issue would play out under different structures are entirely hypothetical. One group argues that to change from being a public university is to give up forever on the idea of more tax dollar subsidies for tuition. Another group argues that the only way to increase affordability is to raise tuition simultaneously with raising financial aid — effectively to charge a sliding scale that depends on family income; people who advocate this disagree about which structure is most likely to do this. As that is all hypothetical, that particular debate is solely one of opinions.
But the whole tuition debate — one I am sympathetic to as a progressive — cuts entirely differently from the issue of what is good for an elite research university. If my goal is access to high quality education for youth of modest means, wouldn’t I just stop funding an elite research university entirely? Wouldn’t that access goal be better met with an institution staffed by lower-paid faculty teaching three or four courses a semester than by an institution staffed by higher-paid faculty whose major interest and time commitment is to their research/scholarship? The trend at elite schools is toward inequality: higher and higher salaries for the high-performing research faculty, and more and more teaching done by lower paid adjunct faculty.
One core value question is whether you support the idea of an elite research institution or not. Should there be major public research institutions at all? And if so, what does it take to maintain them? Can an elite research university survive with an egalitarian ethos in the face of competition from the unapologetic elitist private institutions?
These are great questions that cut to the core of one of the biggest issues facing public higher education institutions. As Fabio wrote last month, we seem to be entering a new era of public-private university hybridization. Competitive forces and a lack of public funding are pushing public institutions to seek a semi-privatized model. The University of Michigan is already there. For the most part, there isn’t much of a difference between Michigan and most private universities in the way they run their books. Because Michigan doesn’t rely on state resources for revenue, it has been able to maintain its elite status quite nicely even as the state government around it has weakened considerably. Berkeley is moving in this direction as well.
Current students hate the idea of semi-privatization because it typically means higher tuition and it violates our egalitarian preferences. However, the value of a public university education may significantly decline in the future if these institutions don’t develop other sources of revenue. Faculty retention and recruitment, building research labs, etc. all require resources that states are just not willing or are unable to fork over anymore. As an alumnus of a public university sociology department, I’ve unfortunately had some first-hand experience with the consequences of a sudden shortage of state funding. In short, it sucks. Public universities need to find creative solutions to this problem before they lose their elite status. It may suck, but it’s the reality.