Many Crises and One Panel: Historians Discuss Public Higher Education

A very good historian, NYU’s Tom Bender, chaired a panel at the American Historical Association conference last week entitled “The Crisis In Public Higher Education.” Joining Professor Bender were Robert Berdahl of the Association of American Universities, Roger Geiger of Pennsylvania State University, Douglas Greenberg of Rutgers-New Brunswick, Carla Hesse of Berkeley, and Terrence McDonald from the University of Michigan. The message was somber and the humor somewhat dark. The presentations and conversation expanded from one crisis to many different crises. And while it might seem like an unusual topic for a history conference, the genesis of the panel came from the observation that many academic leadership positions are held by historians (yours truly included).

Berdahl emphasized the large macroeconomic picture, in particular rising income inequality and the many constraints public education faces – politics, culture, state and local governments, etc. Geiger, drawing on his extensive research, noted the privatization of higher education. He contrasted the relatively strong position of the research public institutions – the flagships – with the rest of the public system. Focusing on his experiences at Rutgers, Greenberg put mission at the center of his presentation, stressing the enduring value of the humanities. Hesse, too, emphasized her institution – Berkeley – as well as the changing nature of public institution funding, observing that the middle class may be hurt the most by the larger changes at work. McDonald closed with a humorous and somewhat barbed list of seven conversations he hopes to never have again as a dean.

What, then, are the crises? Public funding for higher education is in decline and there are no expectations that it will increase in the near or long term. Public support for public higher education, at least at when it comes to research institutions, is weakening, and it appears that there is significantly less understanding of its value. The humanities, or some might say the liberal arts, have also lost their cachet, and some argue that there is undue attention given to outcomes.

But are these crises? Are we facing a significant point in time that will shape our future? I see them as extraordinarily serious issues, to be sure, but they do not come as a surprise. We have been talking among ourselves in higher education about these problems for years. Further, they are, in many ways, understandable problems when looking at bigger picture, not just the past few decades. One of the really interesting things about the situation is that higher education does not perceive them as a crisis – a moment of decision – that demands action in order to direct our future.

Regarding the crisis the humanities, as a sharp fellow attendee remarked – would you advise a young person of modest means about to attend a less than prestigious institution to major in English? We need to have solid answers to that question.

But what about public support for public institutions? The numbers are discouraging, particularly when looking at direct government support for institutions of any kind: education, cultural, health, or otherwise. The picture is less bleak when one considers financial aid, which has increased over the years. This shift is completely in harmony with many other broader shifts in public support. As a nation, we do not fund and support efforts the way that initiatives were supported in the decades after WWII. Outside of the military and the earmark, the federal and state governments invest differently. When times are flush there are bond initiatives for structures and infrastructure, but the relative commitment does not compare to the New Deal or the big efforts of the 1950s and 1960s. That is one of the reasons that our infrastructure is weaker and privatized. The growth in government support comes at a different level in a different way.

State and federal budgets today are greatly constrained. Let us assume that we have a state with leadership dedicated to higher education and convinced of its value. Can you imagine the challenges in bolstering government support? The editorials, op-ed, and blogosphere commentary that would result in making that lift?

Picture yourself as that governor. Would you prioritize public higher education over the K-12 world? Over health care? Over the unions organizing state employees, who can mobilize themselves into political units? Where would you benefit politically for more funding for higher education? Who would fund your re-election effort or turn out in large numbers at your rallies?

Taking this one step further, what would you prioritize within public higher education? The flagship institution or the larger system? Wouldn’t you want to reach the largest number of citizens and to make the largest, most visible impact? If you were like other governors, the most probable outcome of your support for higher education would be buildings, followed by some sort of grant or financial aid system that would impact many families. And following that, you would be moving further away from high-return activities.

The public institutions, of course, will claim poverty and ask for more. They are now, as the historians emphasized. What would the argument be to increase state support for faculty salaries? Or for administrative personnel to aid with student retention? Have the public institutions, or higher education, been an active player on the political scene? In a word, no. We tend to want support because we are convinced that we are doing good things for the public good. But we do a very poor job of making our efforts public. At the panel there was a consensus that the right leadership in public higher education could be more effective in lobbying and marketing. This is true, but I do not think that it is either likely or sufficient. Smart educational leadership also has to think about changing our structures to facilitate government support.

If there is to be a greater commitment from government to public higher education, we need to experiment with new models of higher education funding and support – to think out of the box. Perhaps higher education can be supported in a manner similar to the military; study for 4 years, receive a degree, and one works for a set period of time for the government. Perhaps public-private agencies, like municipal authorities, can address some of the issues. Perhaps we do not compete the same way with each other, or we rethink our larger financial aid processes when it comes to merit. Whatever we do, we must, at least, give both the public and government leaders some deeper sense that we are eager and willing to change who we are and what we do in order to educate the public, efficiently and effectively.

Most importantly, we need to organize our efforts and find deep partnerships with stakeholders and to craft a very different relationship with the public. The most salient feature of public higher education in the public’s mind is Division I college football, followed by college basketball. Public higher education excels on the gridiron, not in the legislative halls – and Cam Newton will not help to make an argument to increase government support for public higher education.

David Potash

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