Politics and Public Universities

Public higher education is being pulled in to the illogical world of politics in ways that it has not experienced before. The article, “2016 Ambitions Seen in Walker’s Push for University Cuts in Wisconsin” (The New York Times, 16 February 2015), expresses the problem that  higher education administrators must address:

“But to his critics, Mr. Walker, in both his proposed cuts and in the discussion that arose over the Wisconsin Idea, is trying to capitalize on a view that is popular among many conservatives: that state universities have become elite bastions of liberal academics that do not prepare students for work and are a burden on taxpayers.”

Assuming the view expressed above is accurate, higher education administrators appear unprepared to defend state universities, let alone advance its interests on behalf of students and America.

Elite Bastions of Liberal Academics

“Elite bastions of liberal academics” and similar phrases are ad hominem attacks that fail to address any actual problem – other than learning leads to enlightened human beings, which can create a problem for politicians whose rhetoric is laced with illogical thinking. Continued operation on the level of a perceived problem will cause harm to many through delays, faulty decisions, and misplaced actions.

No institution or its product is perfect. Every institution and the processes that create its products can be improved. Higher education’s failure to continuously improve administrative and academic processes, and do so in highly visible ways, leaves it vulnerable to continued criticism – whether real or imagined.

Does Not Prepare Students for Work

Higher education’s hiring policy that favors career academics over candidates who are academically qualified and who also have real-world work experience assures that students are ill prepared for work. The failure to achieve a balance in subject matter knowledge, life experiences, and teaching skills has greatly contributed to this negative view of higher education.

In addition, faculty have systematically failed to connect subject matter to the real world, while administrators have not pushed faculty to help make that happen and leaving both remiss in the execution of a basic duty.

A Burden on Taxpayers

The contribution by taxpayers to public higher education is at historic lows and may go even lower. The middle class, whose incomes have been stagnant for decades, has had to contend with tuition increases much higher than the rate of inflation due to reduced taxpayer support for public higher education. The costs of higher education is clearly a much bigger burden on the working class (student and family debt) than it is on taxpayers.

Let’s also recognize that the reductions in funding for public education (K-12 and higher ed) are invariably re-distributed to corporations in the form tax breaks and other types of subsidies – typically with no restrictions for the recipient and no guarantees for the state. Tax breaks are the real (debt) burden on taxpayers (see “Tax-Subsidy Programs Fuel Budget Deficits,” The Wall Street Journal, 12 February 2015), not higher education.

_____________

This Higher education results in many benefits to society that are difficult to see or quantify, inclusive of academic departments that do not obviously connect to economic growth and jobs. This lack of clarity does not help higher education administrators in their efforts to inform the public of the numerous positive externalities and spillover effects that higher education creates – and which greatly outweigh real or perceived negatives. The fact that these benefits do not appear on an Excel spreadsheet does not mean they don’t exist.

Public higher education is being absorbed into a political process and forced to quickly change in thoughtless ways to meet challenging financial targets due to budget cuts. Instead, they can control their own destiny by improving administrative and academic processes via kaizen. But, to do that, faculty and administrators would have to recognize that not everything that comes from industry is crap to be ignored. Instead, Lean management could help save higher education just as it has saved other organizations.

Leave a Reply