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:
- Real or exaggerated fiscal problems in the states;
- Ideological interference for partisan political purposes;
- Attacks by “reforming” governors on the fundamental purposes of public higher education;
- 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:
- They will be unable to compete for top faculty, continue to lose quality and prestige, and be relegated to secondary status.
- 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.’”