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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Jerry Brown's Back-Door Support for Privatization

As Chris noted in his last post, Governor Brown's proposed higher education budget contained few surprises.  Unfortunately, that means that his budget fails to address the real funding and resource shortfalls facing the three segments and will serve to strengthen the hands of those--like retiring Berkeley EVC George Breslauer--who advocate piecemeal privatization.  Although Brown correctly notes that he has staunched the cuts that have plagued higher education since the Great Recession--while ignoring his own role in the earlier cuts--the realities of his proposals display his unwillingness to do more than allow for a permanent underdevelopment of higher education. He lets himself appear as more of a friend to the sector than his proposals warrant.

In his discussion, Chris emphasized two points:  first the likelihood that Brown's budget plans would lead UC to rely more and more on lecturers and adjuncts and second, that it will increase the turn towards what EVC Breslauer refers to as "unit-level entrepreneurialism." (3)  Each demands attention.  Although the number of tenure track positions at UC has increased since 2007 the bulk of that increase is due to expansion at Merced.  (see the relevant statistics here)  At CSU there were in 2012 fewer tenure track faculty than there were in 2007 (14)  This despite increases in enrollments.  Nor is there any evidence that "unit-level entrepeneurialism" is likely to decrease: the recent proposal on policies for approving self-supporting programs is only one example.

But I want to focus on two other issues that underline the Governor's support (intentional or not I cannot say) both for privatization and for a policy discourse that conceals the question of privatization itself.

First: By tying state funding growth to a freeze on tuition while funding the sectors below the funds they need to face their challenges, the Governor effectively encourages campuses to increase the number of their non-resident students.  An increase in the number of non-resident students is, after all, the simplest way under the present funding regime for campuses to increase their revenue.  This situation is compounded by the severing of state funding from enrollment numbers.  I know that UC and CSU administrators might prefer this situation.  After all, it allows them to curtail enrollment if they want without losing funding.  And it avoids the traditional problem of enrolling more students than the state was supporting.  But it also means that there is no economic incentive for campuses to enroll an additional resident student compared to a non-resident student.  Now I realize that politically this is unlikely--UC is unlikely to curtail in-state enrollment and risk the damage that would result; CSU only does it under extreme duress.  But if Brown and UC were really concerned to, in the words of President Napolitano, "Teach for California, Research for the World," they would create a new funding model in which the state actually funded all resident students rather than encouraging campuses implicitly to seek out non-residents because of their economic value. 

This encouragement of non-resident enrollment, in turn, has several likely long-range effects--even leaving aside the more extreme market-derived prognostications of people like Brad DeLong.  First, despite UCOP's claims that the increase in non-resident enrollments does not curtail educational opportunities for residents, it is quite clear that it does.  UCOP may be right that there is no one-to-one swap out of resident for non-resident (although Berkeley did try that not too long ago) but even when that doesn't occur the effect is to place greater strain on the teaching, research, and support elements of the campus.  Given that the numbers of tenure-track faculty are not growing in accord with the increase in student numbers the faculty-student ratio will increase.  The Governor seems indifferent to this reality.  Moreover, it seems likely that the growth of NRT and especially international students will only increase inequality within the higher education system.  The greater resources of UC will be compounded compared to CSU and within UC the resources of those campuses that can draw international students most effectively (at this point Berkeley, Los Angeles, and San Diego) will grow faster than other campuses (Davis I believe plans to join the pursuit in a big way).  Put another way, Governor Brown's strategy is a strategy for increasing inequality within higher education.

Brown, of course, insists that given tuition increases over the last 5 years, the sectors have increased their total core funds even with state cutbacks.  But this is one of the clearest examples of why the notion of a "dollar is a dollar is a dollar" is false.  For under present circumstances, where UC's accessibility is tied to its financial aid programs rather than its tuition levels, a dollar in tuition is worth less than a dollar in state funding.  This is for the simple reason that approximately 1/3 of every tuition dollar needs to go to maintaining financial aid rather than to the educational operations of the institution.  Even Speaker Perez's effort to expand state financial aid simply deepens the fundamental logic.  For both treat support for higher education as a private and privatized good and not as a public shared function.  The economic burdens fall on students and their families.  And to make matters worse, as Chris pointed out in November the Governor has suggested that the increase Speaker's increase of financial aid is held as an alternative to increased funding for the University.

Second:  Both the Governor and the Legislative Analyst display a highly confused sense of higher education costs.  The key here, as Chris pointed out, is the emphasis on on-line courses as a mechanism for lowering costs and price.  The issue is not only that 2013 demonstrated that current technologies do not save labor costs nor work effectively in helping students overcome previous educational failings.  The issue is that what Brown tries to dismiss as "high-cost traditionalism" is not being driven by instruction (whose costs as Bob Samuels and others have pointed out has actually gone down over time) but by the demands of research--especially scientific research.  And the way that those costs are borne by universities.

Now before people blow a gasket I am not arguing here against research (scientific or otherwise) nor do I think that scientists are somehow at fault here.  The problem--which the Governor and others refuse to recognize--is that society expects universities to be the center of basic research, that the way that research is organized creates a large administrative structure as well demands expensive infrastructure, and that the costs of this structure combined with the infrastructure exceeds the funding (both direct and indirect) provided for scientific research.  Nor does this take into account the labor costs faced by researchers of responding to the various administrative and oversight demands.  Brown's rhetoric suggests that UC can cut costs through instructional technology (his insistence that instructional technology can overcome the challenges CSU faces is a whole other problem); but this emphasis on instruction prevents the open discussion of the real costs of basic research, of the demands placed on (or seized by) universities to perform needed research, and the willingness of society to support that research adequately.  As debates over the sequester and new practices at the NIH have made clear this is not a problem that is going to go away.  Universities have been able to overcome some of the shortfall through cross-subsidies.  But as the core of public funding is hollowed out those cross-subsidies will become less possible and both instruction and research will suffer.

If the Governor truly wants a discussion about the priorities of higher education he would need to move beyond the narrow confines of budget "realism" and trigger a debate about actual costs (for instance the balance between medical centers and campuses).  In exchange for the possibility of arguing for adequate funding, the Governor should demand from the systems clearer financial accounting (if you talk with Sacramento you quickly will see how frustrated they are at the lack of transparency). 

So, when the Governor insists that UC and CSU should simply make do, he not only is securing a state of continuing underdevelopment of higher ed, but, especially in the case of UC, he is encouraging a privatization of the University that will serve no one in the long run.  To make matters worse, in failing to grapple with the actual responsibilities and costs of higher education he prevents a public debate about what higher education for a better society would actually look like. Otherwise he is simply pretending leadership.


Bob Samuels said...

Why do you assume that having more lecturers is necessary a bad thing, and why do you focus on the senate faculty-to-student ratio when we know that other academic job titles have outpaced senate faculty? You assume that having more lecturers means that there are greater strains on teaching, when in reality this may mean that more money is going to the people who teach undergrad students. Now if you want to make an argument for more research funding and research faculty that is a whole different argument. UC is afraid to make this argument so they present a misleading calculation of how much it costs to teach each student, and then the governor says, if it so expensive to teach each student, make it more efficient by going online. Unfortunately, things will not change if the senate faculty feel that the only way they can maintain their positions and increase their compensation is if they blame the state for every problem and not look at UC’s own internal budgetary problems (including a lack of internal transparency. However, on the issue of Brown’s desire to not have enrollment targets, you are spot on.

Michael Meranze said...

@Bob Samuels

Hi Bob! The reason I didn't discuss Lecturers is that according to UCOP's statistics they don't seem to have been increased very much either (at least in terms of full time lecturers) and I didn't want to support efforts to shift the teaching burden onto people who are then asked to teach extremely large numbers of students for less pay and benefits.

Also, I thought that a large part of the post was precisely about the need to confront research directly and about the displacement of students not NTT faculty.

Anonymous said...

Not clear what is wrong with the having more out of state and international students. Those students bring a good measure of intellectual and other diversity to our campus and enhance the environment on campus in many positive ways--aside from tuition dollars. By comparison with many elite publics our foreign numbers are low, and it is not clear what great harm would result by allowing them to rise a bit more.

Michael Meranze said...


You are certainly right that having some out-of-state and international students adds to campuses as they have done for a long time. But I don't think that we are talking here about a "bit more" but a quite substantial increase (on some campuses doubling and on others even more). Nor is it clear that there has been the actual thinking through of the things that will need to be done to make the increase fruitful for campus life especially in the case of international students--which is where the greatest increase will be done.

But I'm not sure that the other highly ranked publics really settle the question though. In the cases of places like Michigan or Virginia (neither of which are ranked as high as the highest UCs if you want to go by something like that) it is clear that the relationship between the university and the state has been changed substantially. The question is whether or not that is what we really want and if it is proper stewardship of the university or the public good.

Anonymous said...

@Michael Meranze

Even a substantial increase from our current low numbers strikes me as positive. In any event, you depicted it as if it is unalloyed or obvious bad, and it seems far from clear that is accurate. As for Michigan or Virginia, the relationship between the state and the university and the fraction of out of state or foreign students are related, but still two very different things. In any event, the relationship between UC and the state HAS changed, and the sooner we face up to it, the sooner we can influence its further evolution.

Michael Meranze said...


I'm not sure who here is not recognizing that the relationship with the state has changed--we have been posting on that for years. The question is whether or not this is the best strategy for responding to it and obviously I have argued it isn't for a variety of reasons.

I still haven't seen any real argument for why a substantial increase in NRT benefits the University in terms other than an economic one and even that one is less clear-cut than its defenders suggest since it rarely acknowledges the increased costs (the only person I know who is upfront about this has been Brad DeLong).

In some abstract sense I suppose we could have a conversation about the numbers of NRT that might help in the ways that you are talking about but clearly that is not the sort of calculation that is going on. Instead, we have a policy that is being driven by economics and that is going to have a variety of consequences. To my mind, those consequences are not in the service of either the university or the state. It is that policy that we are discussing here. Not whether you might have other reasons for increasing out of state or international students at the undergraduate level. They are already present at the graduate level obviously--but that is because graduate education serves different functions.

Chris Newfield said...

Pro NRT folks are prone to use gross revenues per head. UCSD estimated the NET per head is about $10,000 per student. For every additional 1000 non-resident students a campus will therefore net $10,000,000. UC Berkeley increased its international student numbers during the crisis by around 2000 (http://opa.berkeley.edu/AnalysesReports/UCBNonResidentStudentTrends.pdf ), and by 2012 had about 5200 NR students counting domestic as well as international. (Table 6 http://legacy-its.ucop.edu/uwnews/stat/statsum/fall2012/statsumm2012.pdf). We can assume UC Berkeley is netting about $52 million per year over what it would have recieved for the CA resident versions of those students. For the year ending June 30, 2012, UC Berkeley stated its revenues for "core activities" to be $1.6 billion (p 16 http://controller.berkeley.edu/sites/default/files/2011-12_Financial.pdf ). Net NRT therefore comes to 3.25 percent of Berkeley's revenues. Interestingly, Berkeley lost $625 million on core operations in that year. NRT covers 8.3 percent of this operating loss. Most of the loss is covered by "nonoperating" revenues, largely financial aid (Pell and Cal Grants), philanthropy and investment income, and state general funds. These current calculations for net NRT in 2012 at Berkeley are similar to the modest estimates that I and Andrew Dickson offered using somewhat different methodologies in September 2009 (mine: http://utotherescue.blogspot.com/2009/09/can-doubling-out-of-state-students-save.html ; Andrew's: http://utotherescue.blogspot.com/2009/09/non-resident-tuition-profit-revenues.html). NRT will continue to be a marginal contributor to operating revenues, and it is best thought of as one of a portfolio of separate "entrepreneurialisms," in George Breslauer's phrase, that are changing the overall nature of UC in gradual, local, incremental, and thus deniable ways.

TB said...

I am less and less convinced that privatization is actually a bad route to take given the current trend in public priorities and public funding. Let's just do it honestly. In fact, I am progressively leaning toward a model in which the state support is tied to a student, not to a university while the universities are privatized. Before you cry foul, think of how many wrong incentives this would eliminate (just check the NRT discussion above for one example). Meantime we will finally get a chance to compete with the private universities on a level field. Let the state decide how much its citizenry value educating their next generation; maybe we will finally shed the blame for screwing the students. The state might consider weighting its financial support according to certain criteria – tuition, rankings, the amount of research, diversity or whatever other factors it may find desirable (or objectionable) for a university its student chooses. Whether or not any university would try fitting such a model in order to attract more state-supported students will become a fairly tractable optimization problem devoid of the usual political rubbish. (And not having politicians, including our own UC ones talk about some 'mission' while not really giving a damn about funding it will be refreshing enough.) On a bigger scale, leaving politics to the state while concerning ourselves chiefly with the economics of education and research should be very promising.
By the way, there is really nothing wrong with California financially helping its students attend Caltech or Stanford as I think it is in the state's long term interests.

Chris Newfield said...

TB: I agree that universities should be honest about what they are actually doing, but there are major problems with privatization. First, it will make the student debt crisis even worse: total student debt tripled during the 2000s as every kind of college raised tuition as high and as fast as they could. Second, publics won't compete with the elites privates on a level playing field: they still won't have the resources to build elite facilities and buy the highest-testing students. Third, it will destroy mass access to high quality which the public university system uniquely provides, damaging both the society and the economy more than privatization-fueled mediocre US college attainment already has. Fourth, it will create a political backlash: public colleges WILL be blamed for wrecking the affordability of that very popular public service, high quality higher ed (as they indeed already are). Fifth, it contradicts the political premise of US privatization, which has been that the new private money will mainly come from non-student sources and not from massive tuition hikes. Fifth, it will REDUCE total resources as states subtract general funds in proportion to elevated fees. This has been happening for years de facto, and Jerry Brown's virtue is that he is at least honest and open about the fact that he will do this. I opposed privatization on economic and social grounds in the mid-1990s when it was first proposed in response to the Pete Wilson cuts (it fit will with the elimination of affirmative action, growing tax aversion on the part of leading CA industries, etc.). But it was at least technically possible then, because US public services hadn't yet been starved long enough to have become globally uncompetitive, the US middle class still had money, its children were not laden with debt, and every other state had not yet had the same idea. It isn't technically possible now: there aren't enough academically solid rich students to fund every state's attempt to fund its public system by charging private-level tuition to the students of every other state--and there won't be enough public co-funding to put the Berkeleys on Stanford footing. The outcome would be a giant 2nd or 3rd class "Ivy League" for sub-elite students who would rightly demand comparable educational investments for their high-tuition dollars, which would require internal reallocations that would hurt research. Even if it were a good public policy idea, I see no hope on the budget math.

NWCS said...

Hmm, informative article.

TB said...

Chris – thanks for your response. First of all, I had not done any numbers or looked at any careful studies, so my opinion expressed above is driven by my 'gut feeling' and nothing else. I would really appreciate any links to studies showing ill economic effects or potential benefits of privatization. My evidence is mostly anecdotal: when I talk to my colleagues at the Universities of Michigan or Virginia, it appears to me that being more de facto private than the UC alleviates some of the problems built into the UC present model. So, not really having any solid facts to support my opinions, let me nevertheless disagree with some of your statements.
(i) The issue of access to high quality: I don't see how it would necessarily be hampered were the State to subsidize eligible CA students to attend CA-based universities. The issue of access is then simply a function of the student preparedness and the amount of available state subsidies. The UC should be left out of the blame loop for *either of these*, as these are squarely results of political funding decisions made by the State politicians. The only argument in favor of the present model would be if one could show that the State can provide the same high quality at less cost than if it were to outsource it to the private entities and simply pay cash for it. I am not certain I see any evidence of this: all substantial (and insubstantial) savings during my decade as a UC faculty member came at the expense of quality (with a byproduct of a deluge of shameless lying by both state and gutless UC politicians). Hence in the current model “access” and “high quality” should not be used in the same sentence. We need to prioritize and I am trying to propose a model where we focus on quality and the state focuses on access.
(ii) The issue of the high student debt crisis: while I am not trying to minimize this issue (and I am privately very worried that we all are 'riding' a bubble), the actual cost to the students would be the difference between what we charge – presumably a carefully assessed market rate – and what the state decides to chip in to help each student. Once again, I would like to see these two disentangled from one another. We should focus on what the optimal rate is, based on the cold assessment of economic sustainability, while the state should decide how much (in $ denomination) it values educating its youth. At the very least, the public will know who to blame for each term in this simple equation.

TB said...

(iii) My biggest worry is that we are overseeing the decline of the UC brand. The one thing we still have is the name. Perhaps not all UCs, but definitely Berkeley & UCLA (and likely a couple of others) are internationally recognized names. Can they attract foreign students paying full tuition? My guess would be yes. While they may not have the name recognition of Caltech & Stanford, they are still far ahead of, let's say, USC. I am afraid I don't really see an alternative for preserving this brand other than going private. In addition, I suspect that with the tsunami of MOOCs upon us, the 'brand name' on one's actual diploma will become more and more valuable, if only because many employers will still need criteria for quickly discriminating between many applicants. Such brand name can be maintained by two things: access to high-quality students (preferably uninhibited by political considerations) and doing headline-making research. These are the two things that a random down-the-road college with access to the same MOOCs will not be able to compete on, and I hate to see how political and economic constraints of our current model make us piss away this competitive advantage.
Once again, my opinions here are just opinions; I am simply frustrated by how misaligned our incentives are with what we should be doing to stay competitive. I do not consider myself a neo-liberal who believes that privatization is a solution to all ills. After all I am a product of a subsidized public education system myself – I know it can work, I just don't see any indication that our current model is workable and I don't see any political will or public desire to stop the slide. Given this, privatization *may be* the lesser evil.

Michael Meranze said...

TB--Thanks for continuing the conversation. It is an important one to have. I didn't respond initially because I was trying to get my head around what your suggestions would look like in practice. But let me try to raise a couple of issues and questions now.

1) I am not sure how much I would go by Ann Arbor of UVA. In one sense, they are examples of what you are talking about. But they are also examples of a flagship strategy (especially Michigan) in which subsidiary campuses cannot enroll out-of-state stuednts but don't, as far as I have been able to tell, get additional funding to compensate for that. I also think that people sometimes understate how much funding UMich actually gets from the public. In some ways it is like when UC leaders claim that only 10% of our funding or whatever the latest claim is comes from the state. That is true if you count the medical centers, auxiliaries, etc but is a big distortion if you look at core funding. And the struggles at UVA seem a particularly potent example of the power that privatization gives to donors and their allies.

2) But on your more concrete suggestion there are different ways that it could go so I may be misunderstanding. But I think you are suggesting one of two approaches. Either A) the state announces that they will fund each college student with a grant of X dollars if they attend a school in California or B) the state announces that they will fund a student with X number of dollars if they attend a liberal arts college, Y number if they attend a CSU, Z if they attend a UC etc. But the key thing in this case is that the money goes to the student. Are either of those right?

I ask because I am not sure that either will get us where you want to get us. If it is the former, then it doesn't respond to your point about the state deciding to reward (or punish) certain activities (research, access, diversity, completion) or whatever. But if you want the state to do the latter in the way you suggest then I am not sure how that will get rid of the politicians. And given that the problem has been that the state has been cutting its per-student subsidy I doubt they will manage to help make things feasible if they decide it is not really their responsibility. The idea that the state would be willing to pay tuition to private places and public places without paying even less than they do now doesn't strike me as likely does it?

I wonder if the issue that you are pointing to is the remarkable lack of transparency in our budgets. In a way, your second proposal would return to the way that funding occurred before Brown and the segments agreed to cut the ties between funding and enrollments. But it is hard to know because there is no clear discussion of the actual costs and revenues of different parts of any higher education institution in the state. UC certainly does not offer transparent budgets. If in fact we could get those it might be possible to say to the state: this is in fact what we need to educate students in a way that would prepare them fully for their futures; this is what we need to sustain the research mission; this is what we need for student services etc. And for Sacramento to say in return: we don't care if you do this or that; or we are not willing to support this sort of building or that sort of administration. And to make a public case.

As far as political will is concerned you are right about the present leadership and what you call the "slide." But as we have argued in different ways, it doesn't seem to me that the privatization can stop it either. In fact, the political will is to slide into privatization and have a fairly stagnant and underfunded system. Either campuses will simply start taking NRT on top of in-state students and overload themselves or they will start cutting back on in-state students to make space and most likely the state will cut back more.

TB said...

Apologies for not responding sooner – had a very busy week.
I agree with your sentiment that since Ann Arbor of UVA are flagships, adopting a similar model will chiefly benefit Bekeley & UCLA, with the potential benefits to the other UCs less and less obvious as you go down the “food chain”. Nonetheless, it seems to me that a few others (e.g. San Diego, Santa Barbara, Davis) still have a sufficient name recognition to try marketing it.
The model I had in mind is somewhere between your (A) and (B) plans. Basically it should be a grant/voucher given to a CA student choosing to attend a school in CA. It does not have to be a fixed amount X. It can be highly variable, depending on the college of student's choice. It could be X1 for students attending a top 10 college, X2 for attending the next tier college etc. It should not be based on whether the college is formerly a state school (i.e. no USC vs UCLA discrimination based on this factor alone!) – an honest privatization would be impossible in such a case. In a model I envision (granted, a much idealized model), the state decides what it is willing to pay for, and how much, and we are left to decide what is the most viable economic model for us to pursue. Whatever factors the state values – diversity, class sizes, certain majors or any other criteria – it can modify the voucher amount accordingly. The voucher amount can (and in my opinion should) reflect the socioeconomic status of a given student. Having us balance these issues under the aegis of politically imposed “mission” against possible financial relief from enrolling out-of-state or foreign students – the system in place now – creates all sorts of wrong incentives and ferments politically-motivated dishonesty both at the state and UC levels. Basically I want us to get out of the social engineering business, making it the prerogative of the state, while letting us focus on what we are actually good at – education and research (more on this below).
One obvious problem with such a complete 'divorce' from the State is the value of the land, buildings etc. Once again, I have not done the numbers (and I don't even know where to start), but there is also a huge amount of unfunded pension liabilities on the other side of this balance – so I am not sure which way the needle will go.

TB said...

Let me, however, step back and focus on a much more important (and daunting) issue: the future of research universities in this country. Yesterday I came across a very thought-provoking blog post by NYU's Clay Shirky: http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2014/01/there-isnt-enough-money-to-keep-educating-adults-the-way-were-doing-it/. While I may not agree with some minor statements he makes, I think his diagnosis of our current condition is right on the money: “Many of my colleagues believe that if we just explain our plight clearly enough, legislators will come to their senses and give us enough money to save us from painful restructuring. I’ve never seen anyone explain why this argument will be persuasive, and we are nearing the 40th year in which similar pleas have failed, but 'Someday the government will give us lots of money' remains in circulation, largely because contemplating our future without that faith is so bleak.”
I also can’t help but notice that many of my STEM colleagues tend to think that we are somehow more immune than the humanities. Here is another though-provoking post which I think should be a must-read: http://trotskyschildren.blogspot.com/p/predictions-for-future-stem-employment.html . This analysis may strike some as too cynical, but I find it refreshingly honest, even if I don't fully agree with all the points made there. However, I am afraid its gist is correct and yes, I am *really* afraid.
Notice that the two blog posts I have cited here are written by people of very different political persuasion, yet they paint a consistent picture of our future, and its a bleak one – unless we start thinking and doing something radical NOW. There are two important questions that I would like to see seriously discussed:
– what is the actual value of educational services we are providing; and
– what is the value and the future of the university-based research in this country.
Our strategy should depend very much on how we answer these questions. Let me try to offer my cynical yet hopefully honest take.
On the first question, I do not think (for our own sakes!) that it's the information that we put into our students' heads. Both access to information (in a form of various web-based resources – think Wikipedia) and the cost of its delivery (think MOOCs) went down dramatically, and will become cheaper still. What we *would like* to think is that we are not just supplying information, but teaching how to manipulate, categorize and use it – in other words, we are teaching students to *think*. This is a fantastic feeling that keeps us doing what we are doing (and loving it), but take and honest look outside our self-contained bubble: how many jobs out there actually require critical thinking? The chances are, those jobs will go to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Caltech & Stanford graduates. Unless you teach in one of the top 10 universities (and I do not), the chances are – your students will not land one of those interesting, fulfilling and coveted jobs. And the chances are, they will not create these jobs (by starting a new company) either. My evidence is anecdotal, but of a limited number of Google employees I happen to know, only very few have degrees from the US Universities outside the top 10 (I'd love to see the statistics though).

TB said...

So, back to our purpose, I am afraid our real product is a stamp of approval. In a sense, future employers who now expect a bachelor’s degree from their applicants simply 'outsource' their selection process to us. There are only so many things you can learn about the person's abilities and work ethics from her resume and a 30-min long interview. You can learn much more from the fact that (i) she was deemed suitable by the X University admissions and that (ii) she graduated from X. The latter is important: there are inevitable mistakes made in the admissions process, the next four years are there to correct these mistakes. If X=Harvard, an employer can also get a potential premium value of Harvard connections – i.e. a shortcut to future employes/business partners like her, which may come handy.
If my hunch is indeed correct, then this may actually be a blessing – the MOOCs and Wikipedia can provide neither a stamp of approval nor a potential networking value. However, that means that in order to survive we need to be *more*, not less exclusive as the value of our 'stamp' directly depends on that. A very unpleasant, but necessary corollary – no remedial classes; they are counterproductive from the selectivity point of view, never mind the current reality where they are also an unfunded liability.
It is politically impossible to go in that direction while remaining a state school, and that's why I think some form of secession is our best survival strategy. I fully realize how objectionable this may sound: instead of trying to cure the society's currents disparities we will likely be adding to them. But I have already tried arguing on this blog that this is really a K-12 failure and that is where the state/federal governments have to address it. Holding us responsible is both dishonest and very precarious to our own future.
On the second subject, research, I am even less optimistic. Firstly, I am clearly biased – I chose academia primarily due to the research opportunities. This is what I love doing and this is what I would like to continue doing. As a human, I undoubtedly tend to be more susceptible to evidence and arguments reinforcing my prejudices. But even if you agree that the fundamental research is essential for the future of this country, how you pay for it is a very different question altogether. Is it better done in universities or national labs? (The industrial labs are too small-scale and too focused on specific product-related issues to really count.) The government seems to prefer universities but I am afraid this is because the research expenses there are secretly cross-subsidized by the unsustainable educational model – a subject discussed ad nauseam on this blog. The only real hope I see for disentangling this mess is to first understand what is the product we are actually selling, and how much we can sustainably charge for that. Does the headlines-making research increase the value of our degree or not? (If the answer is yes, I see no problem with charging premium for the degree and using that extra money to subsidize research.) Does the overhead of having Ph.D. programs (and hence necessarily supporting a research component) makes financial sense? (You also get cheap temporary teachers – in a form of TAs, so please count that too). Alternatively, perhaps all Ph.D. programs in universities outside of the top 10 or at most 20 should shrink or diappear, professors should teach more and those with real interest in research should seek employment in the national or industrial labs or think tanks instead.
If I sound alarmist, it's because this may well turn out be our future and keeping one's head in the sand has never been a winning strategy. I would really love to see these questions discussed in a meaningful, informative and dispassionate manner.

Michael Meranze said...


TB--Thanks for the clarification and the ideas. Things are a bit crazy right now but I will get back to you. I'll try to figure out a good way to continue the conversation.

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