I’m sure that the 51 presidents, chancellors, regents, and heads of university associations who signed an open letter to President-elect Obama believe that their request for a share  of the expected federal stimulus package is in the country’s best interests. Although I personally cringe at what I view as self-serving pleas, I am confident that they believe in what they are doing.
At the same time, it might be helpful to look at just how narrow a vision guides this request and why satisfying the plea is unlikely to achieve the noble goals that the letter alludes to.
Specifically, the signatories, convened by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, are asking the federal government to spend $40-45 billion in the form of capital investment -- direct expenditures on “shovel-ready” construction projects, mostly at public universities. The federal funds would be distributed to the states on the basis of population and would be channeled through governors, bypassing state legislatures.
Their request is wrapped in rather elevated rhetoric that stresses several things: the need to create hundreds of thousands of jobs, the need to have a strong university system, and the fact that the nation is “losing ground” as measured by a number of educational indicators. The letter invokes historic events such as the Morrill Act, the National Academy of Sciences, and the GI Bill as precedents.
Let’s look at this proposal more closely.
Why did these educators choose capital funding -- that is, constructing “essential classroom and research buildings and equipping them with the latest technologies”? Wouldn’t tuition discounts, tax credits, more scholarships, or even faculty salaries be more directly related to the problems that they decry? After all, they justify the request on the grounds that the United States is slipping against other countries in the percentage of the population with higher education degrees; that minorities have poor graduation rates; and that college tuitions have been rising nearly three times as fast as median family income.
Short-term capital investment funds are not likely to do much for these problems. In fact, better internal cost control, not new money, is probably the best way to resolve them, a point The Wall Street Journal made editorially last month .
The reason the group pushed for bricks-and-mortar spending is undoubtedly pragmatic. Construction jobs are a time-honored feature of economic stimulus and “back-to-work” programs. The jobs are visible and they appear fairly quickly (although they also end fast). Public construction projects (sometimes known as pork-barrel projects) are also a time-worn feature of state politics, with political rewards for those who support such projects. That may have been a consideration.
For their part, the educators contend that focusing on capital projects “avoids the unnecessary entanglement of the federal government in the processes of the states and the governance of public universities.” There is something to that -- you don’t need a federal bureaucracy to prove that a building has been built.
But one does not have to be cynical to note that funding capital projects might also keep the Obama administration from interfering with “the governance of public universities.” The higher education establishment has had enough of that from the Bush administration’s secretary of education, Margaret Spellings. This time around, just give money for buildings, please.
What the administrators don’t acknowledge is that there’s a reason why the states are shelving these “shovel-ready” projects. Yes, the states are underfunded and governors all over the country are halting university projects. They are doing so because tax payments have dried up. People are out of work and businesses are shutting down, and taxpayers can no longer afford the lavish investment in state buildings that seemed so easy a year or two ago.
By asking the taxpayers to rev up those projects, the administrators are essentially saying that if state taxpayers can’t afford a project, some mythical “federal taxpayer” can.
But state and federal taxpayers are, by and large, the same people. If Arizona is seeing its tax revenues dip, chances are that the federal government will see its taxes go down, too. If the people of Arizona are hurting, probably taxpayers countrywide are hurting, too.
Surely, the well-educated intellectual leaders who wrote the letter recognize this symmetry. My guess is that most of these leaders would not have dared to make their plea except for one thing: The money is there.
Right or wrong, Congress committed the taxpayers to a giant package of expenditures. The $700-billion package was adopted to preserve a shaky credit system that was approaching crisis. Very quickly, however, what wasn’t spent began to be viewed as “stimulus” money, available for the taking by those with political clout.
When there are $100 bills lying on a table, someone picks them up. The Carnegie-led administrators, who have a high opinion of their mission and their stewardship of it, want to be in the room when the cash is doled out. They feel that the university system (especially the public system) is as deserving as any potential bailout recipient. I understand their views. But let’s accept that this is about pork-barrel politics. It’s not about helping the kids.
Jane S. Shaw is president of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh, N.C.