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Saturday, May 17, 2014

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Arguing for University Upgrades in our Suffocating Political Time

I'm convinced that the salvation of public universities depends on offering greater educational intensity than has been possible before.  This will mean fusing research and teaching to allow students to link knowing and doing--thus giving them liberal arts and sciences and also practical skills.  Leaving the details aside here (but see an outline in this post), how would we make something like this happen?

Last year, my public speaking addressed the main obstacle to our imaginations:  the financial booby-trap that public universities have created for themselves.  My theme was that an assortment of privatization strategies has weakened public universities rather strengthened them. In these lectures, I showed slides of the privatization doom loop that public university managers have installed. 

I like to show doom loops because I assume, in my chronic optimism, that they will alarm people out of their acceptance of the death spiral I describe.  As a result, I always hope, at least a few members of the audience will endorse and even create countermeasures, including getting their senior managers to focus more seriously on rebuilding public funding.  I hope this in the teeth of the coast-to-coast demobilization of tenure-track faculty. 

My audiences have been faculty, staff, students, and administrators, and they often raise a major issue:  whatever university people think, politicians don't care about the educational "price of privatization," as I've been calling it.  I can and do show that privatization loses money overall for public universities, but is this an unacceptable point in the non-academic world?    

After all, in California, our politicians allowed hundreds of thousands of students to be turned away from community colleges during the years of cutting.  If political and business elites don't get too upset about mind-numbing quantity problems that shatter the Master Plan and damage the "human capital" inputs to the state's future economy, why would they care about educational quality?  They look at metrics like time to degree and 4-year or 6-year graduation rates, and have fractionally restored some public funding to keep those metrics from getting too much worse.  Business and political leaders, on the whole, have no meaningful educational ambitions for this state, which they have also allowed to become 50th out of 50 in keeping its population out of poverty (page 3).   So why would they fund the higher levels of cognitive development required by 21st century societies?

On Wednesday, an audience member asked this question at a UCLA dean's forum where I spoke, along with English professor Rob Watson and undergraduate dean Patricia Turner, about undergraduate education in the humanities.  My answer about persuading politicians is always the same.  They are persuaded by polls, votes, donations, and defeat.  As far as I know, a state level politician has never lost re-election because s/he cut a public college or university's funding.   Until that happens, legislatures will cut public universities whenever they need the extra money, and only partially restore it since the balance is always claimed by an equally necessary something else (prisons, Medi-Cal, etc.).  

Therefore, I said, the way to reach politicians is through the voting behavior of college parents and sympathizers, and the angry social movements of students. This means tuition protests of course, and the protests in the fall of 2009 and of 2011 played a major role in the multi-year tuition freeze we still have in California.  It also means long-term and sustained assaults by the entire younger generation, in college or excluded from it, on politicians who vote repeatedly for public cuts that force tuition hikes.  It's only through consistent political punishment of privatizers, Democrats and Republicans alike, that the culture of educational defunding will be changed.  

This means that the core audience for both critique and rebuilding is the university community--staff as much as senior managers, students as much as faculty, tenured scientists as much as non-tenure-track writing instructors. We have not been talking enough within and to the whole community.  

When the UCSB Faculty Association invited a University of Oregon professor to speak about that university's successful faculty unionization campaign, I learned that the key activity had been months and years of campus-wide discussion.  The union vote was preceded by a kind of debate of all against all, which turned the university into a discursive community of a kind we rarely see on campuses today. Other factors were important, but debate both taught the details of the current situation and created a general sense of possibility.  It reminded me that there is no thought without hope--and vice versa. That is why we don't have much thought at UC right now.

*  *  *

Undergraduates are the strongest political force in public universities, but what do they think about public funding?  Lots of different things, obviously, but one paradigm emerged last fall when the Associated Students at UCSB started a Campaign for a New Master Plan. They passed a resolution last November, and since then, the AS chapters at Berkeley, Davis, and Irvine have passed similar resolutions calling for the creation of a new Survey Committee to collect data about how to fix the  Master Plan.  The original petition resolved that the most likely fix was to reverse recent tuition hikes and rebuilding public funding: 

 the Associated Students of the University of California, Santa Barbara and the Office of the External Vice President of Statewide Affairs conjointly petition the Regents of the University of California at its next meeting to direct its Committee on Finance to investigate and report on the cost and fiscal impact of rolling tuition back to 2005-2006, 2000-2001, and pre-tuition levels to be completed and presented at the Board of Regents meeting in March of 2014.

The final petition going around the system is more neutral as to outcomes.

Last Monday, I spoke at an AS-UCSB event about the future of the Master Plan, called Revitalize Your Education.  The audience received a split message from the faculty speakers.

My colleague from Economics cheerfully described the university system as a "cartel," and traced tuition increases not only to funding cuts but to a cartel's power to charge high prices through restraint of trade.  His solution was to break up the UC system, convert all state funding to a voucher system, and allow individual campuses to compete in their areas of strength.  

I'm intrigued by the break-up idea, since UCOP's maldistribution of both tuition and state funds has made the system a means for poorer campuses to subsidize the wealthy ones.  On the other hand, competition among American universities has produced the highest-priced higher education system on earth (Colorado's voucher system has had a similar effect), so a state-wide free-for-all is the opposite of what the public needs. 

In my talk, I took the opposite approach: public funding cuts were not forced by money shortages but by political choices freely made.  I had a slide from the Futures Report showing decline as a share of state personal income (page 8).  A chart from the budget report Michael discussed last week tells the more recent sorry story.

The state was already only giving a half a percent of output to UC and CSU in 2001-02.  A decade later, it had cut that share in half. 

I had two comments to make about the state's defunding of its own Master Plan.  First, it is a kind of generational war by the old on the young: specifically, older, wealthier whiter voters warring on younger, poorer, browner K-12 students and their families. Whatever the individual intentions, the generations that benefited the most from Prop 13 tax cuts and housing wealth inflation have not been made more generous by their relative affluence--quite the contrary.  This strikes me, I said, as the opposite of how civilized societies behave, where established generations take care of the rising ones.  A contemporary kind of white racial resistance is preventing us from doing this now. This problem needs to be addressed and solved, and I'm afraid it's going to be the millennial generation that does this rather than mine or Jerry Brown's.

My second comment was that "Restoring Quality and Access to Public Higher Education in California: 2013-14" is entirely affordable.  A report by that title has shown that the rebuilt Master Plan envisioned by the AS-UCSB resolution--the much higher public funding and much lower tuition of 2000-2001--would cost the median taxpayer $50 per year.   The Survey Team that AS proposed could logically recommend that the state "Keep California's Promise."  The slogan is: "They Broke our Universities: Will you pay $50 to fix them?"; AS could campaign to make the answer yes.  

My economist colleague's counterargument was equally straightforward: there are so many poor people in California and other states, and it's not fair to ask them to subsidize students who will go on to earn a college wage premium--and make enough to pay back loans.  

And yet even were the college wage premium holding up--it seems to be flattening out now-- progressive taxation can eliminate the problem of the poor subsidizing the middle and upper classes.  At the federal poverty line for a family of four ($23,550), the annual surcharge for "Keep Califormia's Promise" would be $13.28. Policymakers could create a threshold--say 200% of the poverty line--beneath which the charge would be zero.   At the $150,000-199,999 income level, the annual surcharge would be $656, or somewhat higher if lower-income families were exempted.

The real political problem is not that advocates for public funding want the poor to help the rich, but that they want the rich to help the poor and the middle class--help them for the good of the whole society.  The top 4% of incomes would pay $3859 per year and up.  Though this is the same share of their income tax that $13.28 is at the poverty line, people at these income levels largely control public policy, and their policy is not to pay for general services.  This "Restoring Quality" report will have to get through a wall of wealthy opposition to paying their share of a society of general provision, which in general the wealthy no longer value.

In other words, if students don't push for high public funding and low tuition, these are never going to happen.  Faculty are divided and senior managers are basically against real restoration, which would complicate various lobbying efforts and donor cultivation. Donors don't want the master plan -- they are exactly the people who would see the biggest tax increase, and who've benefitted the most from austerity's low-tax regime.   

But donors don't represent the university community.  To get campuses thinking about what fixing the Master Plan concretely means, faculty groups could sponsor campus-wide discussions about public funding that have students at their center.


Phil Horlacher Jr. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Doris Sommer said...

This is a sane and sobering analysis; and also, thankfully, a feasible call to action. Once California sets the tone for a democratizing Master Plan for higher education, surely the rest of the country will follow. Thanks to Chris Newfield

Chris Newfield said...

Phil I'm also now concerned that there is no mechanism for further discussions that will allow even the students who are interested in the MP--like the good crowd at the AS event on Monday--to figure out what they think about it all. I've suggested to the Faculty Associations that they co-sponsor a series of discussions so that campus communities can get past the first-level generalizations and figure out what they want to do. I think you're right that most students accept current tuition levels because they are always told "it could be worse--look what Pomona and Cal Tech charge," and because most people try to accept the things they cannot change, and we're all told every day that there's no money to fix anything public (even though it's not true). So I think we need an educational project that has some duration and establishes public funding as a meaningful topic of conversation rather than as something we occasionally wring our hands about. Do you think this would help?

Chris Newfield said...

thanks Doris - but it's probably way too sober!

Phil Horlacher Jr. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

This whole line of discussion focus on the sticker price, not the net price. The poor and working class students aren't protesting because they are being fully subsidized. If you adjusted the costs paid in the good ole 1960s for inflation and financial aid, poor students were paying a lot more then because there was little financial aid. So the real issue is why the State of California is disinvesting. And your analysis is on target there -- Baby Boomers no longer see direct benefit, middle class is shrinking and doesn't see it in their interest to pay more taxes, and the upper classes still see UC as a bargain compared to the elite privates. The miracle is that financial aid is so generous in California -- a billion or so in the Cal Grant program and the 1/3rd return to aid at UC and CSU probably adds another billion. I also think racial politics in California are complicated. Probably a larger percentage of UC middle class slots go to Asian Americans yet Asians are a small percentage of the vote both in total numbers and proportion who go to the polls and they tend to be conservative on tax issues. Hispanics don't feel ownership in UC but maybe that will change now that they are attaining a critical mass at the undergraduate level.

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