Surveys have found that Americans hold great confidence in the nation’s public colleges and universities; a level shown to surpass even that held for churches, hospitals, the media and all levels of government. That’s good news. But beyond this general high level of confidence, the public seems, at times, deeply ambivalent about universities.
On one hand, there is a cherished and sentimental view of universities as academic places where caring teachers mold young minds through unhurried and probing conversations about poems and politics, the human condition and the forces of nature. In this utopia, a university’s classes are small, tutored by sage and patient scholars; juvenile errors and excesses are gently but firmly corrected; and, of course, football games are always won. And in this romanticized view, lush and leafy campuses are sanctuaries for eccentric intellectuals to think deep thoughts, develop whimsical theories, and indulge in the time-consuming trials and errors of research.
On the other hand, when talk turns to matters of state funding or, even worse, tuition, sweet sentimentalities are replaced by a fulminating call for universities to become ruthlessly efficient – no time or treasure squandered on small classes or idle contemplation or tending to pretty flowers on campus. Things must be run as “lean” as business would have us believe it has become. Fat must be excised, indolence must be punished mercilessly, unnecessary processes must be re-engineered and unnecessary people banished. Over-extended and under-funded state budgets have only served to increase the clamor for universities to become more frugal than friendly. And tax-phobic critics of state government spending, in particular, have elevated the no holds barred efficiency-as-a-mandate rhetoric.
The truth is, of course, that public universities are hardly strangers to frugality and regularly adopt efficiencies in countless ways. A recent study  conducted by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and SunGard Higher Education affirms that cost containment is a high priority and that institutions are turning to myriad sources and strategies to restrain spending.
As stewards of the public trust, university leaders and governing board members rightfully should be held accountable for maximizing the purchasing power of public monies. But focusing on efficiency as a prime goal and virtue can divert attention and effort from a university’s essential purpose -- to protect and elevate its primary missions of teaching, learning, research and service.
Can a university be both academic and efficient, both humane and businesslike? The answer is a tentative “yes.” But this is a tricky business, for the very things that produce a university’s greatest value -- intellectual freedom, personal attention to students, time for contemplation and the cultivation of imagination, conservation of our past and insight into our future, and the mistakes and missteps that necessarily precede achievements in research and learning -- do not always conform to the imperatives of tidy management and steely cost-cutting techniques.
Universities are not manufacturing plants. While the raw material of business and industry often have predictable destinations, the raw material of universities -- namely young or young-at-heart men and women -- are subject to the great forces of human nature: ego and altruism, impulse and emotion, to name but a few. A piece of metal stamping on an assembly line cannot change its intentions to become a car door, a filing cabinet or a piece of art. A college sophomore, however, may very well alter his or her intended destination from being an accountant, to that of an English teacher, scientist, nurse, poet, parent or politician. What about the student who enrolls in a couple of extra courses that personally interest her, who therefore passes up the more direct route for her chosen degree and in the process delays graduation by a year? Higher education’s productivity auditors likely equate such dalliance with inefficiency. But what if in so doing, the student gained a clearer perspective of her life’s direction?
The cries for increased accountability and the reporting of metrics aimed at neatly calculating the return on public investment made to universities continue to increase. However, the output generated by universities is often difficult to quantify; not all efforts are calculable on a dollar-for-dollar return on investment basis.
Granting too much focus on the economic returns of higher education misses the point, for any attempt to quantify the contributions the collegiate experience makes in the everyday lives of citizens is much more of a qualitative than a quantitative endeavor. What about those programs and “products” that do not lend themselves to the orderly application of valued-added calculations? Few would question the value of university efforts in the info-bio-nano technologies, which invoke visions of cutting-edge products and services and spin-off commercial ventures. But what about programs in Middle Eastern studies? What’s the financial bottom line on a greater understanding of cultures in the Middle East? Programs of study on topics such as this surely do not serve as university profit centers. And what’s the value of a thoughtful term paper, or a stunning insight into the meaning of a historic event, or the value of a poem?
There is another, perhaps even greater, irony in all this. The evidence is not at all clear that “efficiency,” as commonly understood in business jargon, is in any way rewarded by the higher education “marketplace.” Imagine, for example, the least efficient institution of higher education in your state. Chances are that the teaching loads of its high-paid faculty are largely discretionary and barely measurable, with faculty efforts focused instead on the publication of esoteric thoughts in widely-unread journals; its library contains hundreds of thousands of volumes that haven’t been opened in decades; it has well manicured lawns and, probably, a facility that seats tens of thousands of people but is only used five or six Saturdays each year (hint–think football stadium). Imagine then, the most “efficient” higher education institution in your state. It likely has under-paid faculty with teaching loads that approach sweat-shop labor conditions; it may well be housed in a store-front; its library might be little more than a set of encyclopedias; and it is marketing hard for a student body that will keep it marginally solvent.
Now ... which one has accomplished students waiting with baited breath for word of a favorable admissions decision? Which one receives tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars in largesse from loyal alumni or proud donors each year? Which one commands the almost slavish allegiance of those very state legislators who cheer loudly from prime seats at athletic pageants but publicly threaten to discipline their spendthrift habits? Is “efficiency” -- in a business definition -- really recognized or rewarded in the higher education marketplace?
The fact is that not all efforts borne out of universities can be precisely summed up on some auditor’s balance sheet. Universities offer a different and much more complicated value proposition. Their “core business” is the development of human potential, their “products” are ideas and discoveries and the professionals who teach our children and treat our sicknesses and manage our businesses and create wealth and create art. Human beings are, alas, sometimes untidy, vexatious, troublesome; and humane values sometimes require more patience than might best serve some bottom line.
This is not a justification of waste or an excuse for wastrels. Universities should be expected to spend money sensibly. But in the rush to economize, even during hard times, we ought not lose sight of the primary value the public seeks and expects from our universities.
The reason universities have earned the public’s confidence, the reason hundreds and hundreds of thousands of alumni of our nation’s public universities are proud of their alma maters, the reason families sacrifice to send their sons and daughters to our campuses is not because universities function as well-oiled machines, not because they trim every expense and fill every idle minute during the academic day and year. It is because these unique and special and fragile institutions are there at the very instant when people, at their most promising and vulnerable moments, come seeking their futures, come ready to become something more, something better.
And as they become more, and better, so do we all.
Eric Gilbertson is president of Saginaw Valley State University. Daniel Hurley is director of state relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.