funding universities: is the state any better than private donors?

When I wrote about universities and the ethics of donations the other day, the takeaway was that we should 1) protect academic freedom and 2) avoid resource dependence but 3) not give donors political litmus tests. Then I threw in a line at the end about the biggest funder of all: the government.

Of course, there’s a simpler solution to this – full public funding for public universities, so that we can all Just Say No to any money with strings attached. Given our current financial reality, though, I’m curious if others have ideas about where to draw the line.

A couple of people have rightly jumped on this — August in the comments, and Graham Peterson at his own blog. They point out, fairly enough, that being government-funded just makes you dependent on bureaucrats and their agendas rather than the Koches or Bill Gates or whomever.

I’m very attuned to this possibility. During the Cold War, the government was often the biggest threat to academic freedom. There were government-sponsored Communist witch-hunts (see here for a gripping account of threats made to Robert Bellah at Harvard). There was classified research with lots of academic-freedom-stifling strings attached (see, e.g., Kelly Moore’s Disrupting Science). Government-sponsored military research was, in fact, one of the things ripping universities apart in the late 1960s.

And yet. I still prefer the government money.

There are two reasons for this. One is that I was thinking primarily of state appropriations — the thing that has massively disappeared for public universities over the last several decades — rather than federal grant dollars. Of course state appropriations do (or did) create huge resource dependencies. But it’s just not true that some faceless bureaucrat can coerce universities into doing what they want by threatening to withhold state appropriations. It’s too big for that — it’s got to be fought out in the realm of politics

With all the flaws of our democratic system, I still think that the core mission(s) of public universities are more likely to be upheld under a system of state funding. I also think they’ll be held more accountable — in the good way, through demands that universities respond to public preferences, not the bad way that requires us all to track our every action in some horrible PeopleSoft application.

The other is that while all money is political, I don’t think the answer is just to throw our hands in the air and say “I give up, it’s all the same.” To me, the core values of the university involve the free exchange of knowledge and the search for truth. Being true to such goals requires a certain degree of autonomy and self-directedness. I am the first to admit we who make up the university are far from perfect on this front, and I am not suggesting the university has no obligations to the larger public and is free to go navel-gaze for the next forty years. But there are some circumstances under which funding is more likely to reinforce these core values and others in which it is not. To my mind, donors who want to support a particular research area are okay, as long as there is a certain degree of insulation between the money and the academic activity. Donors who are looking for the power to veto hires are not.

But this brings us to the real question: is government funding any different — better or worse — than private funding? Really, both types of funding should be judged on a case-by-case basis. Some government funding supports universities in ways that protect that core mission. NSF makes scientist-directed research possible, at least for now. A lot of the best things that came out of the Defense Department (i.e., the Internet) happened through the very hands-off DARPA.

Other government money costs universities more than it’s worth. Olderwoman pointed out what happens when private donations require matching support from the university. There’s a government analog as well: think of the massive buildup of health-related infrastructure in universities during the 1998-2003 NIH budget doubling. Now NIH has 17% proposal success rates and multiple postdocs are the new norm in the biosciences. Universities spent the money to attract government funding that didn’t arrive. Still other government funding comes with multiple strings attached. I know at least one institution that abandoned programmatic support from NEH when that agency started interfering with the institution’s own choice of program participants.

Anyway. There’s no magic-bullet answer, even though I wish there were. “Private” versus “public” is too simple when it comes to talking about university funding. But not all public funding is equally susceptible to the bad-bureaucrat problem.


Written by epopp

July 22, 2014 at 2:11 am

Posted in academia, education

4 Responses

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  1. Sorry, comments and trackbacks were initially turned off of this post for some reason. But Graham Peterson has a full response here:



    July 22, 2014 at 1:54 pm

  2. […] with important things, and because she is extremely fair.  Berman generously provides a list of the assaults of academic freedom the state has perpetrated, supporting my argument that the […]


  3. Another thought-provoking post! And, as you point out, funding universities is a Gordian knot. There is nothing so simple here as “public money is good, better than non-governmental funds”. And in the face of continual decreases in state appropriations for higher education, it is ludicrous to think that the public’s interest is being protected by state government through benign, apolitical support. The only overt interest I see from many state governments in serving the stakeholders in HE comes from intrusive, poorly designed funding metrics based on graduation rates, length of degree programs, and mass.

    It is likewise clear that the overly politicized Federal government is now directing its funding (and its cuts) with more design. All hail STEM! Defund social science research!

    And there is one more locus of interference in the funding of research: university (campus and system) administration. A smaller percentage of external support (benign or not) actually reaches the researchers and students than in the past as direct costs. In addition to the confiscatory overhead rates (making up for declining state support), grants are being charged much more for benefits and “tuition remission” for graduate student RAs. A three-year grant with a nominal award of $500,000 will likely yield only $275,000 of spendable funds “after tax”. Further, the research administration is funneling funds that are not earmarked in advance to their preferred units (STEM again!). Start-up packages for engineering and science hires are routinely more than a million dollars. Where do you suppose that money comes from? None of these packages ever generate enough new overhead funds to make the net present value positive.

    To be fair, the university administration does allow you to have your research assistants paid from the teaching funds. And they permit departments to stretch out graduate degree programs in social science to appalling lengths because the grad students really aren’t RAs.

    It is difficult to find firm footing, even on the moral high ground. If we have an obligation to ourselves, our students, our professions, etc., we cannot spend much effort or time sorting good funds from evil funds.

    So take the “tainted” money from some dodgy foundation. Inflate the budget as much as you dare. Then “render unto Caesar that which is his” and spend the remaining funds on what you want to do. Do great science. Give your grad students real money to support conference travel, books, and data purchase. Play the game(s). Feel good about the outcomes.



    July 22, 2014 at 3:52 pm

  4. I think it’s worth pointing out that there is a normative bias throughout this discussion — but especially in Graham Peterson’s argument — that academics are always best left to their own devices with large blank checks from public and private funders. I think a comparison between undergraduate education at public and private research universities shows that this is not always true.

    Absent accountability to the state, elite private research universities receive massively disproportionate public and private funding per undergraduate student. A huge portion of this funding comes from endowment assets. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford alone have about $100 billion in endowment assets or 1/4 of all college endowment assets in the U.S. Goldman School of Public Policy Dean Henry Brady has pointed out that they have such large endowments in part because of tax expenditures by the state — tax exemptions for endowment investment revenue and tax deductions for charitable donations. The result is that the 6 colleges with the largest endowments per student allocate an average of $75,000 per student to spend on university operations every year. This more than 5 times the median spending by colleges from ALL revenue sources. In other words, private research universities use their massive funding to reproduce a tiny elite rather than using their huge endowments to enroll the growing number of qualified student.

    Public research universities educate many more undergraduates (and graduate students) per dollar spent. I think it is a fair hypothesis that this is because the state puts pressure on public academies to educate larger numbers of students. At the University of California, at least, this is a constant back and forth between the Governor, legislator, and UC leadership.

    So, if research universities are just about doing science, maybe it is better to leave scientists to our own devices with blank checks. But I think research universities should be about creating knowledge in a broad and inclusive way that includes large undergraduate programs — programs that are a leveling force through their broad inclusion of qualified persons from all walks of life, rather than programs that reproduce a tiny elite. Private funding has at least allowed for the latter result at elite private research universities.


    Charlie Eaton

    July 23, 2014 at 11:07 pm

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