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.