“Reformers” Cite Productivity as the Reason for Higher Ed Cuts: Here’s What They Don’t Understand

After a years-long, bruising battle in Texas between the University of Texas and Texas A&M systems on one side and then-Gov. Rick Perry on the other, the two flagships have emerged more or less intact and relatively free of political meddling.

But that doesn’t mean that the overall fight to maintain quality in public universities is over. Far from it. Now comes news that Missouri and Iowa are joining Wisconsin in considering severe restrictions on faculty tenure, including the elimination of tenure tracks for new faculty hires.

Here are the four main factors involved in this ongoing battle:

  1. Real or exaggerated fiscal problems in the states;
  2. Ideological interference for partisan political purposes;
  3. Attacks by “reforming” governors on the fundamental purposes of public higher education;
  4. Disregarding what is unique about universities, while trying to turn them into business focused on “productivity.”

If far-right politicians in Iowa, Missouri, and Wisconsin and like-minded officials  across the nation succeed, then here is what will happen to public universities:

  1. They will be unable to compete for top faculty, continue to lose quality and prestige, and be relegated to secondary status.
  2. The purported vocational goals of the reformers (more business and STEM grads who can earn higher salaries) will in fact be undercut when public university grads find that their degrees are not regarded as highly as they are now.

Since the Great Recession, most states have struggled to keep abreast of legitimate public needs. In the early years of the recession, states enacted severe cuts in higher education. Often, the most severe cuts occurred in states with very conservative governors who saw an opportunity to leverage the recession into a continuing attack on the liberal arts and a concomitant turn toward vocationalism in higher ed.

But as the economy has rebounded, only some states have slowly begun to increase higher ed funding. Others, such as Wisconsin, Iowa, and Missouri, are renewing attacks on higher ed.

Here partisanship and ideology enter the picture. For the extreme right, public education should be almost entirely vocational, and “real” education should occur in the more expensive, private colleges, and mainly for those who can afford them. The fixation on private governance even drives these advocates to favor for-profit private “colleges” even though support for these dysfunctional businesses drives up federal loan losses.

Clearly, not funding public higher ed and reducing quality in public colleges is antithetical to the essential purposes of state universities: providing both access and quality to students in their states.

Moves to eliminate tenure are an example of the tone-deafness of some politicians when it comes to the differences between universities and the corporate business world.

The need to fire inept or irresponsible employees in the corporate world is a given. Almost always, such dismissals are unrelated to philosophical and ideological issues or to the expression of differing, even seemingly bizarre opinions.

The firing of a faculty member can come down to objective performance issues; but far more than in the case of firing a business employee, it can also be a punitive act against free expression or the result of a misguided bias against certain academic disciplines.

Of late, those disciplines–the humanities, mainly–are probably the very disciplines that need to be supported in an era of “fake news.” Do humanities and liberal arts majors find more high paying jobs than, say, chemical engineering graduates? No, but do engineering graduates need significant exposure to the humanities? The answer is yes, even if, or especially if, the engineering students disagree with what the humanities offer. At least they are more likely to think about why the disagree.

It must be said, however, that some alleged reformers see no value in having engineers–or any student, for that matter–do much critical thinking beyond that required by their (preferably) vocational major.

Arguments grounded in the need for “productivity” and the general uselessness of academic research have been an abiding feature of far-right attacks on public higher ed.

Yet there is a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research that not only describes the uniqueness of universities as institutions but concludes that they are in fact rational actors in making decisions about faculty pay in relation to both research and teaching loads. They are productive, but productive within the very special context of a university.

The paper does not disagree that sometimes research professors are rewarded more than those who lack a research pedigree. But in the end, “prizing research output over teaching doesn’t necessarily affect educational quality.”

According to an excellent summary of the research by Colleen Flaherty of Inside Higher Ed, “the paper seems to dispute assertions that higher education spending — at least on instruction — is wasteful or inefficient.”

The authors note that “Departments in research universities (the more so the more elite) must pay high salaries in order to employ research-productive faculty. These faculty, in turn, contribute most to the universities’ goals (which include teaching as well as research) by following their comparative advantage and teaching less, and also teaching in ways that are complementary with research — notably graduate courses.”

And one of those goals is to maintain or enhance academic credibility. Flaherty writes that the “authors predict that because ‘scholarly reputation and output’ at research-intensive institutions are shaped by largely by research, highly paid faculty members within a department ‘do relatively little teaching, on average.’ And whatever teaching they do ‘has relatively high consumption value, either directly or as an input into research.’”





Scott Walker vs. The Wisconsin Idea

Editor’s Note: The following is one of our relatively rare opinion pieces.

Another presidential election year is approaching, and another presidential candidate is taking aim at the public university system in his state, and boasting of his budget cuts and alleged reforms.

This time around it’s Scott Walker of Wisconsin; in 2012 it was Rick Perry of Texas.

Opportunistic politicians and ideologues found major public universities to be an easy target for criticism and budget cuts during the great recession, and governors long opposed to the “liberalism” in higher ed embraced the opportunity to whack away at funding for research and disciplines they didn’t like.

In the aftermath of the recession, the partisan ideology driving attacks on public higher education remains strong, and in the state of Wisconsin, Scott Walker has doubled down on efforts to cut funding for the University of Wisconsin system even as other states are reinvesting in their own universities.

Rick Perry embarked on a similar crusade against the University of Texas and Texas A&M systems several years ago, only to be outwitted and ultimately defeated by staunch supporters of both systems. Like Walker, Perry sought to bring a business model to the higher education systems, and by business he meant the interests of business: sacrificing the intellectual impact of higher education to the immediate and often shortsighted “needs” of business and industry.

Productivity was the buzzword in Texas, and the biggest enemies of productivity were the disciplines that brought in little money and allegedly offered no vocational advantage to students: the humanities and social sciences.

The latest developments in Wisconsin are that the UW system now has $250 million less in the current state budget, and some safeguards protecting faculty and academic programs have been eroded. That this is happening in Wisconsin is of special concern because “The Wisconsin Idea,” enshrined in state law for more than a century, articulated a high and noble purpose for public universities.

“The legislature finds it in the public interest to provide a system of higher education…” the state statute begins, but a Walker staffer proposed deleting this opening clause and replacing it with “There is created a system of higher education…”, as if placing the public interest at the forefront of the statute somehow overlooked a more important purpose.

That more important purpose becomes clear in the next section, where the staffer wrote that the primary mission of the UW system was “to meet the state’s workforce needs,” rather than “to discover and disseminate knowledge.” The staffer then struck these final words of the section:

“Inherent in this broad mission are methods of instruction, research, extended training and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition. Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.”

In the end, the proposed changes did not take hold following media scrutiny and public opposition; but the changes in the language illustrate just how far the discovery of knowledge, improving the human condition, and the search for truth have fallen in the eyes of self-serving ideologues.

This is not to say that universities, public and private, should not offer majors that have a clear vocational focus. UW Madison certainly does so, with high ranking programs in both business and engineering. The reformers would doubtless see these as ways to improve the individual’s condition economically, and thereby worth funding. But what about the individual’s sense of values, understanding of the nation’s past, appreciation of both the threats and advances of other cultures? What about research that improves health care, legal services, and education?

UW Madison now faces the loss of about 400 employees as a result of the budget cuts. The tenure protection once guaranteed by state statute has now been watered down as part of a move to make the system operate more like a corporation, with greater freedom to define and limit programs and cut faculty positions. Guess which programs will suffer? Not business, not engineering, not the hard sciences perhaps, but those pesky humanities and social sciences with all their unsettling ideas and pointed references to the lessons and values of the past.

Yes, these disciplines can wander far afield on occasion and come up with what are, or appear to be, bizarre arguments and interpretations. But here’s the thing: you never know where the most important ideas and insights will come from, and limiting the scope of higher education to vocational pursuits is far riskier than allowing scholars in all the major disciplines to pursue their research.

Ideologues are quick to urge bright students to attend elite private universities, all of which encourage and, often, lavishly fund research in all disciplines. Can you imagine Harvard without strong departments in English, history, philosophy, sociology, and psychology? Yale? Chicago? Does anyone seriously believe these schools would retain their generally deserved credibility if they were to make it their primary mission “to meet workforce needs”? They exist to challenge bright students in all major areas of inquiry. The result: leaders not only in “the workforce” but also in every other facet of life.

It is weirdly shortsighted that the governor of Wisconsin, a state without a high-profile private university, does not want the citizens of the state to have reasonable access to the highest levels of education. Like other “reformers,” he seems to operate under the assumption that there are enough elite private schools to accommodate the smartest students, even if they have to go out of state. (And, if UW Madison is significantly reduced, they will. Surely the governor can appreciate the power of a “brand” and what happens when it is lost. )

But in fact there are not enough prominent private universities to provide places for all the brightest students, and why would a governor promote policies that tend to drive these students out of his state anyway?

Thus do political opportunism and ideology lead ultimately to the worst kind of academic outcome: a brain drain.

Florida History Faculty Fights to Sustain Liberal Arts

Note: This article by our editor, John Willingham, was originally published by the History News Network on December 21.

In Florida, a task force commissioned by Gov. Rick Scott has proposed lower tuition rates for STEM majors, allegedly in the interest of the state’s economy, but many of the state’s historians see the plan for what it is—a threat to the humanities.

Historians from the University of Florida and supporters across the country have responded with a formal protest and a petition campaign in late November that so far has obtained more than 2,000 signatures.

“The punitive differential tuition model will lead not only to a decimation of the liberal arts in Florida,” the historians said in the petition. “It will also have a destructive impact on the essential and transferrable skills that these disciplines teach.”

On November 16, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin joined Scott in proposing state university performance measures to ensure that students are “getting degrees in jobs that are open and needed today, not just the jobs that the universities want to give us, or degrees that people want to give us?”

Disentangling what is merely unwise and superficial about these plans from some of the disturbing motives behind them would require an interdisciplinary panel including not only historians but political scientists, economists, philosophers, and, yes, scholars from the STEM disciplines that the plan enshrines.  But some very recent analyses of the Florida plan are an excellent place to begin.

An excellent article by Michael Vasquez in the Miami Herald on December 8 questions the extent of the demand for STEM grads as well as the notion that higher salaries will be their reward.  “Petroleum engineering majors are doing very well these days; biologists and chemists are not,” he writes.

And much of the demand in “strategic” fields comes from the healthcare industry, not from all of the STEM professions.  Vasquez writes that when healthcare was not counted, one recent report found that “Florida was one of six states with more unemployed STEM workers than available STEM jobs. Of those six states, Florida had the biggest oversupply of STEM workers.”

But is there any significant demand for liberal arts grads? Last year, Gov. Scott asked a business audience in Tallahassee a rhetorical question, well-reported in the Florida media: “Do you want to use your tax dollars to educate more people who can’t get jobs in anthropology? I don’t.”

Yet Vasquez tells us that a recent defense department study emphasized the need for sociology and anthropology graduates because the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have “highlighted the importance of sociology and anthropology” and the nation should have an “ongoing investment” in both disciplines.

Taking a narrow view based on what appear to be the demands of the present, the task force and the governor are missing subtleties and unintended consequences, the latter among the strongest lessons of history.

One consequence of the recommendations that is neither subtle nor unintended is that even more funding will be taken from the humanities and flow to the so-called strategic areas.  The tuition paid by humanities students already provides an indirect subsidy to most STEM students because the cost to educate students in engineering, technology, and physics is greater than the cost of educating students in the humanities.

Some institutions actually charge more for some STEM majors because of the increased cost.  The task force was aware of this development, according to Vasquez, yet decided to elevate the indirect subsidy to a direct one, knowing that their action would be even more detrimental to the humanities and social sciences.

The Florida historians note that the Florida Council of 100, a non-partisan organization of business leaders formed more than 50 years ago, “submitted a lengthy memo to the task force in which the Council noted the pressing need for ‘liberal arts grads with superior analytical, critical thinking, and communication skills who can quickly learn and apply industry/company specific skills.”

Knowing that liberal arts grads were in demand and that the differential tuition plan would further diminish the presence of liberal arts disciplines, the task force nevertheless persisted.  And this is where the “disturbing motives” mentioned earlier come into play.

Gov. Scott’s mocking of anthropology as a discipline is but one indication of an intense war going on between the most extreme conservatives advocating higher education “reform” on one side, versus major public universities and thoughtful supporters, including many in the business community, on the other side.

Where the perceptive business and political leaders, Republican and Democrat, see the economic value of research, its interplay with the best instruction, and the power of the liberal arts to foster critical thinking skills, the extremists see wasteful spending, pampered professors who should be teaching more classes, and humanities professors threatening the status quo.

The intended consequences of the extremists are to reduce publically-funded universities to second- and third-rate training institutions, leaving the strongest students to seek the best education in private universities, which are held up as models of excellence and free-market efficiency.  Gutting the humanities in public universities will inevitably reduce their ability to maintain first-tier standing, and the best students will go elsewhere.

Readers who may question the use of the word “extremists” to describe these individuals should consider what Thomas Lindsay of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Rick Perry’s designated “think tank,” told the National Review, as reported on December 13: “The higher-ed establishment is an industry that is ripe for disruptive innovation, and that’s what’s happening,” Lindsay said.

It is this kind of “innovation” that came to such ripe fruition at the University of Virginia, where regents bedazzled by the trendiest terms coming out of business schools decided to bypass institutional history, collaborative change, and sound judgment to take a giant leap forward—only to make fools of themselves.

Sound judgment—its formation and use, its value in every part of life—is what is truly at stake in this serious battle over the future of public higher education.  Historians, perhaps better than most, recognize that understanding what has happened, its relation to the present, and its likely impact on the future requires above all things careful and thoughtful judgment, based on a wide spectrum of information.  The development of this enduring asset has long been the aim of the best universities.  While the task force claims to know what constitutes essential information, the liberal arts caution against such assumptions, aware that truth often emerges from sources unforeseen.

Lillian Guerra, one of the Florida professors challenging the task force, teaches Cuban and Caribbean history at the University of Florida.  In an interview with Colleen Flaherty, writing for “Inside Higher Education,” Guerra noted that the “Cuban state in the [1960s and 1970s] began to promote technical fields and the hard sciences because those are the fields believed to generate wealth for the collective aspiration, as opposed to an individual meditation on ideas.”

If someone on the task force had bothered to talk to Guerra or had taken a course in her highly specialized field, they might have glimpsed a surprisingly relevant lesson arising from the dismal performance of the Cuban economy since the 1970s.  Nevertheless, the task force might still be excused if it simply acknowledged that no one can always predict where the best answers might come from.