Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Elephant in the Room - Public Universities for a Socially Irresponsible Public

From today’s Inside Higher Education comes this little blurb:

Ideas for U. of California

A special commission studying the future of the University of California released its final report Monday, with numerous recommendations for the university system to thrive in an era of limited state budgets. Most of the ideas have been publicly discussed previously in relation to the commission's work; the proposals include three-year undergraduate degrees, improved transfer paths from community colleges to university campuses, enhanced use of online education and additional enrollment of out-of-state students.

Of course, it’s hardly news that higher education is being defunded across the nation. Most universities have attempted to make up the slack by engaging in cut-throat competition for private and federal grant moneys – always with strings attached. Others have taken the PR route, seeking to sell their campuses with perks for student consumers ranging from overpriced sports programs to four star meal programs and swanky dorms. Tuitions have skyrocketed in most places and schools have learned clever but dishonest means of making up the difference in fees for everything from the technologies needed to run any 21st CE class to athletic fees whether students attend the many sporting events colleges feel increasing compelled to host or not. Such increases inevitably fall hardest upon the children of the working class, many of them the first in their families to attend college.

It’s particularly disheartening to see the University of California system in such dire straits. This was once the jewel of American public higher education with virtually free tuition for those who could be admitted. California universities have led the nation in true academic research (as opposed to the intellectual and ethical prostitution of today’s corporate sponsored research). The two tiered system has been a powerhouse of generative, creative education for a long time, this despite the assault on the system that began under then-governor Ronald Reagan which ended the Prague Spring of free tuition largely because the universities also had become the birthplace of the free speech movement.

It is sad to see this once glorious system so hobbled. I spent four years in Berkeley in seminary and graduate study in the early 90s. While there I took a class at the university in the sociology of deviancy. It occurred during a grad student teaching assistant strike. While students at my own university would probably have celebrated being free of the requirements to attend a break out discussion section once a week led by a grad TA, the students at UC Berkeley were ready to go on strike themselves at being deprived of that opportunity. These were serious students. And Berkeley was a very fertile environment in which to be a student.

What occurred to me as I read this blurb is what seems to me to be the elephant in the room – social irresponsibility. Business demands workers with a modicum of skills and the prestige of a college degree whether they are particularly well educated or not. Middle class parents feel the need for social respectability that only bachelor degrees seem to be able to provide them and the prospect that their children will not fall from the middle class. Legislators who know virtually nothing about education feel free to impose increasing demands upon colleges and their staffs even as they slash their budgets. Yet no one talks about their responsibilities to the very system upon which their own demands are so freely imposed.

But at a very basic level, colleges have become enablers for this socially irresponsible behavior. They have prostituted themselves on grant moneys and the research it buys allowing moneyed interests to legitimate often destructive behaviors. They have admitted more students than they can competently handle using massive auditorium classes, closed circuit television and now online systems to ensure the hordes can gain enough credits to claim their degrees. They seem to be caught in a rather perverse Field of Dreams mentality that holds to a thus far unfounded belief that if the students come, they will be funded. Colleges have cut staffs, programs, salaries and benefits of their instructional and support staffs even as they engage in high profile but incredibly expensive sports programs and building campaigns.

What they have not done seems to be the obvious – the elephant in the room. They have failed to demand that the public - whose children are mostly being trained for jobs as well as the handful who are actually becoming educated - should be responsible for the services they are being provided. They have become enablers of an incredibly dysfunctional pattern of behavior.

What might happen if the universities suddenly said to the public, “I’m sorry, but you have only provided sufficient funding for 60% of the students we now have. Beginning this term, admissions will be brought into line with actual funding.” No more bake sales and car washes for grant procurement. No more prostitution to corporate interests seeking to legitimate destructive practices (including the Lawrence Labs at Berkeley). No more dishonest fees and rising tuitions imposed on students, the poorest of them unable to meet that steadily rising demand. No more ego-driven attempts to draw students with expensive sports programs and building campaigns.

What might happen if public universities simply said to the public “Time to be responsible?” And what might happen if they themselves behaved responsibly?


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando



If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

No comments: