Research universities

Halting the Race to the Bottom

It is alarming that, in our age of information, the number of utterly uninformed voters is astonishingly high. We are witnessing a palpable decline in the public’s appetite for nuance, complexity and critical thinking, which in turn has spawned a virulent secular dogmatism and an alarming devolution in both the substance and style of public discourse.

Viewed superficially, we could celebrate our time as a halcyon era of information and discourse. The Internet is a revolutionary tool, which provides the newest basis for such a belief; however, it works not only for but also (and less obviously) against the ideal of an informed and intellectually curious public. It does enable the previously passive and powerless to become actors and interactors in the unfolding drama of public discourse and politics; but, even as it empowers and informs vast numbers of citizens, it also is a tool for misinformation and false attacks, polluting the dialogue with an apparent “knowledge” base undisciplined by traditional standards of accuracy in public communication. Bloggers are their own editors and many make little effort to verify what they post.

As an information surplus develops, the absence of accountability combines with an absence of formal checks to make it possible for pseudofacts to spread like wildfire. This presents even the intelligent and the rigorous with a serious sorting problem. One unsurprising response to this barrage of undifferentiated information is a kind of nihilism about knowledge which leads almost inexorably to an equation of fact and opinion and the reduction of argumentation to assertion. Paradoxically, this trend breeds and feeds a version of unreflective dogmatism.

The signs are everywhere. The guru of Apple Computer, Steve Jobs, introduced his latest product, the iPod Shuffle, a machine designed to free the music listener from deciding what song he or she wants to hear, by proclaiming the slogan: “Life is random.” And, to the same effect, Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, reviewed on the front page of The New York Times Book Review, intellectualizes this call to randomness, advising people to Blink - to “think without thinking” by relying on intuition rather than analysis and reflection. True to his provocative thesis, Gladwell offers it without taking account of the clear experimental data showing, in the words of New York Times columnist, David Brooks, that “formal statistical analysis is a much, much better way of predicting everything from the outcome of a football game to the course of liver cancer than the intuition even of experts.”

Even the SAT exam, for decades a symbol of American meritocracy, displays this disturbing trend. Much was made of the inclusion, beginning this year, of a writing component in the basic test: this, we were told, would test critical thinking. Yet, as it turns out, success on the test is best produced by accepting one or the other of the dichotomous positions presented in the test essay question -- and arguing strongly for it, offering no weight to the adverse point of view, no waffling. Clarity of view is the key -- no penalty even for preposterously incorrect facts -- and, this, in service of critical thinking?

The general tendencies are reflected in the increasingly impoverished quality of what is said by our political leaders in the public forum. Candidates for public office now relentlessly employ slogans, talking points, simplistic messages and attack ads. Ninety percent of political conversation amounts to dueling “talking points.” Best-selling books reinforce what folks thought when they bought them. Talk radio and opinion journals preach to the converted. Let’s face it: the purpose of most political speech is not to persuade but to win, be it power, ratings, celebrity or even cash.

By contrast, marshaling a case to persuade those who start from a different position is a lost art. Honoring what’s right in the other side’s argument seems a superfluous thing that can only cause trouble, like an appendix. Politicos huddle with like-minded souls in opinion cocoons that seem impervious to facts.

Certainty must not replace truth as the goal of inquiry. The issues we face today must be viewed from multiple perspectives and do not have one single definition, let alone a single resolution. How do we provide quality health care at low cost to all citizens? What does it take to reduce the achievement gap in education? What needs to be done to overcome racism, sexism, homophobia? How should we treat new immigrants? We must have more than information to address such problems; we must have the humility to understand that we may arrive at wise conclusions, but never at certainty.

The “DIKW” hierarchy -- data, information, knowledge, wisdom -- is relevant here. An overwhelming amount of information is available today -- too much, really, for any individual to absorb easily. There are, unfortunately, too few people who have the knowledge, insight and skills to put together information in useful ways and too few venues where those attributes are valued and rewarded. T.S. Eliot famously wrote: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we lost in information?”

The University Itself in Danger

Our great universities can and must be in the forefront of reversing the trends I have described. But this is not a simple tale with an ending in which universities play the hero. Make no mistake about it: precisely at this moment when research universities are needed as an antidote to public dogmatism and what I call a “coliseum culture,” in which audiences are fed spectacle over substance, they themselves are increasingly threatened.  As complex arguments and reasoned nuance are devalued in favor of the simplistic and the dogmatic, the very basis of research universities is devalued and subverted.

The threat initially comes from a broad societal trend: just as the attention span of our people has shrunk, so also our society has elevated the importance of short-term results – whether manifest in value placed on corporate quarterly reports or the evident appetite for quick and painless solutions to society’s problems. Such developments do not bode well for the university’s commitment to free and open inquiry, to patient and rigorous experimentation, all in pursuit not of a pre-determined purpose, but of the advancement of knowledge wherever it leads.

At some level, we know that the myopic focus on immediate and predictable returns is foolish. We understand the simple wisdom caught in the African parable praising those who plant trees under which others will sit; we instinctively grasp the importance of the basic research done in our universities. Thus, the late Jaroslav Pelikan of Yale recalled that the 11th edition of The Encyclopedia Britannica on which he was weaned contained nine columns on the Delian League, but only two on the topic of uranium, which the Britannica authors described as “useless.” The lesson: Seeking knowledge for its own sake has great rewards, even in utilitarian terms; but they often are unanticipated, or even immeasurable.

Examples abound to demonstrate that often the greatest advances come haltingly, over time, and from unexpected directions; I offer just one, provided by my friend, Sam Thier. Three or four decades ago, a child diagnosed with cystic fibrosis would die in the first decade of life. Over time, with improved antibiotics, the child could live into the second decade of life. More recently, by combining antibiotics with muculytic agents and respiratory therapy, the child could live into the third decade of life. Now, because the progressive destruction of the lung or injury to the heart and lung can be rectified by transplantation, the child can live into the fourth or fifth decades of life -- but only with continuous anti-rejection medication. For the last 10 years or more, we have known the genetic defect that causes cystic fibrosis, and, through understanding that defect, today we know how it produces the clinical disease. It is almost certain that with another round or two of basic research, we can learn to correct the gene defect, prevent or cure the condition, and obviate all the expensive and uncomfortable therapeutic maneuvers that have extended the life of cystic fibrosis patients. We are not yet at that point, but it is only active research that can take us there, producing immense social and economic benefits.

As I said, we realize, at least at some level, the wisdom of Pelikan’s story or Thier’s account of the fight against cystic fibrosis. Still, given society’s quest for simple answers and immediate outcomes, there are signs that our leaders’ interest in supporting the research enterprise is waning. For the first time in memory, funding for the National Science Foundation has been cut. Funding for the National Institutes of Health has been held constant, thereby reducing it in real terms. The research medical university in America is in jeopardy as falling government funding combines with the emphasis on cost reduction, HMOs and managed care to make it difficult, if not impossible, to sustain simultaneously the basic, translational and clinical research that has been the pride of academic medical centers.

We have seen the close to total evaporation of funding for research in the humanities and social sciences -- work which has less measurable outcomes than scientific research, even as it expands the boundaries of understanding and insight. Though John Maeda could write in Science Magazine that he believed “the biggest breakthrough will be the realization that the arts, which are conventionally considered useless, will be recognized as the whole reason why we ever try to live longer or live more prosperously.” He could embrace the notion that “the arts are the science of enjoying life,” while our leaders (reflecting as they do society’s increasing impatience with soft values and subtle tones) have come close to abandoning the arts. This portends the dominance of a value system which fails to recognize the importance of the research university itself.

Ironically, as society places more and more importance on short-term metrics, also at stake is the quality of the concrete preparation for life we offer our students. Even as greater emphasis is being placed upon the assessment of higher education in terms of job placement (the recent emphasis of our political leaders on community colleges is just one symptom of this phenomenon), and even as there are signs that such a metric will be applied broadly to assess the higher education enterprise, it is increasingly clear that an overemphasis on vocational training is wrong and potentially disastrous in a world where the generations we are training will go through several careers in a lifetime – and as the world economy changes, it will be more and more essential for Americans to understand and embrace the importance of a good life as well as a good income. The strange truth is that just as we enter a time when it is fundamental to train people for life rather than simply for jobs, our universities -- long expert in elevating our capacity to live a full, meaningful, and useful life -- are being pressured to narrow their focus to job placement.

There are other threats to our research universities, often emanating from self-appointed "guardians" who would restrict free inquiry on campus or impose regulations requiring that the composition of the faculty conform to their notions of "balance." To the extent the trends represent an attempt to silence or truncate discussion -- or even simply to reduce dialogue to sloganeering, they gravely jeopardize the essence of our universities.

For example, recent years have seen a startling increase in the number of “watchdog groups” who would exclude or punish certain views by silencing members of the university’s faculty or other members of the community. A group like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) assaults, targets, and intimidates faculty and students engaged in research.  In a different cause, groups like Campus Watch keep comprehensive lists of professors they deem biased and organize parental and student campaigns, both against specific faculty members and entire institutions based upon an asserted failure to meet a political litmus test.

The substance and shadow of intimidation too often succeed in repressing free inquiry, even in cases where a professor’s statements are well within the mainstream of a university’s dialogue. And, of course, the farther the professor moves from the mainstream, the more intense the reaction: A report of a special committee of the American Association of University Professors recounts repeated attempts after the September 11th terrorist attack to censure or dismiss scholars who argued that we ought to reexamine American foreign policy as a source of alienation or provocation. One does not have to agree with this view to disagree with a Congressman, who, in one well-reported case, actually said that the issue was not whether the professor in question had the right to make what he called “idiotic comments,” but whether after making them he had the right to remain in his position at a distinguished university.

Another Congressman, spurred by a group called the Traditional Values Coalition, sent the National Institutes of Health a list of some 250 research projects he denounced as unfit for taxpayer support. The projects, all of which had survived the rigorous peer review process at NIH, involved research on such issues as drug abuse, women’s health, and dangerous behavior associated with the AIDS virus. An NYU scholar who was a principal investigator on one of the projects is doing research on primary and secondary HIV prevention, and on the interaction between substance abuse, risk-taking, and the maintenance of health. Placing him and others like him on a “watch list,” an obvious attempt to chill both the willingness of scholars to undertake work in certain areas and the willingness of NIH to fund them, is a grave threat to the role of the research university as intellectual incubator.

The Congressman in the first case, of course, insisted that he was speaking not as an agent of government, but as an individual, so his intervention was indistinguishable from that of a notable alumnus or columnist. The Congressman in the second case would insist that he was simply acting in an oversight capacity. It is troubling, however, that increasingly government itself is exercising its enormous power to exert pressure on the nature and content of the dialogue on campus -- and of the research that is the predicate to that dialogue.

Similar threats to the university already have been enshrined in law. One of the most pernicious is the Solomon Amendment, an attempt through law -- unfortunately, in my view, recently upheld by the Supreme Court -- to force universities to ignore their written policies against discrimination on the basis of race, religion, nationality, gender or sexual orientation – a policy that reflects the university’s commitment to openness and different points of view. Put more concretely, because of present government policy, military recruiters refuse to sign the standard pledge required as a condition of interviewing on most campuses -- a pledge foreswearing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The Solomon Amendment (named not for the wise king, but for its sponsor, the late New York Representative Gerald Solomon) withdraws all federal funding from a university in which even just one department denies interviewing privileges to the military. Faced with the draconian prospect of losing tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars for everything from scholarship students to medical research, universities have been forced to betray their own fundamental values. Now, in addition, homeland security laws like the artfully named USA PATRIOT Act threaten the autonomy of academic libraries, forcing librarians to provide FBI agents with personal reader information, or even to hand over library computers. Moreover, the act simultaneously prevents libraries from protecting their borrowers against government surveillance and bars them from informing students, teachers, or researchers if their choice of reading is being watched and recorded.

Certainly, sensible standards are justified to address the threat of terrorism. But the blunderbuss inefficiency and obtrusiveness of the present regulation of foreign nationals risks endangering the long tradition of American universities opening their gates to the world’s most gifted professors and students -- a tradition that has served this nation well, that has advanced the national interest in spreading values of liberty, tolerance, and justice across the globe, and that has been a rich component of the intellectual exchange on our campuses.

The threats to the sanctuary are not just external. Indeed, in discussions about American universities in the media and in popular culture, what concern there is about genuine dialogue on our campuses typically focuses on the fear of internal forces loosely and sometimes inaccurately associated with the phrases like “political correctness.” In my view, much of the political correctness debate reflects a lack of understanding or information about what actually happens in academe. Indeed, the stereotypical charges issued by public figures like William Bennett, Camille Paglia, and Ramesh Ponnuru, among others, function as a silencing device of their own -- and may be intended as such.

Nevertheless, that having been said, there is a kernel of important truth captured in the popular political correctness debate -- one that transcends political categories like left and right. Those who enjoy, in the civil sphere, a certitude of viewpoint that is not open to change by reasoned argument are incapable of contributing or even participating in meaningful dialogue. They cannot contribute because they treat their conclusions as matters of dogma and, therefore, expound their positions in declaratory form; they live in an Alice in Wonderland world -- first the conclusion, then the conversation. They can incite responses; they even can create an intellectual adrenaline rush; but they cannot produce insight. So also they cannot participate meaningfully in the dialogue because they will not engage it; for them, the exercise is a serial monologue in which they state, restate, and refute but never revisit or rethink their positions. Thus, the kernel of truth in the political correctness debate: ideological conversation is of little or no value.

If we are to resist successfully external forces that would impose theological politics and dogmatism on campus, we must take care to resist any tendency toward dogmatism within the walls of our universities. So we must insist on a pervasive, genuine, rigorous, civil dialogue. Silencing of viewpoints cannot be tolerated, and disciplinary dogmatism must be challenged. Even if the political correctness attack is largely baseless (surely, the claim that political correctness rules our universities is undermined by the fact that most major donors and board members at major universities hold views contrary to those allegedly infecting the organizations they control or influence), it is undeniably true that dogmatism is not confined to people of faith. The commentator John Horgan offers one charming example:

Opposing self-righteousness is easier said than done. How do you denounce dogmatism in others without succumbing to it yourself? No one embodied this pitfall more than the philosopher Karl Popper, who railed against certainty in science, philosophy, religion and politics and yet was notoriously dogmatic. I once asked Popper, who called his stance critical rationalism, about charges that he would not brook criticism of his ideas in his classroom. He replied indignantly that he welcomed students’ criticism; only if they persisted after he pointed out their errors would he banish them from class.

Dogmatism on campus must be fought if universities are to be a model for society. Silencing any view -- in class, on campus, or in civil discourse -- must be shamed when it occurs, and those who seek to silence others should be forced to defend their views in forums convened, if necessary, especially for that purpose. Above all, we must not let our universities be transformed into instruments of an imposed ideology. There is instead an urgent agenda to pursue: the genuine incubation, preservation, and creation of knowledge, the nurturing of a respect for complexity, nuance, and genuine dialogue -- not only on university campuses, but beyond the campus gates.

The Research University as Counterforce
My colleague Richard Foley, a significant scholar in philosophy who now is NYU’s dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science, some years ago noted a trend deep in the history of epistemology that suggests that if one is rational enough, one can be assured of not falling into error. Descartes held such a view, and others have followed him in it. He notes that in some ways this is a natural view: One might ask, what is the point of having rational opinions if it does not assure you of the truth? But the big conceptual point of Dick’s book, Working Without a Net, is that however natural, this is a mistake, because there is no way to construct an intellectual system that provides one with non-question begging assurances of its own truth. So, we are, as it were, always working without an intellectual net. As he says:

Since we can never have non-question begging assurances that our way of viewing things is correct, we can never have assurances that there is no point to further inquiry. The absolute knowledge of the Hegelian system, which requires the knowing mind to be wholly adequate to its objects and to know it is thus, is not a possibility for us. It cannot be our goal, a human goal. For us there can be no such final resting place.

The last point seems especially significant for universities -- for universities have to be places where there is no final intellectual resting place. A "final intellectual resting place" is one that is regarded as so secure and so comprehensive that there is no longer any point to acquiring further evidence or to reevaluating the methods that led to the view. The dogmatic in effect believe that they already have arrived at their final intellectual resting place, which is why they are so at odds with the nature of the university.

Research universities, by their nature, deal in complexity; it is their stock and trade. Their essence is the testing of existing knowledge and the emergence of new knowledge through a constant, often vigorous but respectful clash of a range of viewpoints, sometimes differentiated from each other only by degrees. In nurturing this process, research universities require an embrace of pluralism, true civility in discourse, a honed cultivation of listening skills, and a genuine willingness to change one’s mind.

In this way, research universities can offer a powerful reproach to the culture of simplistic dogmatism and caricatured thought in a model of nuanced conversation. Our universities must extend their characteristic internal feature, the meaningful testing of ideas, so that it becomes an “output” that can reach into and reshape a wider civic dialogue. And, they must invite the public into the process of understanding, examining and advancing the most complex and nuanced of issues with an evident commitment to take seriously the iterative and evolutionary encounter of a stated proposition with commentary and criticism about it.

Of course, in this process, so familiar on our campuses, views are held strongly and defended vigorously. The embrace of the contest of ideas and tolerance of criticism does not mean a surrender of conviction. Informed belief is fundamentally different from dogmatism, just as the search for truth is very different from the quest for certitude. Dogmatism is deeply rooted in its dualistic view of the world as saved/damned, right/wrong, or red/blue -- and it claims certainty in defining the borders of these dualistic frames. But, within the university, conviction is tempered: the discovery and development of knowledge require boldness and humility -- boldness in thinking the new thought, and humility in subjecting it to review by others. Dialogue within the university is characterized by a commitment to engage and even invite, through reasoned discourse, the most powerful challenges to one’s point of view. This requires attentiveness and mutual respect, accepting what is well founded in the criticisms offered by others, and defending one’s own position, where appropriate, against them; it is both the offer of and the demand for argument and evidence.

The very notion of the research university presupposes the possibility of creating a hierarchy of ideas, and it goes beyond the simple goal of facilitating an understanding of the positions of others, to achieve genuine progress in thought, the validation of some ideas and the rejection of others. It is a given that, at the heart of the process of ongoing testing which characterizes the university as a sanctuary of thought, is the notion that no humanly conceived “truth” is invulnerable to challenge; still, this axiom need not -- and does not -- mean that the pursuit of truth requires that all questions must be kept open at all times. In the university, we can and do reach certainty on some propositions, subject of course to the emergence of new evidence. And even the certitudes of faith are subject to new understanding: My Church once condemned Galileo, but now applauds him; it once carried out capital punishment, but now condemns it.

While the dialogue within our universities is not an expression of agnosticism about truth itself, its very being embodies the realization that a fuller truth is attained only when a proposition is examined and reexamined, debated and reformulated from a range of viewpoints, through a variety of lenses, in differing lights and against opposing ideas or insights. Whether through scholarly research or creative work, conventional knowledge is questioned, reaffirmed, revised, or rejected; new knowledge is generated and articulated, prevailing notions of reality are extended and challenged and insight is expanded. Jonathan Cole described the process in Daedalus:

The American research university pushes and pulls at the walls of orthodoxy and rejects politically correct thinking. In this process, students and professors may sometimes feel intimidated, overwhelmed, and confused. But it is by working through this process that they learn to think better and more clearly for themselves. Unsettling by nature, the university culture is also highly conservative. It demands evidence before accepting novel challenges to existing theories and methods. The university ought to be viewed in terms of a fundamental interdependence between the liberality of its intellectual life and the conservatism of its methodological demands. Because the university encourages discussion of even the most radical ideas, it must set its standards at a high level. We permit almost any idea to be put forward – but only because we demand arguments and evidence to back up the ideas we debate and because we set the bar of proof at such a high level. These two components -- tolerance for unsettling ideas and insistence on rigorous skepticism about all ideas -- create an essential tension at the heart of the American research university. It will not thrive without both components operating effectively and simultaneously.

In short, to a large degree the university embodies the ideal in discourse -- commitment to scrutiny and the examination of research in the marketplace of ideas. Now it can and must offer even more as the counterforce and the counterexample to the simpleminded certainty of dogmatism and the depleted dialogue of the coliseum culture. It is, of course, conceivable (even plausible) that instead our universities will assume a defensive posture and withdraw into their sheltered walls; such a tendency always exists in the life of the mind, evoking from the cynical the constant reminder that one of the dictionary’s entries for the word “academic” is “beside the point.” In the face of forces around it hostile to the search for knowledge, the temptation for higher education to insulate itself is greater than normal, and perhaps more understandable; but withdrawal, however tempting, would be irresponsible and ultimately destructive for both society and the university. In these times, society cannot cure itself; the university must do its part.

The core reasons the university can provide an antidote to the malaise that’s afflicting civil discourse arise from some essential features of higher education on the one hand and contemporary politics on the other.

First, whereas the political domain is now characterized by bipolar interests or, worse yet, disaggregated special interests, which are not even bipolar, in principle the commitment of a university and its citizens is to the common enterprise of advancing understanding; inherently those involved in research and creativity build on the work of others and expand knowledge for all. The university sometimes falls short of this ideal; but now more than ever, it is vital for universities to live it. Internal attention to the university’s defining mission and vigilant adherence to its best attributes must be paramount if it is to function as a force for renewing civil discourse within our society.

The second feature of the university that differentiates it from the prevailing trend in politics is that the advancement of knowledge and ideas on campus is a fully transparent, absolutely testable process in which all can participate. And today the search for knowledge which is at the core of the university can be uncabined and sometimes even unlocated physically in a particular institution of higher education; in the era of the communications revolution and an internet that spans the globe, participation in the pursuit of knowledge operates on a worldwide network. The advancement of knowledge is of the university, but not always or necessarily on the campus. You cannot bar anyone from the process. If a mathematician in Bombay can disprove a theory conceived in New York, no amount of misplaced elitism or nationalism can change that reality. Or, if a clerk in the patent office in Bern, Switzerland, develops breakthrough theories in physics, it does not matter that there is not yet a “Professor” in front of his name. By contrast, in politics, gerrymandering makes it possible to insulate officeholders from ever having seriously to confront competing ideas, ideologies, and candidates.

The third feature that distinguishes the university is that the ultimate test for scholars is time. The ultimate reward comes in the long-term durability of one’s work, being remembered by future generations as the father or the mother of an idea. Indeed, those in the research university know that their contributions may be understood only in the very long term. The advancement of knowledge is the driving purpose; it is inherently collegial and intergenerational, even for the solo thinker or artist because each person stands on the foundation of someone else’s work, and successive scholars provide new or higher platforms for the next chapter in the unfolding story of knowledge. By contrast, in the politics of the coliseum culture, politicians view short-term losses as almost apocalyptic.

Given these distinguishing features, the research university can and must become a place from which we press back against the accelerating trend toward dogmatism I see developing. The university has a dual role in the civic dialogue, as both a rebuke to simplemindedness and as a model of how things can be done differently. And, in preventing the collapse of civil discourse, the university simultaneously will safeguard itself from the concomitant effects of a society that disregards the reflected thought, reduces the interchange of ideas to the exchange of sound bytes or insults, and often shrinks the arena for discussion to a constricted, two dimensional space. 

Author/s: 
John Sexton
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

John Sexton is president of New York University. This essay is adapted from a speech he gave at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven.

The Perpetuation of Privilege

On April 11, the president of Columbia University announced that it had received a $400 million pledge from alumnus John W. Kluge, who in 2006 was 52nd on the Forbes list of the wealthiest people, earning his fortune through the buying and selling of television and radio stations. This gift, payable upon the 92-year-old’s death, will be the fourth largest ever given to a single institution of higher education.

With such a massive transfer of wealth, the accolades poured in, justifying such a gift to an Ivy League university. Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger, said: “The essence of America’s greatness lies, in no small measure, in our collective commitment to giving all people the opportunity to improve their lives… [Kluge] has chosen to direct his amazing generosity to ensuring that young people will have the chance to benefit from a Columbia education regardless of their wealth or family income.” Mayor Michael Bloomberg indicated that investing in education produces returns that can’t be matched. Rep. Charles Rangel said the gift would ensure greater numbers of students can afford a first-class education.

Oh please!

I am becoming less and less tolerant of people who pass wealth on to the privileged and masquerade it as philanthropy. Philanthropy is the voluntary act of donating money, goods or services to a charitable cause, intended to promote good or improve human well being. When a billionaire gives money that will benefit people who are more than likely already well off or who already have access to huge sums of money, attending the ninth richest university by endowment, this is not philanthropy. This simply extends the gross inequities that exist in our country -- inequities that one day will come home to roost.

Almost 40 percent of all college students nationally earned a Pell Grant, which in general represents students from families earning less than $35,000 a year. Yes, almost 40 percent of students in college today are from low income families. At Columbia, where tuition and fees alone tops $31,000, only 16 percent of students are Pell Grant eligible. In fact, over 60 percent of Columbia students don’t even bother to apply for federal financial aid. They can pay the bill -- no problem (see the Economic Diversity of Colleges Web site). Columbia is not alone. A recent New York Times article, which provided a great story on a recent Amherst College graduate, indicated that 75 percent of students attending elite colleges come from the top socioeconomic quartile, while only 10 percent come from the bottom half, and just 3 percent from the bottom quartile.

For comparison, 83 percent of my students received the Pell Grant during that same year, and 84 percent applied for financial aid. Even with tuition and fees less than $9,000 a year, my students on average will leave college with MORE debt than Columbia students, in fact $11,000 more even though tuition and fees are $22,000 a year less!

I am hopeful that Columbia will do as it states it will, which is to expand the number of scholarship grants to needy students. President Bollinger has been a strong advocate for affirmative action, and I am very hopeful because he has shown great integrity. But even assuming that Columbia spends the money on aid, and that it couldn’t spend more of its existing money on poor students, not to mention admitting more of them, the university’s current campaign has a goal of $1 billion for facilities – that’s an astronomical sum of “philanthropy” to help a wealthy institution have better facilities. And Columbia isn’t alone -- as there are similarly ambitious spending plans by the other public and private universities currently seeking to raise billions of dollars.

And the situation in which the wealthy get wealthier -- while feeling good about their “philanthropic” traditions -- isn’t much better in elite public higher education. Last fall, The Education Trust released “Engines of Inequality: Diminishing Equity in the Nation’s Premier Public Universities.” This report got little to no play nationally, and certainly nothing like the play the Columbia gift received, because the conclusions were a damning condemnation of higher education’s elite. In 2003, about 100 research extensive universities spent $257 million in financial aid for students from families earning over $100,000 a year, almost as much as that spent on students from families earning $20,000-40,000, and more than that spent on students from families earning less than $20,000. Again, much of these funds come from wealthy, image conscious alumni, praised for being philanthropists, who primarily want to ensure that their university has the best and brightest their money will buy.

The authors of the report indicate “these universities find it more important to use their own money to buy high-income students, who will almost inevitably attend an elite institution no matter what, than to expand the enrollment of… low-income students.” You see, paying to “educate” students who are the easiest to educate raises your rankings. In the process, you keep out poor kids, and incidentally, you will have fewer black and Latino students as well.

Yes, most of these enormous philanthropic gifts go to colleges with small numbers of African American, Latino and Native American students, America’s underrepresented people of color. In looking at a comparison of research extensive and top tier schools using the Economic Diversity of Colleges Web site, Columbia unfortunately has one of the higher percentages among the elite universities of black students at 9 percent, and of Latinos, at 10 percent. Most though are in single digits, and half are around 6-7 percent or less. The Education Trust’s study indicates that black, Latino and Native Americans are 24 percent of all college students, but only 12 percent at state flagships.

So the colleges with the greatest wealth and the best of everything that money can buy (from faculty to facilities), not only are underrepresented with poor students, but also restrict minority students from accessing these resources. If public universities can be called “gated communities of higher education,” private universities like Columbia are easily the country clubs.

America’s so-called philanthropists ignore these facts, and we continue to laud their generosity to the privileged. At the same time, people of color continue to fall further and further behind, and unless we begin to help those who actually need help, America’s economy will suffer.

In anther overlooked report from November 2005 entitled “As America Becomes More Diverse: The Impact of State Higher Education Inequality,” Patrick J. Kelly of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems begins by saying that social justice and equal opportunity should drive us toward seeking equality in higher education. But he asserts that there are also economic reasons.

The idea is simple. By 2020, there will be a 77 percent increase in the Hispanic population and a 32 percent increase in the black population, with less than a 1 percent increase for whites. In 1980, whites were 82 percent of the working age population. By 2020, they will be 63 percent of workers. From 1980 to 2000, the educational gap between whites and blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans has actually widened. Finally, those same people of color earn less than whites at all equivalent levels of education.

Kelly writes, “Substantial growth in the least-educated segments of our population combined with income disadvantages for the same populations will not lead us toward a brighter future…. If these problems are left unaddressed, the result is a less educated workforce and a decline in per capita personal income.”

And so I read with my general sense of despair as another billionaire gives millions to a university that serves a population that looks nothing like America presently or in the future, economically or racially. Politicians heap praises for these gifts from the wealthy to the wealthy while the vast majority of their constituents will never benefit from these acts. They’re too busy working three jobs and sending their kids to substandard elementary and high schools that will ensure they never go to places like Columbia.

This is not a sour grapes soliloquy. This is a cry for justice. I spend many nights trying to figure out how do colleges like mine, which have the students with the most need, both educationally and financially, catch the attention of those who have the power to transform the lives of the masses. Just think what $400 million would do at my college, which has an endowment of $12 million.

But this is a dream for colleges like mine. In fact, the record gift by individuals to any historically black college is a mere $20 million, given 20 years ago by Bill and Camille Cosby. We are left to maximize the Pell Grant which covers a fraction of what it did 30 years ago, as well as beg for corporate crumbs to assist our students. Occasionally in this quest to help even when the college can’t afford to do so, some colleges have improperly provided federal financial aid, which then creates an impression of incompetence. I know -- I inherited such a situation. While I don’t agree with what happened, I can tell you that the driving force was a desire to help someone graduate from college despite the limited resources. This Robin Hood approach only works in the movies though.

Our political leaders must begin to challenge the wealthy to practice real philanthropy. They should be encouraged to give gifts that will benefit a greater number of people with real need (most of their constituents), versus a wealthy minority. If that fails, everyone must know that our economy is on the verge of collapse as greater numbers of poorly educated, lower wage earning people of color become the majority of our workforce.

It is time for us to restore the integrity of philanthropy, and call gifts to the wealthy what they really are -- the perpetuation of privilege.

Author/s: 
Walter M. Kimbrough
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Walter M. Kimbrough is the president of Philander Smith College.

Protect Your Patent Portfolio

Higher education recognizes patents as indicators of advanced research and innovation and as sources of significant revenue. Today, patents are facing a serious threat from lawmakers on Capitol Hill. The Patent Reform Act of 2007, passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last September and currently under consideration in the U.S. Senate, would raise the costs to obtain a patent, create new uncertainty as to the validity of patents, and place new limits on the damages that may be awarded to patent owners when their patents are infringed. These provisions could have significant adverse consequences for current and future patents and patent applications from higher education institutions.

Why should anyone but lawyers and technology transfer managers care about a seemingly obscure patent bill? Because raising the costs to obtain a patent will force institutions to either increase their cash outlays for patent prosecution or reduce the number of patent applications they file. More research that might have led to revenue streams for universities and inventors will be left unpatented -- simply given away by publication of the research. Reduced revenue inevitably leads to reduced funds available for future research. Fewer startup companies based on such research will exist because it is more difficult to obtain venture capital funding when the underlying research is not protected by patents. Repercussions will be felt by both inventors and administrators.

The bill as currently drafted has provisions that would ultimately improve patent quality by creating a new post-grant opposition period, reduce litigations brought in locations far from the homes of either party, and facilitate research collaborations, all of which are supported by a number of higher education associations, including the Association of American Universities, the American Council on Education, the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, the Association of American Medical Colleges and the Council on Governmental Relations. Despite the potential positive effect of parts of the bill, the overall impact of the legislation, as currently drafted, would be detrimental to colleges and universities.

The five associations noted above -- all representing university interests in patent reform -- have expressed their views to Congress via both formal testimony and numerous other communications. However, a non-university group, the Coalition for Patent Fairness, has circulated documents purporting to present the views of universities while seriously misrepresenting those views. To help maintain the patent system as a successful engine for innovation, college administrators and researchers need to make their own views on the bill clear to their Congressional representatives.

Higher education institutions should be particularly worried by four provisions of the legislation as currently drafted: those with respect to the determination of damages, mandatory prior art searches, a post-grant “second window” in which to challenge a patent, and the diversion of fees away from the patent office. These provisions will reduce the certainty and value of existing and future patents and will cast doubt on the ability of patent holders to receive proper protection for their inventions. This will undermine the ability of universities to bring their innovations to market and into public use.

Damages. The damages language in the current bill would restrict the ability of courts to apply all of the relevant factors and methods to calculate a proper damages award. Under current law, courts can consider almost any relevant factor under a variety of methods to determine the value of the invention and what damages should be paid to the patentee for infringement. The proposed bill would tell courts what factors to consider under particular circumstances. Despite the occasional headline-making award, courts are quite good at looking at the relevant factors and arriving at a proper damage award. If Congress mandates what factors to consider and what not to consider, courts will be forced to try to categorize inventions and make whatever shape peg is the invention fit into the particular-shaped hole created by the bill. This will result in years of uncertainty and unjustified damage awards as the new law evolves. The cost of such a new law will not only be in unjustified damage awards, but also in increased litigation costs as plaintiffs and defendants demand longer trials to argue about damages and also more appeals on damages issues. This provision will make it difficult for universities to get appropriate compensation when an infringement occurs and will also create tremendous uncertainty as to the value of a patent, thus making patents less valuable overall. Simply stated, the more uncertainty there is as to the value of a patent, the more difficult it is to license the patent and the less revenue a university or inventor will receive for a patent license.

To best represent the interests of colleges and universities nationwide, the damages portion of the Act should be changed so that damages are determined through a case-by-case analysis using appropriate economic factors and valuation methods rather than the restrictive valuation process the bill would impose. Such a change would go a long way toward preserving the economic interests of universities and encouraging further innovation by deterring infringement.

Mandatory search reports. The second problematic provision mandates that patent applicants undertake the expense of prior art searches and submit a search report and relevancy analysis to the patent office (so-called “applicant quality submissions”). While patent applicants are already required to submit prior art known to them, this provision will require an extensive and expensive search by applicants and a report explaining the submitted prior art, thus shifting the costs of such a search from the federal government to the applicants. This burdensome and costly exercise will likely lead to increased charges of inequitable conduct for failure to conduct sufficiently thorough prior art searches and for mischaracterizing the prior art in the relevancy analysis. This will further increase the length and cost of patent trials. By mandating such a search, the Act will make the patent application process even more complicated, more expensive and cause particular harm to non-profit and academic inventors.

Second window oppositions. The third troubling section of the Act relates to the open-ended post-grant review “second window.” The Act calls for a “first window” for post-grant review that allows patent challenges at the patent office within the first 12 months after the patent issues. (This is similar to the European system that provides for such challenges, but during a 9 month window.) However, the Act would also create a “second window” in which to challenge issued patents. This second window will have a detrimental effect on the certainty and value of patents. The second window makes patents susceptible to such challenges throughout the life of the patent, allowing different challengers to file serial challenges that could keep a patent under challenge for many years of its life, thus creating a disincentive for partner companies to license university technologies. It is in the best interest of universities that inter partes reexamination, allowed by the House bill but not by the Senate bill, be available instead of the more costly second window.

Fee diversion. Finally, one of the more troubling aspects of the House bill is the lack of a provision to prevent the diversion of fees collected by the patent office. (The Senate bill includes an anti-fee diversion provision.) Perhaps the single most important factor in improving patent quality is to improve the quality of patent application examination. For many years, the fees collected by the patent office have been diverted to the general treasury. For the past few years, Congress has chosen not to divert fees. However, to build and maintain a sufficiently large and highly qualified pool of experienced examiners, the patent office needs to be assured of consistent funding and not be at the whim of other federal budget requirements from year to year. Anti-fee diversion language should be included in any patent reform bill.

Currently, the full Senate is poised to consider the bill and over a dozen amendments that were proposed last month. But neither the bill nor the amendments remedy the fundamental flaws discussed above.

Lobbying is intense on both sides of the bill and a vote will likely come in the next few weeks. College officials should work to be sure the bill represents the interests of higher education.

Author/s: 
Sheldon E. Steinbach and Bruce T. Wieder
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

Sheldon E. Steinbach is a partner in the postsecondary education practice at Dow Lohnes PLLC, a law firm that specializes in postsecondary education, intellectual property, communications and information technology. The former general counsel for the American Council on Education, he has been practicing higher education law for more than 35 years. Bruce Wieder is a partner at Dow Lohnes, specializing in patent law. A former engineer, he is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center and is registered to practice before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Public Missions, Private Dollars and Ordinary People

You can tell a lot about institutions – and societies – by how they invest their money. This is why many public college and university leaders, myself included, are so concerned by the shameful spiral of disinvestment in public higher education in America.

At a time when our global competitors from Ireland to China are investing aggressively in their higher education systems, almost every state in our nation is headed the other direction. This pattern, now nearly three decades old, not only hampers our ability to be engines for economic prosperity, it also threatens our historic -- and essential -- role in creating opportunity for students who have traditionally looked to us as their gateway to success.

Varying degrees of recovery in state funding for public higher education in the last two years offered a glimmer of hope -- until the current economic slow-down. Forecasts of further financial turmoil and economic uncertainty are dramatically undercutting states’ general revenue budgets nationwide, and that surely will mean further belt tightening for campuses that have long since run out of notches on their belts.

In 1980, states funded nearly half of the operating budgets of public campuses. Twenty-five years later, states were covering only one-fourth of the bills, and that percentage has since fallen even further. Here in Oregon, for example, our largest public universities receive only about 15 percent of our funding from the state. Consequently, students have been forced to pick up a larger share of the cost of their education through tuition increases.

According to the College Board, tuition and fees for in-state students at public institutions went up 6.4 percent this year, to $6,585. Add in room and board, and annual costs now average $14,333. If you think that’s steep, try covering the estimated $25,200 expenses of an out-of-state student.

It will get worse. So far, 17 states anticipate midyear budget cuts that could result in midyear tuition increases for the 14 million students enrolled in universities there, according to a senior leader of the American Council on Education. Colleges and universities in other states, including my own, are already being asked to produce scaled-down budgets in anticipation of revenue shortfalls for the next fiscal year or two. Already, our neighbors in the University of California and California State University systems have announced plans to roll back enrollment by thousands for the coming academic year, and California high school seniors are scrambling to apply by newly announced deadlines at the end of this month.

The long-term consequences of these ever-shrinking budgets are troubling, indeed. America no longer risks simply falling behind educational needs in an increasingly sophisticated, technology driven global economy; we now face the prospects of being mostly privately funded and losing our public mission.

Lest we forget, that public mission is to provide higher education opportunities to students who often come from ordinary or worse economic and social circumstances, many of whom are capable of accomplishing extraordinary things. In fact, the history and the promise of this great nation is predicated on the fact that social and economic mobility have provided the dynamism that has created the most technologically sophisticated and prosperous nation on earth. Education has been the most powerful source of that mobility and dynamism. If public universities are forced to abandon that public mission for lack of funding, we are at risk as a nation of creating a permanent underclass of disadvantaged citizens who have little or no stake in our society and of losing the dynamism that has served us so well at the very moment when challenges we face relative to global economic competition have never been greater.

There are further, clear benefits to society within this public mission. The average college graduate working full time, for instance, pays roughly 134 percent more in federal income taxes and about 80 percent more in total federal, state and local taxes than the average high school graduate. In Oregon, it has been estimated that an average group of 1,000 college graduates will generate at least $62 million in state income taxes over the course of their lifetimes.

For a land grant university like Oregon State, which I serve as president, it would be easy to adopt a private mission and to keep our financial house in order. This would allow us to focus on what is good for the university in terms of reputation and financial strength, rather than considering how effectively such actions might address public needs, including access for qualified students. There is no shortage of companies that might like to support proprietary research at our university and other similar
institutions, and we could market our academic programs in high-demand fields to wealthy, out-of-state-students, charging private college tuition in the process. We could abandon teacher education programs and devote resources to those activities that attract the most outside support.

But all of the above would mean no less than an abandonment of our founding values. The Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 provided land and money for states to establish public campuses “to promote the liberal and practical education” of their working-class citizens. President Lincoln referred to the land grants as the "people's colleges." For more than 140 years, colleges and universities established through those initiatives have helped to create the world’s best-educated workforce and fueled a dynamic, innovative economy. Where will the most financially vulnerable students on those campuses turn if they are priced out of the most affordable option for a four-year degree – increasingly, the basic credential required to compete in today’s job market? Where will the American economy be without the enhanced contributions that education prepares them to make in the workplace? We should all lose sleep considering the answers to those questions.

Oregon State University created an innovative financial aid program this year in support of that land grant mission – the Bridge to Success Program. Combining federal Pell Grant funds, Oregon Opportunity Grant monies, donations from Oregon State supporters and operating funds redirected toward this program, Bridge to Success aimed to cover tuition and fees for some 1,500 students this fall – 10 percent of our in-state students. With the economy spiraling downward, response to the initiative escalated; aid awards were given instead to a breathtaking 2,900 students; demand surely will grow significantly next year, as will the challenges to ensure the program’s sustainability.

Other public universities in states whose economies have been hit harder than ours are feeling the pinch more immediately and more deeply. There are no easy answers for any of us, only a collective recognition that our nation’s capacity to move forward rests in large measure on our ability to find solutions. State and federal governments need to consider funding strategic investments in the enrollment capacity of community colleges and public universities to provide access to quality higher education for an increasingly diverse population of students; such students often come from ordinary circumstances but often have extraordinary potential. To do so requires more support for public higher education from existing funds and possibly new sources of revenue. There is no way around it: Public higher education needs public investment.

Our public universities have represented hope to generations of Americans. In a campaign year in which the concept of hope has become central to our electoral dialogue, we must not forget that real hope, meaningful hope, requires financial investment and that among the institutions in need of a financial rescue plan, public higher education must be a top priority.

Author/s: 
Ed Ray
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Ed Ray is president of Oregon State University and an economist.

Saving Public Higher Ed

Our nation’s system of public higher education is in crisis. Unprecedented funding cuts give us several reasons to be concerned: First, about 70 percent of American college students attend public colleges and universities, which means more than 12 million students may be directly affected. Second, many public institutions produce a wealth of valuable research that serves as an engine for both regional and national economic growth.

Less well known is that the crisis in the publics has the potential to undermine the high quality of American higher education as a whole. While state budget cuts may appear to be aimed at the publics, we will all be poorer if our renowned system is allowed to falter. As a result, everyone in the academy -- even those of us in private institutions -- should be thinking of ways to revitalize public higher education.

While there is talk in academic circles of various reforms, two specific changes would go a long way toward helping public institutions strengthen their positions: revamping public university governance, and establishing a progressive tuition structure.

A diversified model

Anyone who spends time outside the U.S. knows that American higher education remains the envy of the world. One of the characteristics that distinguishes our system from others is that the U.S. does not have a centralized approach to higher education. There is no government minister who provides a uniform curriculum or one national research agenda.

The American system is decentralized, which allows for a diversity of approaches and a significant amount of experimentation and innovation. It also fosters healthy competition. Small schools compete with large schools; publics compete with privates; comprehensive universities compete with liberal arts colleges. And there is spirited competition within these groups.

The result is an educational richness not found in other parts of the world. Some liberal arts programs specialize in teaching great books, while others excel in music and the arts. Other institutions become known for their scientific or technical degrees. There are different learning models as well, ranging from traditional classroom education to experiential learning, which involves the integration of classroom study and real-world experience.

There is no one-size-fits-all -- our students are free to choose from a wide range of educational models best suited to their learning styles and future aspirations.

The same dynamic is present in research. Although federal support for university research is a key component -- and there are certainly government research priorities -- there is ample room for faculty- and institution-driven initiatives. Myriad government and private funding sources provide support for a range of different priorities and possibilities. Some institutions are powerhouses in energy or life sciences, while others focus research efforts on economics, agriculture or urban issues.

A threat to our leadership position

Like most competitive models, the American approach to higher education works best when there is a degree of equilibrium within the system -- robust peer groups that force creativity and innovation. When a substantial sector of the group is weakened, disequilibrium is introduced, which threatens the competitive dynamic.

This is what we’re seeing today as the nation’s public institutions struggle financially. Nearly 40 percent of the nation’s colleges and universities are public institutions -- a substantial share of the overall system.

It is certainly true that private institutions have not been immune from the current downturn. We’re all aware that endowments have plummeted, fundraising is flat, and demand for financial aid has increased, putting additional pressure on strained budgets. But the public crisis appears to be both broader and deeper, with the potential to be with us for years to come.

The state of California provides the starkest example. This year, $800 million in funding cuts have forced furloughs of faculty and staff in both the UC and Cal State systems. This means that classes will become even more crowded and faculty members -- already stretched thin -- will have less time to work closely with students.

There will also be an increase in the number of students turned away. The UC system alone (not including Cal State schools or community colleges) is planning to reduce freshman enrollment by 6 percent. In a system of 220,000 students this amounts to more than 13,000 people who will be denied access.

The pain is by no means limited to California. Across the country -- from Michigan to Wisconsin to Virginia -- states are facing revenue shortfalls and making significant cuts to higher education. Even $825 million in federal stimulus -- the portion targeted for all of higher education -- is not enough to offset the extensive cuts made by state governments.

The timing could not be worse. President Obama has underscored what those of us in higher education know to be true: the nation’s economic prosperity is dependent on our system of higher education. The president has noted that jobs requiring a college degree are growing at twice the rate of jobs that require no higher education.

It is the quality of the American system that will develop the human capital needed for our economy to recover and prosper over the long term.

Opportunities for change

Of course, with every crisis comes opportunity. The current situation can pave the way for public higher education to gain some much-needed flexibility and autonomy. By unshackling these systems from some state-mandated controls, they can be revitalized and continue to play an essential role in ensuring the success of American higher education.

We will see a range of innovations such as three-year degree programs, the concept of “cyber campuses,” and more nonresidential education. Each has the potential to reduce costs or generate revenue -- or both.

More fundamental changes will be needed. Two in particular will give public institutions greater control over their own destinies. The first will be effective in the short term, while the second will empower public institutions to introduce and support long-term innovations:

  1. Progressive tuition: We are seeing many public systems raise fees as one way to shore up their finances. But this regressive approach runs the risk of reducing access for those already struggling to pay for college. Another option would be for publics to raise tuition, while providing more need-based financial aid. By pledging that students from families earning under a certain amount -- say $100,000 -- can attend at no cost (and those above a certain threshold would pay on a sliding scale) public colleges can generate valuable revenue, while maintaining the all-important mission of access.
  2. Reform governance: Board members at public institutions are primarily political appointees. While most are knowledgeable and dedicated, the political process by which they are appointed often results in a divergence of views and priorities. Allowing presidents, chancellors, and existing board members to appoint trustees -- standard practice at most private colleges and universities -- would strengthen the ability of public boards to play a strategic role in guiding their institutions.

More than ever, the country needs higher education to do what it does best: develop human and intellectual capital, and be the engine of progress for the nation. The future of American higher education -- and indeed the nation -- will depend on our ability to maintain a vibrant, diverse and competitive model of higher learning.

Both private and public institutions are critical in this endeavor and must be empowered to succeed.

Author/s: 
Joseph E. Aoun
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

Joseph E. Aoun is president of Northeastern University.

Lost Trust

There are two main narratives battling to define the current crisis at the University of California. While the California situation is an extreme example of what is happening to public higher education these days nationally, these dueling narratives can be found in many other states as well.

On the one hand, President Mark Yudof and the Board of Regents want everyone to blame all of the university's problems on the state. According to the administration’s narrative, the simple issue is that the state has defunded higher education, and due to a $1.2 billion cut from the state, the only thing the campuses can do is raise tuition (which we in California call fees), cut courses, lay off workers, increase class size, furlough faculty members, and demand that the state increases the university’s funding by $913 million.

The counter narrative, articulated mostly by the unions and the students, is that the university just had a record year of revenue, and the system does not have to raise fees or cut services. Instead, the counter discourse argues that the profit-making units should share their profits, and money earmarked for instruction should actually be used for educational purposes. While unions and students also insist that full state funding should be restored, they recognize that most of the state reductions were made up by federal recovery money ($716 million), fee increases (43 percent -- 9.3 percent in September, 16 percent in January, and another 16 percent next September) and cost saving measures that have already been undertaken.

A close analysis of the university's own audited financial statements (see page 52 of this document) for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2009 shows that in every major category of the budget -— research, medical profits, extension programs, and even state appropriations — the university increased its revenue. Thus, even though President Yudof declared a fiscal emergency during the summer of 2009 and was granted emergency powers to impose an austerity plan that included across the board salary reductions, it turns out that the university was never in better fiscal health. In fact, the university’s finances were doing so well that after the state reduced the university’s funding, the university turned around and lent the state $200 million.

When reporters asked Yudof how he could lend the state money at the same time he was cutting salaries, reducing enrollment, and laying off non-tenured faculty, he responded that when the university lends money to the state, it turns a profit, but when the university spends money on teachers’ salaries, the money just disappears. According to this logic, the university should just get out of the education business and concentrate on generating high bond ratings.

What many people do not know is that this emphasis on pleasing bond raters in order to gain a better interest rate drives many of the decisions of private and public universities today. For example, it was recently discovered that one reason why the university continues to raise tuition each year is that it has promised its bond issuers to use student fees as collateral for construction bonds. In this credit default swap, students take out high-interest loans to pay for their increased tuition, while the university gets low-interest bonds to build more buildings. Moreover, the bond raters have recently praised the university for having such a diverse revenue stream and for holding such a high level of unrestricted funds that can be used for any purpose.

When Yudof is questioned about the fungible nature of the university's $20 billion operating budget, he usually responds by arguing that almost all of the funds are restricted, and only money from student fees and state funds can be used to close the budget deficit. However, much of the university's money is only restricted by its priorities, and Yudof himself has admitted that the university needs to protect its reserves and help grow the profitable aspects of the university.

Yudof’s protection of the profit-centered units was highlighted when many of the highest earners in the university system were able to remove themselves from his furlough plan. First the people funded out of external grants were exempted, and then the medical faculty, some of whom make over $800,000 a year, were able to fight off any salary reductions. Meanwhile workers making less than $40,000 were having their pay reduced and non-tenured faculty were being laid off. The result of this process is the increased growth of income inequality in a system where already in 2008, 3,600 employees made over $200,000 for a collective pay of $1 billion.

Even with the revelation that many of the top earners are administrators and that there are now more administrators in the UC system than faculty members, many tenured professors have sided with the administration because it is much easier to attack the state for all of the UC’s problems. By blaming the state and the anti-tax Republicans, there is a clear enemy and an easy narrative. Moreover, by placing the onus of responsibility on the state, the university does not have to look at its own internal problems. However, if the faculty continue to buy Yudof’s narrative, there will be no way of fighting the continual increase in administrative costs and the further privatization of the university. This double move of corporatization and administrative growth should be a concern of all faculty members across the United States.

Yudof’s latest gambit is to ask the state, which he knows is facing a $21 billion deficit, to increase the university’s funding by $913 million. Everyone knows that the state cannot provide this money, and so when the state does not meet Yudof’s request, he will feel justified to make another round of fee increases and budget cuts. In this version of the shock doctrine, a fake crisis motivates people to give power to a centralized authority and to privatize a public good, while wages are decreased and profits are kept by a small group of power elites.

It is time for the faculty to stand up and join with the students and the unions to resist. Moreover, the university's lack of shared governance and budget transparency is but a symptom of the national move to strip faculty of any power and to shift control to an administrative class that sees higher education institutions as investment banks dedicated to pleasing the bond raters. Only the faculty can make education the priority at these institutions.

Author/s: 
Bob Samuels
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Bob Samuels is president of the University Council - American Federation of Teachers, which represents lecturers and librarians at the University of California. He teaches at UCLA and writes the blog Changing Universities.

The University vs. Liberal Education

It has by now become received wisdom: college students today are less interested in traditional subjects, and have become more professionally oriented. They’ve voted with their feet, choosing business, pre-med, and engineering majors over German, art history, or comparative literature. Clearly, it’s in the zeitgeist. Unfortunately for humanities professors, however, lower enrollment can translate into the elimination of entire departments: just ask German professors at the University of Southern California. But what’s to be done? The client is king, and students are our clients in higher education. The only problem with this logic is that universities in fact bear a considerable responsibility for the brain drain away from the humanities. By raising the cost of education to stratospheric levels, we oblige students to seek a higher return on their investment. It is this sort of economic calculation, I suggest, and not some alleged generational change, that is driving students in droves towards preprofessional degrees.

The rising cost of undergraduate education, especially at elite private institutions, has understandably become in these unforgiving economic times a target of much angst. Particularly jarring, for critics, is the increase in expenses related to administrative support: the percentage of staff who do not teach at Williams College – 70! – is routinely portrayed as thick layer of glut, ready-made for the chopping block.

I happen to disagree with most of these critics. Having gone to a public university in Europe, I am incessantly amazed by the advising, counseling, curricular opportunities, and overall support that students receive at Stanford University, where I teach. I remain profoundly jealous of their education, which I believe is second to none. At the same time, I am not blind to the source of this charmed life. It’s frightfully expensive to employ the staff needed to run the overseas programs, writing centers, freshman seminars, extracurricular activities, summer school, etc., that help make Stanford the university it is. I do not doubt administrators when they say that the average cost per student exceeds the already obscene tuition fees charged.

While the skyrocketing cost of college education is no doubt inexplicable from the outside (why should tuitions increase at a pace far faster than inflation?), the answer, from the inside, appears fairly humdrum. Put simply, universities are engaged in an arms race: they compete to bring the best-armed students to their campuses. This means incessantly inventing new programs. Stanford offers freshman seminars? Harvard will too! Yale has highly rated residential education? Penn must improve! Top schools similarly compete for faculty academostars, luring them not only with high salaries and other perks, but also a reduced teaching load. The price for such celebrity academics, of course, gets passed on to the student. This arms race at the top – and liberal arts colleges seem to suffer from the same educational-industrial complex – thus drives the cost of attending the Ivies way up. And when students have to pay 40 grand to attend Cornell, other colleges and universities must raise their tuitions as well, to stay in competition.

The exponential rise of tuition costs is not, therefore, the result of some nefarious plot. Most professors (alas) are not lining their pockets, and the salaries of top administrators are still dwarfed by those of CEOs in the private sector. The money raised by higher tuitions does actually provide students with more services and opportunities. To repeat: I am unceasingly jealous of my students at Stanford. But there is a hidden cost: once students (or their parents) are called upon to deliver their pound of flesh, they fall under a huge amount of pressure to make that investment pay.

I cannot help contrasting this situation with my own experience as a student, at a public university in Switzerland. I paid the equivalent of $35 a semester in tuition; halfway through my studies, the price was raised, after much protest, to $300. It was a fairly bare-bones experience: our professors were world class, but there was zero support for students. We had no advisers, no writing center, no extracurricular activities, no dorm – we didn’t even have a graduation ceremony. Because the cost was so low, however, we had remarkable freedom – freedom to take as many seminars as we wanted, to space out our exams, to try out new subjects, and more generally, to take as long as we wanted. I spent six years as an undergraduate, the norm at the time (although you could technically graduate in four).

European universities are now in a different sort of financial crisis, and I doubt we have many administrative or curricular lessons to learn from them. But they do remind us that the cost of an education can act as a filter for intellectual choices. Students will be far less willing to take risks when they’re paying a fortune to enroll. It’s not the zeitgeist: it’s common sense.

The irony, of course, is that a B.A. in French or classics provides students with many of the qualities that employers most commonly request, such as critical thinking, cultural proficiency, and good writing and communication skills. A solid liberal education is just as beneficial for the vast majority of professions; in addition, it prepares for a life well-lived, and not just for a career. But if universities continue to charge as much as they do, they will progressively steer students away from the very subjects that, until recently, constituted the very core of the university.

There is no easy or obvious remedy for this situation. It is hard to imagine an incoming university president at a leading institution, say, pledging to halve tuition. Of course, at institutions with large enough endowments to offer generous financial aid packages, a considerable percentage of students do not even pay full tuition. But these institutions can probably be counted on two hands; the vast majority of colleges and universities depend heavily on tuition to fund instructors and staff, sustain campus buildings, pay heating bills, etc. Some have suggested cutting back on athletic facilities or other extracurricular programs, yet in many cases the funding for these expenditures comes from targeted donations.

Until the tuition imbalance stabilizes – and eventually Congress may well intervene to ensure that it does – humanities departments need to act more aggressively to ensure their survival. Increasing the turnout of majors may be beyond our reach, but we perhaps need to rethink the relationship between research and teaching. Do highly specialized courses offered by individual departments provide the best kind of background in the humanities for students headed for careers in law, engineering, finance, or science? Or do we need to offer more cross-disciplinary courses, ideally team-taught by faculty from different departments, on core questions and topics in the humanities? The bulk of our teaching is geared toward majors and graduate students. If we do not want to be the victims of the next recession (or, if it lasts long enough, the current one), we also need to target those students who feel they do no longer have the luxury of specializing in a humanistic subject.

Author/s: 
Dan Edelstein
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Dan Edelstein is assistant professor of French at Stanford University.

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