Good Judgement And Shared Commitment To Long-range Educational Objectives
College and university leaders may recognize that realistic solutions will require an end to “business as usual,” and may be reluctant to explore options that will be painful and disruptive on campus. And yet, the growing numbers of young people wanting and needing higher education are (and will be) there, and it is foolish to think that denial is an effective long-run strategy. The ideas advanced later in this paper may ultimately be easier for an outsider to propose than for those enmeshed in the system.
A case can be made for increased student fees in public institutions that enroll large numbers of students from high-income families, provided the higher fees are accompanied by increased need-based aid directed to students from low-income families. This policy calls for the state to redirect some of the savings achieved from reduced institutional appropriations into student financial aid.
The patterns are consistent with short-run decision making under financial duress, not guided by an overarching policy. While “muddling through” might suffice for a few years with limited damage to student access and institutional quality, it is a recipe for disaster if continued, given the demographic tidal wave about to wash over the states. The time has clearly come for a longer view, before what remains of the promise imbedded in the master plan is lost.
Clearly, we face a budget crisis – not a transitory problem that likely economic growth or the usual policy changes can address, but a fundamental and long-term change in the options we can choose from. A small set of essentially fixed demands will soon consume virtually all of the state’s unrestricted income. Only a few basic options seem to present themselves, and none appears attractive.
The most one can say about economic projections is that they are subject to considerable uncertainty, and thus the course of wisdom lies in not fixing a policy based on any single estimate of funds likely to be available in future years. The sensitivity analyses of the technical report and the research demonstrate convincingly, however, that higher education is not going to be able to meet its obligations to the next generation of students through increased state support.
Although it would be easy to criticize the actions (or lack thereof) of state and university leaders over the past ten years, there is no point in such a negative exercise. Given human fallibility, several years’ experience may have been necessary before the enduring nature of the financial crisis facing higher education could truly sink in. College and university leaders reacted to the events of the last five years defensively and protectively, seeking to preserve educational quality and minimize damage to the institutions. Had the financial crisis proved to be short-term, similar to those experienced periodically, that would have been a sensible response. Similarly, one can understand why political leaders, faced with multiple problems caused by the recession – together with other physical and social upheavals – would have failed to develop long-term educational policies aligned to the new fiscal reality. But there can be no excuse for the continuation of such behavior. The realities sketched in the preceding page are now obvious to all in responsible positions. The citizens have inherited a fabulous resource in its system of higher education, as well as a legacy of providing educational opportunity for all who seek it. To squander those assets and that legacy through a failure to face facts and to develop new and imaginative policies would rightly subject political and educational leaders to contempt.
As a contribution to this essential discussion, in what follows I will sketch three policy approaches that might be adopted, and assess the social costs and benefits, and the political feasibility of each approach. For purposes of clarity, I will refer to these options as: 1) status quo; 2) radical reform; and 3) state of emergency of indefinite duration. I will discuss each in turn, and make it clear why I prefer the third. Mine is only one voice in what must be a far broader conversation, but that conversation must begin. It must be undertaken in full recognition of the crisis confronting higher education, and lead directly to vigorous new policies and actions at both state and institutional levels.
Political interference in colleges and universities is nothing new. But it comes and goes, and now its intensity is increasing. Because higher education in America is the door to everywhere, because it is what virtually everyone wants or needs, it is no wonder that factions want to control it. They want it to be responsive to their perceptions of what needs to be done.
Those responsible for colleges and universities have an obligation to listen respectfully, to meet changing needs as best they can, and to decline to be controlled.
It is unfortunate that we seem to have entered into another phase of overt political interference with higher education, because it distracts colleges and universities from important changes they need to make. Primarily, they need to adjust what they do and how they relate to other social institutions, particularly businesses. We are deciding how to prepare the women and men who will sustain the kind of society we want to live in. Partisan political agendas, ideology, and even the political maneuvering occasioned by expansive institutional ambitions, divert attention form the truly important issues of the day.
What we need now are governing boards that exemplify the defining values we are trying to protect as higher education changes to meet the needs of an advanced technology-based economy. We want a society whose citizens are involved, enlightened, tolerant, and willing to negotiate differences of opinion. We want them to be productively engaged in satisfactory work. But these two objectives now are in tension within higher education because the nature of work is changing so dramatically.
Faculties across the nation are trying to adapt curricula to give students the high levels of technical skill and knowledge they need to meet the expectations of business, while at the same time trying to hold on to the defining values that characterize education in a democratic society. Of course, higher education is under stress!
Higher education is related administratively, whether public or private, through laws and regulations governing various programs and funding mechanisms. The private institutions must comply with various rules in order for their students to receive tuition assistance grants. Public institutions are subject to a plethora of laws and regulations that dictate the administrative processes they must follow, the hoops through which they must jump in getting anything done.
On a second level, colleges and universities have an independent appeal to a large, generally middle-class constituency of supporters: alumni, financial backers and parents, to name only three. These supporters are part of the best networks in any state, and they influence political action with their votes and their checks.
On the third and most important level, colleges and universities are grounded on the bedrock of our democracy: on the Constitution and the intellectual traditions from which it grew. They are the institutions in which ideas are placed in the crucible and subjected to the most severe tests. Some ideas fail, others die for lack of interest. Some change our lives.
Political interference can occur at each level of relationship between higher education and government. It begins, of course, at the administrative level. In one state after another, governors have seized control of the systems office to install staff who share their political persuasion.
Systems boards probably are most vulnerable to political interference because they have no alumni, no prominent financial backers and no football teams. Taking them over can help to advance some agendas or to resist change. Playing on historic American distrust of the professional and managerial classes, board members at both the system and institutional levels may attempt to micromanage, producing a huge amount of friction that inhibits administrators, who actually run things, from getting their work done.
At the second level, higher education’s popular support, rooted in its extensive networks of friends and alumni, can be eroded by diversionary attacks on colleges and universities as bloated and inefficient or as subversive of fundamental values. These attacks are often characterized by meanness associated with resistance to change, or with the certainty that some political ideology or another is absolutely right.
But it is difficult to force a political belief system upon colleges and universities because faculty can – and will – resist and subvert changes that are forced upon them, especially if they perceive the changes not to be in the best interest of their students and their own professional commitments. This insulates colleges and universities from political pressure but makes them vulnerable to criticism: People in other walks of life become impatient with higher education because it appears to make needed changes so slowly.
The third level of interference is in the intellectual lives of the colleges and universities: what is taught, by whom, and to whom. In most states, this interference has been absent or subtle; in a few, it has been heavy-handed.
A university chancellor who later was elected governor of his state appeared before the legislature some years ago to answer criticisms about what the faculty were teaching. “I know that half of what they teach probably is wrong,” the chancellor said. “But I don’t know which half.”
Political interference in higher education is a symptom of a much larger fear that things seem out of our control. Some people react fearfully to change and seek to impose more rigid controls on institutions and processes. As the institutions in which new ideas are tested and taught, colleges and universities are particularly apt to come under attack by those who are distressed by change.
The charge that colleges and universities are subversive to established values and the principles of democracy finds fertile ground in the anti-intellectualism that historically has characterized Americans’ ambivalent feelings about academic institutions. It leads to the conclusion that it is necessary to control who is allowed to teach, or to correct what is being taught.
Colleges and universities have, as I have noted, some of the best networks of friends and supporters in any state. Discrediting the institutions and those who work in them is one of the best ways to divert attention from inadequate financial support. And those from without who would suppress the rich ferment of collegiate life have allies within the academy.
Perceiving that resources are limited, some entrenched factions are trying to preserve their privileges while excluding newcomers. In higher education, this entails attacks on equal opportunity and affirmative action in some states, and the suggestion in some others that too many people are going to college. It is a “lifeboat mentality”; there are a limited number of places in the boat, so the rest have to stay in the water. And in the United States today most of the “rest” are people who are poor and not Caucasian.
Imperfect though they are, in the past 25 years colleges and universities have become the most important providers of equal opportunity in our society. They also are the most important sources of skilled workers and entrepreneurs, and of new products and technologies. And if they are true to their highest calling, they help students encounter ethical questions, whose answers will shape their lives. As a nation, we cannot afford to be unable to afford higher education for all citizens who can benefit from it.
The best defense of colleges and universities finally lies in the hands of the women and men who are appointed to govern them. Their good judgement and shared commitment to long-range educational objectives are essential.
Governing boards have different responsibilities now that the academy is closely involved with other social institutions and the body politic, rather than distant as it was until only a few decades ago. In addition to their fiduciary responsibilities, board members now should help senior administrators form essential collaborative relationships and understand the environment within which they are working.
Board members richer in conviction than in professional experience or maturity may threaten the freedom of inquiry that is the foundation of institutions of higher learning by attempting to impose their personal opinions upon the curriculum, the composition of the student body, or the services provided by the system and the institutions.
There is no easy way to ensure that the right kinds of people are appointed to boards. But alarm about what is happening in some states has caused the creation of review panels that would evaluate the credentials of possible board members and create lists of qualified candidates from which the appointing authorities can select their nominees. This would help to guard against excessive politicization and could prepare the way for a review panel at some time in the future.
Jeff C. Palmer is a teacher, success coach, trainer, Certified Master of Web Copywriting and founder of https://Ebookschoice.com. Jeff is a prolific writer, Senior Research Associate and Infopreneur having written many eBooks, articles and special reports.