what if we privatized public education and no one noticed?

One of the simple, but important, lessons of organizational theory is that resources determine power in organizations. We call that “resource dependency” theory. Last week, this came up in a discussion of the University of California. The Chancellor publically said that maybe we should think about UC Berkeley as a federal school, rather than a state school. In other words, when Sacramento gives you less and less, why should pay attention to them?

This leads to a deep insight. State budgeting trends have resulted in a de facto privatization of state colleges. The leading public schools now have shifted their attention from their state to a global academic environment. If you look at Berkeley, this is clear. The faculty and grad students are global. Funds are federal, and now the tuition often comes from out of state students, who are charged a premium. Berkeley, and others like Virginia, now resembles a bulky private institution with a big financial aid program for in-state students.

Should state governments care? Maybe they should. Much was invested in these institutions – cheap land, decades of money, the use of the state’s brand. There should be a concrete pay off for in-state students. But maybe we shouldn’t care. Perhaps we should admit that higher education is slanted in favor of better off students anyway. They can pay for it. Let universities do what they want, long as they admit a minimum number of in-states.

Even if state governments care, there isn’t much that they can do. Yanking 20% of the budget would certainly cripple many campuses, but it wouldn’t end them. Even in good times, higher education was taking second and third place in state budgets behind law enforcement and K-12 education. Now, it’s hard to see state governments getting more involved in higher education, except maybe as another area for cost savings.

In the end, I think we, collectively, have to accept the fact that public universities, especially the flagships, have entered a new era as a hybrid public-private form. I don’t think that means they should ignore the investment made by states. They should continue to serve in-state students by providing top notch education at a discount. But beyond that, they should redefine themselves as a new kind of institution.

Written by fabiorojas

March 1, 2011 at 12:09 am

Posted in academia, education, fabio

8 Responses

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  1. The concept of the “federal university” has been thrown around recently.

    A friend that went to UVA always said the unofficial motto of their university was “private university, public funds.” The charter initiative that gives Virginia institutions more autonomy over their finances has come under scrutiny recently as the state has taken certain funds collected at some colleges and distributed them to other state colleges. So the tuition hikes at one college are not really going to that particular college. It’ll be interesting to see what happens in states with such agreements in addition to the possible separation of Madison from the UW system.



    March 1, 2011 at 2:16 am

  2. This afternoon, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, as part of the 2011-2013 Biennial Budget, will introduce legislation to make the University of Wisconsin-Madison a “public authority.” In WI “public authority” is similar to charter status that other states use. In short, the Governor’s proposal would grant limited procurement and renovation/construction flexibilities for the campus (deregulation from the UW System and the state of Wisconsin) and would grant full tuition, admissions, and human resources authority to the UW-Madison. Finally, it would require the UW-Madison to create its own Board of Trustees and separate from the UW System. Other than the Governor, Chancellor and their respective staff, no one have been able to read the proposed legislation.

    Noel Radomski
    University of Wisconsin-Madison
    WI Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary education


    Noel Radomski

    March 1, 2011 at 4:49 pm

  3. It makes no sense to define this as privatization. The incentives have merely shifted from satisfying state desires to federal. The potential student may come from anywhere, but every actual student’s needs are subjugated to the whims of the federal grant giver.
    We are learning this is a scam the hard way, often having to pay off loans for degrees that don’t afford us any particular advantage in the marketplace.

    Here is an observation- a truly private university would have a multi-generational outlook. Private universities would need and value relatively wealthy alumni, who would both donate to the university and send their children to the university. Thus we would tend to see less of the party-school atmosphere and more family-oriented old fashioned morality. Without the fast, cheap, and addictive money of various government organizations, you have to grow your university the old-fashioned way.
    Eventually, the education bubble will burst too. I suspect very few universities will be prepared.



    March 1, 2011 at 5:02 pm

  4. Spend thrift campus chancellors at the University of California are the root problems of the deficit at University of California. It’s not that Birgeneau was unaware that there were, in fact, waste and inefficiencies in the system. Faculty and staff have raised issues with senior management, but when they failed to see relevant action taken, they stopped. Finally, Birgeneau ($500,000 salary) engaged some expensive ($3 million) consultants, Bain & Company, to tell him what he should have been able to find out from the bright, engaged people in his own organization.



    March 1, 2011 at 7:24 pm

  5. […] 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 […]


  6. […] consequence is a structural transformation of the leading public universities. As I wrote a few weeks ago, the leading state schools aren’t really “state” schools. They are more like […]


  7. good morninggggggggggggggggggggggggggggg




    August 19, 2011 at 4:15 am

  8. If UC Berkeley were privatized Chancellor Birgeneau would not be giving out salary increases with Californians suffering 12% unemployment. UC Berkeley wages must reflect California’s ability to pay, not what others are paid.
    Share the sacrifices UC Berkeley Faculty, Vice Chancellors, Provost, Chancellor:
    No furloughs.
    18 percent reduction in UCOP salaries & $50 million cut.
    18 percent prune of campus chancellors’, vice chancellors’ salaries.
    15 percent trim of tenured faculty salaries, increase teaching load.
    10 percent decrease non-tenured faculty salaries, increase research, teaching load.
    100% elimination of all Academic Senate, Academic Council costs, wages.

    (17,000 UC paid employees earn more than $100,000)

    There is no question the necessary cuts will be painful to Faculty, Chancellors

    UC Board of Regents Chair Sherry Lansing can bridge public trust gap with reassurances salaries of Chancellors, Faculty reflect depressed California wages.
    With UC’s shared sacrifices, sky will not fall on the 10 campuses.
    Email Opinion to


    Milan Moravec

    August 19, 2011 at 7:38 pm

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