Last week, lawmakers in Texas were embroiled over a series of reforms ““ boldly named the “Seven Breakthrough Solutions” ““ proposed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry. The governor’s wildly optimistic proposals seek to implement a business-like model for the Texas state university system to optimize efficiency by measuring student satisfaction, while pinning the blame squarely on professors.
The proposals sound great, until you realize the “Seven Breakthrough Solutions” are hardly breakthroughs and barely solutions. In light of rapidly dissipating state support for public higher education in our own state, Gov. Perry’s proposals do challenge a bigger question: is the business model really the best way to ensure the sustainability of public higher education?
I don’t think so. Conflating the business model with the education model is more than just misleading. It’s potentially dangerous. Under the “Seven Breakthrough Solutions,” the state treats the university like a business. It would quantify professor performances through student evaluations, and reward large budgets to departments that conduct lucrative research sponsored by external grants. The idea is to minimize what is perceived as an abundance of useless and esoteric research and focus on what could be used to directly benefit the public.
To be sure, Gov. Perry makes many points which are valid and true. Burgeoning administration costs are a sign of inefficiency within any organization. But in the end, no version of the “Seven Breakthrough Solutions” can come close to encapsulating the whole issue. Examining the vastness of the debate over the future public higher education produces all the feelings of disorientation when looking through a kaleidoscope.
A university should not follow along the prime imperative for all businesses: to turn a profit, or, even to sustain itself. It’s wrong to operate a university under the business model because it begins with the wrong premise, and therefore asks all the wrong questions.
The public certainly views the university as a business. A recent poll showed that 60 percent of respondents believed “Colleges today are like most businesses and care mainly about the bottom line.”
Unlike a business, the aims of a university are much more wide and complex. The aims of a university are both to educate and to innovate, where all kinds of ideas can be explored.
The business rhetoric bemoaning the enormous monetary cost of public higher education highlights an uncomfortable, but very real, contradiction in the public mentality. In words, it is a truth universally acknowledged that having an elite public higher education system is in some sense “good” for society. In action, though, we are reluctant to fund it with our hard-earned tax dollars unless it produces tangible goods.
State support for public education has been dwindling for decades, increasingly expecting the university to run like a business. In 1990, California paid for 78 percent of the total education cost per student. Currently it pays for around 48 percent.
But a university is not a business. Treating the university as such blatantly ignores its unique rich history and tradition. Even under constraints of a tight budget, California legislators need to recognize that properly funding the university is not the same as subsidizing a failing business.
It means protecting one of our strongest civic institutions. And anything less would be to undermine it.
Embroiled in our own budget crisis, it’s best to not forget our purpose here as a university.
Do you think UCLA should be treated as a business?