Tuesday, April 27, 2010

On Asking the Right Questions: A Response to David Hollinger

David Hollinger, holder of an endowed chair in American history at the University of California at Berkeley and President-elect of the Organization of American Historians, just asked the proverbial $64,000 question in the Townsend Center for the Humanities's Point of View Series: if forced into a choice between being really public and being really good, what should Berkeley faculty choose? Here's his own answer:

My experiences at Berkeley as a graduate student in the 1960s were transforming. I owe almost everything to Berkeley. I was able to come here because it was really public. But that is not what changed me. Many places were really public. I was changed because Berkeley was really good.

I now believe the risks to quality are more dangerous than the risks to public access. To be sure, if fees go up, fewer people like me could come, but what these people would get will be of greater value. Perhaps I am wrong to prefer this alternative? I hope those who lean the other way will publicly defend the taking of the risk of diminished quality, rather than ignoring the question.

Those of us wondering about similar questions and choices in New York ought to keep in mind the fiscal and structural differences between our situation and California's. Lisa Krieger provides a useful primer over at the Mercury News. The core problem she identifies is the same one that Hollinger focuses on:

Plummeting state support: Since 1990, state spending per student has dropped by half in inflation-adjusted dollars. While the state paid about 90 percent of a student's education 40 years ago, it now pays 69 percent for California State University students and 62 percent for those in the University of California system.

Here at SUNY Fredonia, our president recently posted a powerpoint slide at a press conference on the SUNY strategic plan that showed a 2/3 decline in inflation-adjusted state spending per student over the same time period, while a few weeks earlier our chancellor's office published statistics that showed that state support for the SUNY equivalents of the CSU and UC systems has dropped to about 35% and 50%, respectively. One way of understanding how much worse SUNY's situation is than CSU's and UC's is to blow up the charts on "Shifting the cost of education to students": at CSU, CA still contributed over $8700 per student in 2008-2009, while at UC, CA contributed over $14500 per student. By contrast, if Governor Paterson's education cuts are not restored by the NYS legislature--and it's looking very unlikely that we'll see any restoration to any sectors but K-12 and community colleges--SUNY Fredonia will be getting around $2500 per student in 2010-2011.

Given our experience in NY, I think it would be fair to question one of the premises of Hollinger's argument. Fee increases at public universities don't enhance quality, as his "if fees go up, fewer people like me could come, but what these people would get will be of greater value" might seem to imply. They don't even maintain it. The key question is "greater value" than what? What fee increases allow for is "greater value" than would exist without them. They slow the bleeding, but they don't stop it.

Hollinger identifies the source of the bleeding with great precision:

even the most optimistic of souls usually will grant that the project of reversing the anti-tax politics of California is a formidable one, and not likely to be achieved prior to the time that the excellence of the UC system in general and of Berkeley in particular will be severely challenged by diminished state support. We need to remember that a recent, credible poll found that 69% of California voters prefer to keep Proposition 13 in place. Other polls reveal that opposition to increased income tax for high earners is sustained by the belief of 19% of the American public that they are in the top 1% of income earners, and by the belief of another 20% that they will join that 1% within their lifetimes. California politicians who win elections do not mention services and taxes in the same sentence.

While he supports the efforts of colleagues like George Lakoff to change the way California voters think and vote about public universities--not as education factories, but as economic engines, quality of place engines, and moral engines critical to American democracy--Hollinger wonders what UC Berkeley should do in the meantime. Should they hold the line for Berkeley's publicness and run the very real risk of no longer "being one of the world's leading centers of learning"? He believes this is "hollow bravado and wishful thinking." He is not willing to run the risk that "Being really public--above all keeping fees low and access high--might require a diminution in the intellectual quality of the services that UC in general and Berkeley in particular offer the state of California."

Now, Berkeley is one of the few public universities in the nation that may be in a position to raise its fees high enough to survive the tuition trap that Christopher Newfield and others have identified. If state funds that had gone into supporting Berkeley were to be fairly distributed across the rest of the UC system, or, more generally, if all the UC campuses were able to offer differential tuition rates and the savings in state support were reinvested in the CSU system, then there would be little problem with Hollinger's argument. If certain UC schools were to shift wholeheartedly into the high-tuition/high-aid model to do as much as they could to preserve their quality during a fiscal crisis, and if the savings in state support were reinvested in other UC and CSU schools to do as much as possible to preserve access to public higher education during the downturn, then what's the problem?

Well, there's no guarantee that Sacramento politicians would instead choose to reinvest such savings in state support for Berkeley and other UC campuses into roads, or prisons, or K-12, or Medicaid. In fact, with CA's budget deficit on the order of $20B last I checked, it's almost certain that reductions in state support would go straight into that particular budgetary black hole. So accelerating the path to privatization means that access is very likely to be diminished across CA's higher education systems (even if administrators in UC and CSU were to do a little redistribution of the ways state funds are allocated across their systems to the lower-tuition schools). It seems there's no evading the horns of Hollinger's dilemma.

Again, New York's experience is instructive. UUP President Phil Smith was at his most convincing during his visit to Fredonia when he pointed out that over the decades, SUNY's health science centers have been sending more and more of the revenue they generate not to the rest of the SUNY system but to the state general fund:

Phil gave a very specific example of why he is convinced that augmenting existing SUNY revenue streams and developing new ones won't result in net gains for SUNY. He pointed out that when he arrived at Upstate in 1978, state support was around 47%--and now it's down around 10%. The state saw an opportunity to take advantage of the income the health science centers were generating: first they forced hospitals to pay for their own debt service, then their own fringe benefits, then the cost of collective bargaining increases, and finally this year they asked for over $20M to make up for retirement fund losses. If that opportunism is extended to the entire system, and the doctorals see state support drop from around 50% to around 10%, the comprehensives see state support drop from around 35% to around 10%, and so on, then eventually the question will arise of whether UUP should be negotiating with the state or with the entering freshman class and their families. Furthermore, if even UB and Stony Brook see state support drop faster than they can raise tuition, it's likely that the imbalances caused by SUNY's own formulae for distributing state funds to campuses--where Stony Brook has 57% state support and UB has near 50%--are going to be exacerbated even further, as more state money is sent to them than to the comprehensives.

Since it's hard to imagine that quality hasn't suffered at Upstate Medical Center in the last 32 years, however, Smith's long-term perspective shows that the picture is even grimmer than Hollinger portrays it. Even if California limits the damage to quality at a pair or a handful of campuses by switching them over to a high-fee/high-aid model, both quality and access would go down sharply at the rest of them. Accelerating the pace of privatization at a few campuses in one state digs the structural hole deeper for public higher education across that state.

This is why I believe that every campus in the UC, CSU, SUNY, and CUNY system should be given the responsibility of managing its own tuition. So long as each system sets a standard tuition rate for all its campuses according to a rational, fair, equitable, and predictable policy, so long as every major constituency and stakeholder has a seat at the table and is looking at the same data in the setting of both system and campus tuition rates, and so long as any special tuition increases by individual campuses are approved by their local student government, faculty governance, and college council or trustees, then I am confident that affordability can be maintained and revenues from increased student fees can be reinvested directly in trying to maintain campus quality.

But this is also why I believe that California and New York need to establish floors beneath which state funding for public higher education will not fall. The current system of cutting state support for public colleges and universities faster than tuition has increased at them--which has been in place for roughly two generations in both states--is unsustainable. UC, CSU, SUNY, and CUNY simply can't keep increasing the numbers of students they serve without their revenues keeping pace with enrollment increases.

The question, then, is not whether partial privatization should happen--it has been happening for a long time now and reversing it will take even longer--but instead how far partial privatization of public universities should go, and to what ends.  Former SUNY chancellor D. Bruce Johnstone suggests that it be harnessed to the goals of providing "genuine equality of opportunity" and "widening higher education access" (SUNY at 60, 296). Here's his argument why some student fees are justified:

Elsewhere (no more so than in Africa, where I have spent much of my recent scholarly attention), accessibility is too often thought of as flowing naturally from free tuition, free room and board, and pocket money--even though no country (least of all in Sub-Saharan Africa) can afford this without greatly limiting both the capacity and quality of their college and university offerings. And the consequence to the severe limitations on capacity is that there is room only for those who pass very rigorous entrance examinations, which in turn is possible mainly for those who have had the advantages of extensive tutoring and private secondary schools. The consequence, of course, is free higher education mainly to the wealthy, who could and would pay at least some tuition if they had to, and very little opportunity to the poor, the isolated, or ethnic and linguistic minorities. In the State University of New York, as in public systems in all states, we expand our resources and our capacity with the combination of state tax revenues and modest public tuitions. (296)

Johnstone goes on to argue that efforts to "expand opportunities"--including "abundant means-tested financial assistance, admissions practices that are sensitive to backgrounds and the nature of our diverse secondary schools, special programs of counseling and academic assistance to the educationally disadvantaged, a range of initial opportunities differing in academic selectivity, and second chances"--help "lessen the essentially unmerited simple transmission of opportunities from privileged families to their children" and make "American higher education...one of the truly good deals to the American taxpayer" (296).

Another former SUNY chancellor, John B. Clark, goes one step further in his summary of CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein's proposed "New York Compact":

In the Compact, there would be a broad partnership among the State, SUNY, CUNY, faculty, staff, students, alumni, industry, and private benefactors in a united effort to raise funds for public higher education....

Under the provisions of the compact, the state would be responsible for the so-called "mandatory costs" of operating the public systems of higher education (e.g., personnel costs, fringe benefits, utilities, etc.) and a set percentage of additional funds to invest in SUNY and CUNY for educational purposes. SUNY and CUNY would be responsible for their portion through fundraising, commercial partnerships, and generating additional monies through savings and efficiencies on their local campuses. Students would pay modest tuition increases on a rational and predictable basis based upon an agreed upon price index, with the important provision that no qualified student would be denied admission or matriculation to SUNY or CUNY because of the lack of financial means. (220)

So once again the questions of the proper ratio of public to private funding and of a base level of public support for public higher education arise, this time with other revenue streams than student fees added to the equation.  It is these questions that faculty should be putting to politicians, citizens, and taxpayers in their states, as well as to each other.  In this sense, Shannon Jackson's contribution to the Townsend Center's Point of View series provides a clearer accounting of the choices we all face than does Hollinger's essay.

Still, although Hollinger is wrong to accept the terms laid out by the forced choice between quality and access--both in terms of how he formulates the problem (CA's and NY's fiscal crises are of such a large magnitude that we're going to see both quality and access go down in the next few years at least, no matter what choices we make) and imagines solutions (we need to build support for new public higher education compacts in CA and NY, not just assent to raising tuition at a few campuses more than the rest)--his mistakes point the way to still larger questions:  just what should the role of the federal government be during and after the great recession? what shape should a national compact for public higher education take?

I would suggest that there are at least three paths by which we may arrive at some good answers to these questions:

  • Updating the Land-Grant Tradition: Newfield showed in Ivy and Industry that there have been times in American history when political and corporate elites understood that basic research is risky, expensive, and invaluable and hence that its risks, costs, and benefits should be spread as widely as possible. This consensus translated into serious federal support of research at public universities. Newfield makes a strong case in Unmaking the Public University that the pendulum needs to swing back from Bayh-Dole and updating the land-grant tradition is one key way in which the federal government can make it happen. State and federal investment in creativity and innovation offers real returns.
  • Generalizing the G.I. Bill: There should be other forms of national service than military service that also provide tuition vouchers to those who choose to perform them (Teach for America comes to mind).
  • Growing Pell Grants: Since inflation alone dictates that tuition will rise indefinitely, the federal government needs to index the Pell Grants to cost-of-living increases; if more states follow NY in creating their own versions of TAP to supplement Pell Grants, then the most financially vulnerable students could stop seeing debt as a barrier to applying for and entering public colleges and universities (and even some private ones).
In a nutshell, state and federal governments should collaborate in making the public option as attractive as possible--not just to students, but to higher education institutions, as well. It's only when well-endowed private universities see it in their interest to join state systems that we'll actually be able to adjust the ratio of public to private support of public higher education downward without hurting quality and access and destroying educational capacity.

[Update 1 (5/15/10, 1:45 pm): Charles Schwartz from the University of California is having trouble leaving a comment, so I'm adding what he emailed me to this post itself:

You quote data from University officials (east and west) that shows sharp declines in per-student funding from the state to public universities. That data can be very misleading, for research universities like UC and SUNY, since it refers to the whole I&R budget. There is an old habit of hiding the cost of faculty research and related graduate programs under the rubric of expenditures for "Instruction". Research is a great public good; but undergraduate education is seen, nowadays, as mostly a private good, to be paid for by the students (and their families). So by pumping up what we call "the per-student cost of education" we give state officials an excuse to cut our public funding; and the resulting increase in student fees has bad effects on access.

By my calculations, undergraduate student fees at UC cover just over 100% of the cost of providing undergraduate education. (See details at http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~schwrtz/.)

I know many colleagues are afraid to "separate" research from teaching. I don't want that but I do ask for honest accounting; if we can have a decent public understanding about who now pays for what, then we can go on to a decent debate about who should pay for what.

Charles Schwartz

My own inclination is to ask for more baseline federal support of research--and not just at a few "national research universities," as some at Berkeley have called for--and more state support of teaching at all public colleges and universities, so I think separating out the costs makes a lot of sense. As Schwartz's colleague Christopher Newfield has shown in Ivy and Industry, the idea that research deserves public support precisely because it is difficult, risky, and its benefits are so widespread but diffuse was a common-sense consensus at different periods of American political history in the twentieth century. In an age when so many nations are investing in their own research capacity, I would love to see the Obama administration put American research excellence and innovation on the front burner.

The point that's worth making about the costs of teaching is that most colleges and universities in the U.S. (and indeed around the world) are skimping here in order to fund their research by relying on exploited and underpaid graduate student assistants and contingent faculty to do more and more of the actual teaching on campus. I'd like to see a calculation of what the costs of teaching would be with full-time faculty covering about 75%-85% of all sections. All our hard-working colleagues off the tenure track who want to get on it need to be moved onto it by whatever means necessary. All teachers, whatever their employment status, should be given compensation befitting their contribution to the success of their students and institutions.

Finally, most of the institutions in SUNY are not research universities (only 4 of the 64 are), although of course important research takes place at virtually all of them. Given that SUNY has over the years chosen to shift state dollars to the doctoral-granting institutions in the system to fund their research activities, and that our own Faculty-Student Association at my own regional university contributes more to the campus operating budget than does the state of New York, we've become more and more reliant on tuition and fees paid by students to avoid layoffs. If the NYS budget turns out to be as bad as I fear, we may not be able to keep this up.]

[Update 2 (5/19/10, 3:00 pm): In their own way, Peter Brown, Tenured Radical, Christopher Newfield, and Marc Bousquet each helps us begin to account for the costs of neoliberal universities' skimping on the real costs of active teaching.]

1 comment:

spyder said...

I would love to argue that the UC system is substantively different from the SUNY system, especially in terms of equitable distribution of resources and promise of "rewards" that graduates of those institutions receive, but the UC system is very different from SUNY. What is really not different is the mechanism of funding the highest levels of education. New York does not suffer from an environment polluted with Prop 13 antitax law, nor from subsequent attempts to reduce taxes in CA. But NY is equally hampered by available funds for education, and higher education seems to be the venue in which NY feels that the students can pick up the bottom line. They can't. Hollinger's dilemma applies across the board. If one has the money, one can afford to attend. There really is no longer a functional public higher education system that will represent the greatest good for the most people.

The question then becomes, what to do.