By Lambert Strether of Corrente
You mean charters aren’t the whole story of privatizing education? What fresh hell is this? I’ve got to say my jaw dropped when I read this in Bloomberg; I hadn’t thought that privatization rot had gone so far:
From Pennsylvania to Oregon, the number of top public universities bidding to shake off government control keeps growing.
How exactly does “public university” “shake off government control”? By letting the administrators cut their own checks?
The universities want more control over tuition and academic programs as they become less dependent on public subsidies. Some state systems have resisted because, without their flagships, they lose premier faculty and students as well as clout in legislatures that set funding.
Pennsylvania’s West Chester University, the fastest-growing of 14 state-owned campuses and the one with the highest SAT scores, could break away under legislation filed this year. Its departure would deepen a divide between independent ‘haves’ and tightly controlled ‘have nots’ plagued by dwindling funding and enrollment. Pennsylvania State University and three other public institutions already operate autonomously.
“Plagued by”? Note the lack of agency. Who’s doing the “plaguing,” and why? And what does “autonomously” mean?
After gaining greater independence, many public universities have increased tuition, raising fears that West Chester would follow suit.
“For any university that leaves the state system, tuition and fees will likely go up — creating an added burden for students and their families,” Frank Brogan, chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, said in a statement opposing the bill when it was introduced.
The independence drive is analogous to the rise in K-12 education of charter schools… Like charters, breakaway universities want less red tape and more freedom to experiment with academic programs.
Whatever “less red tape” and “more freedom” means, other than open season for executive looting.
Like charters, they fuel fears about the future of public systems and whether some institutions will be left behind to wither as competition intensifies.
The Academe Blog, unlike Bloomberg, doesn’t go all mealy-mouthed about the stakes:
If the fall 2013 semester saw the term “retrenchment” – the elimination of faculty, programs, and jobs – become part of daily conversations on campuses of Pennsylvania’s state-owned universities (PASSHE), during the next several months we may witness the birth of the next phase in the slow destruction of public higher education in the Commonwealth. This past fall, PA Senator Robert “Tommy” Tomlinson (R – 6th District) and Senator Andy Dinniman (D – 19th District) began working in earnest on . On Thursday, PASSHE’s new Chancellor, Frank Brogan, seemed to be laying similar groundwork during his testimony before the PA House Appropriations Committee.
Yikes. To be sure, we (well, I) generally think of privatization as an all or nothing thing; an institution is private, or its not. In fact, privatization is more like a “disposition matrix” for public purpose, as this handy chart from D. Bruce Johnstone makes clear. (Johnstone once served as Chancellor of the State University of New York.)
|Dimensions||High “Publicness”||High “Privateness”|
|1. Mission or Purpose||Serves a clear “public” mission as determined by the faculty or the state.||Mission is avowedly both public and private, but as defined by faculty.||Mission is mainly to respond to student’s private interests, mainly vocational.||Mission serves private interests of students, clients, and owners.|
|2. Ownership||Publicly owned: can be altered or even closed by state.||Public corporation or constitutional entity.||Private non-profit: clear public accountability||Private for-profit|
|3. Source of Revenue||All taxpayer, or public, revenue.||Mainly public, but some tuition, or “cost sharing.”||Mainly private, but public assistance to needy students.||All private revenue: mainly tuition-dependent.|
|4. Control by Government||High state control, as in agency or ministry.||Subject to controls, but less than other state agencies.||High degree of autonomy; control limited to oversight.||Controls limited to those over any other businesses.|
|5. Norms of Management||Academic norms; shared governance, antiauthoritarianism.||Academic norms, but acceptance of need for effective management.||Limited homage to academic norms; high management control.||Operated like a business; norms from management.|
The Bloomberg story makes it look like the “top” Pennsylvania schools are heading toward High “Privateness” in every respect; let’s take a quick (not exhaustive) survey of current trends.
5. Norms of Management: Operated like a business; norms from management
Speaking to the question of norms, I can testify anecdotally that business norms are increasingly becoming the rule in the Maine public universities; students are considered to be customers (much as in ObamaCare, patients are considered consumers (because markets). As a result, at the flagship school, we have a new gym (partly financed with naming rights), and a well-architected union — for some students, seeing a Starbucks is a big deal — but we also have consistent complaints about the labs and the lack of materials. A few squillionaires have financed some buildings for programs that interest them, but the library languishes. There are still dorms, but new campus housing is privatized (some owned by private equity), and so there’s no institutional supervision whatever. Of course, if the customers want to party, that’s a selling point. Finally, the entire system runs on adjuncts, who are paid Walmart wages for part-time work, while administrators pay themselves handsomely. Operated like a business indeed!
3. Source of Revenue: Mainly private, but public assistance to needy students.
Here I fear Johnstone wasn’t nearly cynical enough. From the Houston Press:
[A]s states have cut (and cut) funding for their public universities, public higher education inches toward the private university model: higher tuition costs, and more financial aid for those students the universities want to attract.
And who are those students? The ones that will boost a school’s rankings and prestige. This of course means that more and more students from lower-income families will (are) being priced out of higher education. ProPublica has shown that, in a gross inversion,
So, for “public assistance to needy students” read “public assistance to target customers” and everything’s jake!
1. Mission or Purpose: Mission is mainly to respond to student’s private interests, mainly vocational.
Because the market for critical thinking is like the market for humanities majors! (Never mind that the University of Maine’s largest donor for many years was Stephen King, from the much-maligned and on-the-chopping block English Department.) Ann Robertson and Bill Leumer of Workers Action write:
Nothing short of genuine education itself is at stake. What particularly vitiates the learning process is the introduction of a corporate culture or “market” forces that insist on measuring “student learning outcomes” by “objective” standards such as standardized tests; that place an emphasis on competition so that there are inevitably “winners” and “losers;” that regard democratic structures that include teachers with disdain; that narrow the curriculum so that job skills alone are valued; and that think in terms of education as valuable only as a means to material rewards.
Students will not become genuine learners unless they are imbued with a love of learning, meaning they regard learning as an end in itself, an asset not easily measured. Every teacher is fully aware that in competitive environments students will concentrate their efforts on achieving a high grade, not on truly understanding the material. They will memorize for tests and then forget everything. They will take great pains to hide their ignorance, not raise critical questions, let alone questions about material they do not understand. We know that in moments of desperation the vast majority of high school students at one time or another will cheat, which is hardly one of the skills we want them to acquire.
Here again, I’m not sure the authors are cynical enough. In today’s financialized America, cheating is exactly the skill we want students (that is, “consumers”) to acquire. That said, when you think about it, it’s not surprising that the businessmen who populate the (handsomely paid) governing boards of public universities favor a jawbs as a mission. It’s a two-fer: Not only do they get entry-level recruits for their companies, they stunt the creativity and invention of future competitors!
1. Mission or Purpose: Mission serves private interests of students, clients, and owners.
Especially owners! Get a load of this from the University of California!
UC Regents recently approved a new corporate entity that will likely give a group of well-connected businesspeople control over how academic research is used.
Despite the sweeping changes the program portends for UC, the regents’ vote received virtually no press coverage. UC plans to first implement Newco at UCLA and its medical centers, but some regents, along with influential business leaders across the state, want similar entities installed at Berkeley, Davis, Santa Cruz, and other campuses. UC Regents Chairwoman Sherry Lansing called Newco at UCLA a “pilot program” for the entire UC system.
Records show that wealthy investors and influential businessmen with close ties to UCLA and one of the UC Regents — Alan C. Mendelson — are financially invested in companies that currently license university-owned patents under exclusive financial arrangements. Mendelson, who also is a trustee for the UC Berkeley Foundation and has investments of his own in businesses that profit from university-produced research, was one of the main backers of the Newco proposal and cast a vote in favor of it.
Open cronyism and corruption (which, we might add, is taking place in blue California, bastion of progressivism.)
Of course, this is a complete perversion of the idea of a “public university”:
What’s better for the public and the broader economy, said [Gerald Barnett, who ran tech transfer operations at the University of Washington and at UC Santa Cruz], is a system in which most university inventions and knowledge quickly flows into the public domain, or is swiftly made available through non-commercial means. A relatively small number of university inventions that benefit from patent positions might be licensed out, Barnett said. But he’s skeptical of the obsession with exclusive patent agreements with corporations.
Privatizing: Just Another Neo-liberal Infestation
The go-to guy for quotes on university privatization seems to be one Richard Vedder:
Richard Vedder directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, teaches at Ohio University, and is an Adjunct Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
(Parenthetically, there’s one thing I will never forgive the conservative nomenklatura for, and that’s their perversion of the word “scholar.” These guys aren’t scholars. They’re propagandists and yes, I am pre-postmodernist enough to think there’s a difference.) Here’s Vedder in action:
Yet, in the midst of all of this, there is a stealth privatization of one important American public sector institution underway—the state university. Data recently released by Illinois State University’s Center for the Study of Educational Policy and the State Higher Educative Executive Officers (SHEEO) show that the absolute amount of state appropriations (including stimulus monies) for higher education declined by 7.6 percent over the past five years, or about 17.4 percent after adjusting for inflation—but before adjusting for enrollment growth. Adjusting for enrollment growth as well, the decline probably approaches 25 percent.
But that is not all. A half dozen states had inflation-adjusted increases in appropriations, but some very important states had cuts of well over 20 percent (inflation but not enrollment adjusted), including California, Florida, Michigan, Washington, Arizona and Pennsylvania (these states alone contain over one-third the American population). More and more so-called state universities receive 15 percent or less of their basic operating funds from the state. Thus tuition increases have soared at these schools, even more so than at private universities.
For years, I have identified several schools that I have thought prime cases for privatization. The top three flagship university examples: the University of Michigan [here and here], the University of Virginia [here and here], and the University of Colorado [here]. Michigan and Virginia are prestigious schools with pretty impressive private endowments, large out of state enrollments, and state appropriations now dipping into the single digits as a percent of state funding. They probably would like to be free of state government strictures relating to admissions [ka-ching!], governance issues [ka-ching!], and the like [ka-ching!]. The University of Colorado is hugely popular to out of state students who pay very high tuition fees. At all three schools, privatization has been discussed and, to a limited degree, even achieved at the University of Virginia.
But the continued appropriations decline opens the door up to privatizing whole state systems. The prime candidate is New Hampshire. The new survey data suggests that New Hampshire schools in this academic year are receiving barely $63 per capita in state aid (over 30 percent less than five years ago), dramatically below the national average of over $232. At the flagship University of New Hampshire, in-state tuition and fees exceed $15,000 a year—many times the amount received in state appropriations (which averages well under $3,000 a student for the system as a whole).
The National Educational Policy Center, speaking of higher education, describes Vedder’s play, but more concisely:
Like so much else in education and beyond, we are seeing the familiar pattern of defunding, claiming crisis, and then calling for privatization…
It’s almost like there’s a neo-liberal playbook, isn’t there? No underpants gnomes, they! Defund, claim crisis, call for privatization… Profit! [ka-ching]. Congress underfunds the VA, then overloads it with Section 8 patients, a crisis occurs, and Obama’s first response is send patients to the private system. Congress imposes huge unheard-of, pension requirements on the Post Office, such that it operates at a loss, and it’s gradually cannibalized by private entities, whether for services or property. And charters are justified by a similar process. This process or pattern is very reminiscent of Naomi Klein’s shock doctrine:
At the most chaotic juncture in Iraq’s civil war, a new law is unveiled that would allow Shell and BP to claim the country’s vast oil reserves…. Immediately following September 11, the Bush Administration quietly out-sources the running of the “War on Terror” to Halliburton and Blackwater…. After a tsunami wipes out the coasts of Southeast Asia, the pristine beaches are auctioned off to tourist resorts…. New Orleans’s residents, scattered from Hurricane Katrina, discover that their public housing, hospitals and schools will never be reopened…. These events are examples of “the shock doctrine”: using the public’s disorientation following massive collective shocks – wars, terrorist attacks, or natural disasters — to achieve control by imposing economic shock therapy. Sometimes, when the first two shocks don’t succeed in wiping out resistance, a third shock is employed: the electrode in the prison cell or the Taser gun on the streets.
However, I’m not sure the process or pattern outlined above is identical to the Shock Doctrine. For one thing, none of the crises are on the scale of 9/11, or a tsunami, or Katrina. In fact, these crises are manufactured for media consumption. For another, none of the crises are “natural”; they are all set up by neo-liberals playing the long con. Finally, the public isn’t so much disoriented following collective shock as baffled and bamboozled, with our famously free press playing a key role.
Basically, the Shock Doctrine seems acute; but privatization in the universities, the Post Office, and the Veterans administration seems chronic, with the occasional opportunistic neo-liberal infection. It’s the difference between having your house destroyed by a hurricane vs. being slowly eaten by termites. They are similar plays in the neo-liberal playbook, but not the same. Different plays should have different names, but all the names I can come up with are dumb: “Hock Doctrine,” because these guys want us to put our public asset “in hock”; or possibly “Chopping Block Doctrine,” because they want us to put our public assets on their “chopping block.” Like I said, dumb! And me an English major, long ago.
NOTES The obvious alternative to this privatization bullshit is free or nearly-free K-16 public education. After all, the carré rouge protesters in Canada were marching against a tuition increase from a baseline of $2168 a year; and are we so poor we can’t do as well by our kids Canada does?