The End of the Great Public University

Nestled in the rolling hills of the upper south, Indiana University is a model public university.  Annually noted as a “bargain” with high value, it features a world-class faculty, clichéd small town cuteness, and a stimulating, unparalleled limestone campus. Yesterday, IU announced that it was trimming the credits required for a BA degree.

Last year, the state passed H.B. 1220, requiring all public universities and colleges to reduce the time and cost of a university education, combatting what then-Governor (and now Purdue President) Mitch Daniels called “credit creep.”  So, now, with little fanfare, 120 credits – a good round number, but not an educationally meaningful number – is the new gold standard.

This is a big deal.  It reflects a continuing and fundamental transformation of the relationship between states and their public universities.  And it suggests, more dramatically, that the final days of the great public university are upon us.  While too many worry about MOOCs, not enough worry about the end of the grand bargain between states, universities, and citizens.

After World War II, the federal and state governments committed themselves to building up a wide range of things to improve the United States.  They built an interstate highway system, bridging the vast open spaces, and making new kinds of communities outside of cities possible.  They offered returning GIs an opportunity to buy homes, to attend college, to move up the social ladder.  And they invested, finally, in building up great public universities, which were open (after some considerable tumult) to an increasingly wider range of people.  As a nation, we were, then, generally committed to the education of a state’s citizenry, and to the idea that an educated local populace wasn’t just good business, but also good politics.

All that has changed.  Various sorts of conservatism – the anti-elitist, fiscal, and social strands – have successfully re-branded universities as wasteful hotbeds of radicalism, full of ego-boosting “minority studies” programs, pointless majors with no direct relevance for today’s job market, and secularist scientists.  In so-called “red” states, legislators have tried to “starve the beast,” capping tuition and often dramatically cutting state subventions.  Governors have appointed self-styled radical reformers as Trustees, waged open war against university presidents, and funded “study groups” to produce reports about malfeasance, misdirection, and groupthink.  Tenure – not merely a protection of faculty rights, but also a commitment to the seemingly antiquated notion that everyone benefits (especially students) when every single idea is open for critical debate – is assaulted, but new budget realities make those assaults moot: it is simply impossible to hire as many tenure-stream faculty anyway.  And new media fora – blogs, cable news, and even mainstream newspapers that give space to conservative columnists in the spirit of “balance” – have produced a professional class whose chief interest lies in killing off the very chance of a quality public education.

As state contributions to university budgets have dwindled, universities have responded creatively, trying to preserve core missions and responsibilities while constantly at war with states.  At Indiana, for instance, new curricular growth in the last decade – interdisciplinary programs in American Studies, Human Biology, and International Studies, and a hiring program to internationalize the faculty known as the “2/3 world initiative” – came not from additional state support, but from a new fee levied on students.  More recently, after the state (hoping to force tough cuts) withheld funds for building repair (a necessity on an old campus), a repair and rehabilitation fee was passed along to students.  What is true in Bloomington is true in Gainesville, or Iowa City, or Austin.  New buildings must have a naming endowment.   New ideas must be revenue neutral.  Out of state students and international students must be admitted in larger numbers, to make up for rising costs and declining support.  Finally, the universities themselves must engage in a constant public relations campaign to “prove” their worth to the state, to demonstrate not that they produce an educated citizenry, but that they produce revenue for the state itself.

This recent “encroachment” on the mission of higher education, as IU President Michael McRobbie has called it, isn’t unusual.  Last year, in addition to H.B. 1220, the administration and the faculty in Bloomington also had to monitor (and labor against) legislative efforts to allow the concealment and carrying of weapons on campus, along with dozens of other strange and unusual intrusions.  The state funds for the university came now come with strict rules about merit-based raises for faculty and staff, a sign of dominance of “performance” based metrics. The state required (S.B. 182) an Indiana-wide common course numbering system, so that it would be both possible and easy for a student to take an advanced calculus course at a community college (Ivy Tech, as the franchise is called) and count it towards an IU degree, as if the quality of instruction were universal across all platforms.  And (H.B. 1116) all universities are now required to make a plan for counting military service and training as academic credit.  Confronting a phantom threat, the state also banned resident tuition for illegal aliens in 2011. And, hoping to stave off other interventions, the university has been discounting summer tuition and trimming operating costs everywhere.  In all things, the state is a sort of conservative experimental zone, ripe for the installation of ALEC-inspired ideas, with a newly installed GOP supermajority ready to act on them just as soon as they are proposed.

(In primary and secondary education, of course, things are even worse: avant-garde ideas about right-to-work, vouchers, alternative-routes-to-teacher-certification, and armed teachers are already the law of the land).

This deserves a lot more attention.  When, recently, Brooklyn College was in the crosshairs for allowing a panel on divestment and Israel to continue, despite threats from the city council that the college’s budget would be cut dramatically, academics across the nation got involved, and Mayor Bloomberg stepped in to remind people about the virtues of academic freedom.  In California, where a vast budget gap has prompted major re-structurings of a storied public system, there are spirited protests and vociferous debates and informed conversations about what the future might hold.  Meanwhile, half-a-country away, credits have been arbitrarily and quietly trimmed from a degree that matters to tens of thousands of students, and there doesn’t seem to be anyone outside of Bloomington to ask whether the BA degree is being severely, permanently discounted, and whether a very dangerous precedent has been set.  In what universe, after all, is less education actually a financial or philosophical value?

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