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Monday, February 25, 2008

Monday, February 25, 2008
Inside Higher Ed has a good overview of the Bush II Presidential Library controversy. The facility at Southern Methodist will have three parts, including a policy center that aims to "celebrate" the president and his record.

The obvious problems include:
  • knowledge being produced on a university campus without the normal safeguards of peer review
  • knowledge that will be received by the media and the public as valid because it comes from a university campus.
This arrangement is another sign of the difficulty universities have staying independent in the midst of desperate struggles for either adequate funding or big-league competitiveness (SMU's issue). But we shouldn't pick on SMU. The Hoover Institute at Stanford has for decades openly pushed conservative positions and systematically built conservative networks of scholars and top officials without feedback from Stanford's overall faculty. UC Berkeley recently signed a deal with BP that will allow BP scientists to conduct proprietary work in facilities built with public money and housed on campus.

The appointment of Donald Rumsfeld to a Hoover Institute position raised the issue at Stanford. An on-line petition against the hire raised over 4300 signatures. Some faculty proposed a motion last fall to investigate the process that led to the Rumsfeld hire. The Stanford Daily reported Philosophy Prof and motion advocate Debra Satz explaining, “I find it hard to understand the reasoning in appointing Rumsfeldnot because of his views, but because of his competence.”

The SMU Bush connection is a little more fawning towards a figure who is, like Rumsfeld, a little more disgraced than the normal donor or beneficiary. It's easy to assume that university resources would go into the partisan defense of weak records rather than into history and policy analysis. It's hard to image Chalmers Johnson being invited to Hoover or SMU to speak. The SMU case may help raise awareness of the fragility of academic freedom when it comes up against powerful interests, especially ones that haven't done too well and feel that they have something to prove.

Meanwhile, Stanford faculty are using Hoover's hiring of Donald Rumsfeld as a visiting fellow to try to established a new review process for affiliated institutes that trade on Stanford's name.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Wednesday, February 20, 2008
The Council for Aid to Education has released its figures for higher education philanthropy in 2007. Overall donations were up 6.3 percent, which is close to the annual average for the last ten years. The Chronicle of Higher Education story also offered what have become standard comments about the skew in private giving towards the very top.
Large donations to the nation's wealthiest colleges accounted for much of the increase. The top 20 recipients (see table), which represent just 2 percent of the survey's respondents, raised more than a quarter of all the contributions.

"The top 20 historically have controlled a lot, and they're controlling a bigger and bigger share of private donations," said Ann E. Kaplan, the survey's director. "It's large gifts to large institutions that drive national trends."
The top 2 percent of institutions also accounted for 30 percent of the year-over-year growth in these donations. And "megagifts" remain a major factor in the shaping of higher ed.

Everyone is worried about the impact of the economic downturn that has already started. Ironically, it may only increase the influence of the megagifts. As one CHE consultant noted, "If the market falls and people's wealth shrinks, then you start seeing a slowdown, or people postponing capital contributions. . . . But the big donors, who drive these numbers anyway, tend to be stable."

There's another issue that is never mentioned. Little of this giving is unrestricted, so at public universities it cannot be applied to general operating costs to make up for public funding cuts. When our UC Planning and Budget committee heard officials from the Treasurer's Office talk about this, they estimated that unrestricted gifts are 2 percent of the total. Even in scholarship giving, only 20 percent are unrestricted. Over a period of years, the effect is not a happy substitution of public with private funding, but a campus divided by an iron curtain. The stem-cell research facility may be state-of-the-art, while the math department, dependent on public money, can't pay for phones in faculty offices or for TAs to give actual feedback on homework in calculus lectures with 500 students.

There is no evidence at all that private money is willing to pay for mass quality higher education - broad access at a top level. It pays for special projects for the best and the most famous. We are getting plenty of that, but losing the mass quality that underwrote both post-war prosperity and general quality of intellectual life.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Monday, February 4, 2008
Student loans produced a lot of stories about conflicts of interest last year, and some mild clean-up activity. One pattern there was kickbacks - gifts from private loan companies in exchange for favors from university counsellors. Another was a revolving door between universities and private loan companies that increased collusion between the two. Sallie Mae sought a buy-out that would have given its CEO over $225 million personally (the sale did not go through; I don't know CEO Albert L. Lord's final cut, but he continued to seek a $900 million breakup fee after the deal collapsed). The Department of Education admitted to having overpaid private student loan companies.

The obvious theme here is that the activities of these private agencies increased the cost of obtaining a college degree. There were good stories about just how broke students are in part because of high-tuition coupled with high-priced loans. The most famous response was that some of the country's wealthiest private universities - led by Harvard - switced from loans to grants for lower-income students.

Whatever the response, a core principle remains: increasing the number of steps between the buyer and the seller - the student and the university - increases the costs to the buyer. We used to know that "middlemen" like railroads were bad for people like farmers. We seem to need to learn this all over again with higher ed.