Friday, October 7, 2011

We Have Met the Enemy - and It's Not Us

Even casual readers of the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education have likely observed that, accompanying the severe financial constraints faced by many public colleges and universities, serious, and at times acrimonious, debates have arisen over how budgets should be balanced. Often it seems that the most highly charged debates are those internal to a campus.

Discussion and debate about the priorities and direction of an institution has long been characteristic of academic culture. It is a desirable and necessary characteristic, a consequence of academic freedom and shared governance, and one of the important attributes of university leadership. Deliberation, consultation, and participation generally have been, and should continue to be, hallmarks of decision-making in higher education. Colleges and universities can still be accurately characterized as “conservative” in the sense that they respect tradition, believe that much can be learned from history, and are cautious about change. But it must also be acknowledged that the pace and magnitude of the changes currently facing higher education will require many of our institutions, especially public ones, to be more adaptable, flexible, and responsive. In short, to change more rapidly than our current practices and systems of shared governance can easily accommodate. And that can be discomforting, unsettling, and alarming.

Given the very difficult financial climate, the growing pressures related to affordability and access, and the pace of – and demands for – change, perhaps we should not be too surprised that internal discussions and debates occasionally degenerate into affixing blame and identifying enemies. Frequently, the divide that is created separates faculty and administration. The rhetoric used is familiar. “Administrators are only interested in adding lines to their resumes, expanding their domains, and pandering to influential external constituencies.” "Faculty are calcified, reflexively resistant to new ideas, and non-productive.” Admittedly, there may be some truth to both caricatures, but less than many think. The substantial risk associated with indulging debate along such lines is that it distracts everyone involved, and higher education’s many stakeholders, from the real issue.

The real issue is cogently presented in a “Discussion Paper” on the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU) website entitled: University Tuition, Consumer Choice, and College Affordability. Although slightly dated (2008) its principal findings are probably still sound. This APLU paper examined the financial climate of public colleges and universities and assessed the principal factors driving tuition increases for public institutions. The two main points I want to emphasize are the following (taken directly from the paper, but reversed in order).

Public university tuition has increased because real per student appropriations have declined. This finding appears again and again in serious examinations of the causes of public university tuition inflation…Overall cost per student has been constant. Tuition increases have been just sufficient to offset reduced state subsidies, but not to increase public university budgets.”

“One of the most robust findings in the research literature is that the real cost per student in public higher education is not increasing….Cost per student has remained constant because revenue per student was constant; funds were not available to increase expenditures further. Public university managers have been highly effective at controlling costs; indeed they were compelled to be, given the resources available.”

These are obviously general statements, but accurate (at least in 2008) for public higher education as a whole. At the University of Rhode Island our increased revenues from tuition and fees have offset steadily declining state funding over the past decade and permitted us to make increased investments in financial aid as we endeavored to maintain affordability. There have been few, if any, significant increases in revenues to do just about anything else. If my many conversations over the last two years with other university presidents are representative, then this has been the case quite broadly. At many institutions, revenues have not kept pace with enrollment growth. At URI, and all but the most well endowed public colleges and universities, reallocation is the dominant mechanism to provide funding for growth or new initiatives. Continuous reallocation can be healthy, but also can be stressful.

So, what are we to do? The first step is to recognize that neither non-productive, ossified faculty, nor overly ambitious, self-promoting administrators, nor any other part of the academic enterprise is fundamentally responsible for our current difficulties. The “enemy”, as it were, is tangible but diffuse: the lack of understanding among Americans of the critical importance of investing in public higher education. China understands this, as do many other countries that are aggressively seeking to increase higher education opportunities and university-based research. Nearly everything associated with higher education, from state appropriations to Pell grants to federal research support, appears to be increasingly at risk for disinvestment in the U.S. This is not just the “enemy” of higher education, but also the “enemy” of economic recovery, of opportunity, of innovation, of growing the middle class, and of building a more just and equitable democracy. Combating this “enemy” is where all of us who care about and understand the value of higher education should focus our collective efforts.