LAYING DOWN HIS MARKER. The editorial writers at The Northern Star are unimpressed with President John Peters's State of the University address. The kids have a point, or several: "During his speech, Peters barely mentioned, and failed to give solutions to, several problems the university is facing.
"In the wake of one of the most serious budget crises in university history, as we often are reminded, Peters failed to mention the current state of the university.
"Doesn’t he realize that faculty in some departments are unable to give handouts because they are trying to save money by not using paper?
"How about other professors who are only able to use their phones in emergencies or when students call?
"Peters also didn’t talk about faculty layoffs, which has been mentioned as a way to combat the budget problems. Job security is one of the main concerns faculty have, and many of them could have been looking to the president’s speech for answers.
"The opening of the Convocation Center and Barsema Hall were two major highlights for the university last year, but failed to get a mention this year. Does the university think their first year was successful? Did they make money or improve education like they expected?"
Spot on. Perhaps President Peters is laying down a marker for a future run at a flagship state university or research university presidency. The speech addresses the scope and nature of the comprehensive university, and what better time to make it than during a time when the football program is generating some buzz, the region remains vibrant and sufficiently leavened by red-state virtues to not emulate the coastal circus, and the faculty's efforts to suck it up and keep going have borne some fruits? Why not take advantage of the correlation of forces to make a statement that establishes you as a forward-thinkiing leader within the conclave of university presidents?
Alas, the speech fails to convince in a number of ways. Consider first President Peters's characterization of the changing social contract.
"What I see, and what I want to talk with you about today, is a fundamental change in the social contract that created and continues to shape public universities. This fundamental change goes far beyond our current state-funding crisis, though clearly they are related."
His speech focuses on the changing nature and perceived value of a university education, a point to which I intend to return. But first, don't we have to look at whether or not the universities are themselves in breach of the social contract. Long ago, I wrote an op-ed article for a now-cancelled Faculty Bulletin that began with the sentence, "Universities are failing at their mission." It did not make me terribly popular around campus at the time I wrote it. However, developments in the past dozen years or so have not led me to rethink, let alone recant, a word of what I wrote. And, as I mentioned Sunday, with a Monday second section, the use of funds from any source to provide water parks and other creature comforts is unlikely to impress many people. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (disclosure: the Superintendent belongs) pulls no punches: "Many colleges and universities no longer provide every student with a strong education. Indiana University English professor Murray Sperber has written that many universities today keep their undergraduates content with a “beer and circus” atmosphere to cover for the fact that they are not receiving much of an education. Huge lecture sections in some courses and a plethora of academically dubious offerings as electives have turned what was once the nourishing, home-cooked meal of a college education into a cafeteria of snacks and desserts." The consequences: "America's colleges and universities educate almost two-thirds of our citizens, including all of our school teachers, lawyers, doctors, journalists, and public leaders. They set the admissions and curricular requirements that signal to students, teachers, parents, and the public what every educated citizen in a democracy must know. If colleges and universities no longer require comprehensive curriculums that introduce students to the major areas of study, we are all in danger of losing a common frame of reference that has sustained our free society for generations.
"Students who have reached the end of their college years without knowing basic landmarks of history and culture are unlikely to have reflected or to be able to reflect on their meaning. They are less likely to be prepared than they should be to make the complex choices that today's life demands. They fail to recognize the unique nature of our society, and the importance of preserving it."
No mention of that breach in the speech. By the way, the students are right to ask questions about the arena, er, convocation center. Their student fees provide the revenue for the bonds that financed it. No state deficit financing, my eye. But it is not to that dimension of public finance that I wish to speak. Rather, back to President Peters:
"Historically, public higher education has been thought of as a “public good.” It was an institution whose purpose was largely unassailable, and its support by the broader society underscored that belief."
Bad economics. A public good has two properties, nonexclusive use and nonrivalrous consumption. President Peters's own arguments will contradict both of those properties. A more accurate argument might be that there are unpriced spillover benefits, or non-pecuniary externalities, to a university degree. That's for another day: are the marginal social benefits of a state-aided university worth the costs, or has Robert Fulghum (details or compare prices) correctly identified the sole source of a positive benefit-cost ratio?
President Peters again: "Our current environment makes it difficult to imagine a public leap of faith like the Morrill Act of 1862, which created the great land-grant universities, 'in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes.' Contrast that vote of confidence with the current debate in Congress, where renewal of our most basic charter, the federal Higher Education Act, is surrounded by criticism and threats of conditional funding!"
We find ourselves in a different kind of a civil war, where the siting of a Pacific Railroad or the creation of engineering colleges is not required to keep the Plains States in the Union. We find ourselves in a situation where universities are failing at their mission, and the People's representatives are questioning our efforts. It would take real courage for a university president to admit that the People's representatives have a point. Instead,
"Recent shifts in public policy seem to hint at a changing view: Instead of a 'public good,' some leaders seem to think a college education is a private benefit that should be paid for by the user. We see this most clearly in the reductions in student financial aid, and the increasing debt burden on students who finance their education through loans."
Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it. From earlier in the speech, "Generally speaking, Americans today take a much more utilitarian view of higher education, and that is clearly reflected in public policy.
"In many respects, we’re a victim of our own success: We’ve done such a good job of educating the citizenry and emphasizing the financial value attached to a college education that it has become, in some respects, a commodity. No longer the sole province of the privileged, a college degree is now considered the standard – the base on which one begins to build a successful life and career."
Anybody remember the Advertising Council's public service adverts: to get a good job, get a good education. How well has that worked? The University of Michigan's James Duderstat notes, "The pay gap between high school and college graduates continues to widen, doubling from a 50% premium in 1980 to 111% today." Looks like a lot of private benefits and pecuniary externalities in there. President Peters offered an ad-lib not in the released text about the difficulty he has speaking with those parents and students who do reach him to complain about the burdens of tuition. Tuition is a bargain, given the private return on a degree. Why not invoke the Benefit Principle and harvest some of those private gains for the provision of the services?
Here's President Peters preferences: "In the past, higher education’s response to major societal concerns has been met with an outpouring of public funds to support those efforts. Think of the G.I. Bill, the space race, or the establishment of Pell Grants. Each evolutionary wave in public higher education has been aimed at educating a broader segment of society -- the establishment of the land-grants, the normal schools, community colleges, and even today’s online universities."
Several responses come to mind. First, is another subsidy to the middle class efficient, or fair? Second, what have the normal schools been doing? The SCSU Scholars have been all over recent education-policy course proposals and The Blob's reaction to some serious content standards (just go to both of the cites linked supra and keep scrolling.) More evidence that Charlie Sykes (details or compare prices) had a point when he alleged that the university was the home office of educational decline in the common schools. Third, the space race well might have set space exploration back, by crowding out work other than on the moon shots, an impractical space shuttle, and a space station whose purpose was to keep the shuttle flying. Fourth, the expansion of financial aid simply provided liquidity for stereo systems and spring break trips. So what expansion of public support is President Peters seeking?
"Another area in which NIU leadership has not only emerged but blossomed is the very compelling need for greater coordination between all levels of the public education system. At NIU, we call it the “preschool through graduate school,” or “P-20” initiative.
"Led by five of our deans, NIU’s P-20 effort is bringing together education leaders throughout the state in an effort to create a seamless web of services for learners of all ages."
And what, is the purpose of P-20? (This is the University language, not quoting President Peters.) "An integrated educational continuum ensures strength at all levels: universal access to quality pre-schools, mastery of reading skills by third grade and algebra by eighth, assurance that all educators are competent and current in their fields."
Forgive me the impertinence, but apart from the pre-school component, the effectiveness of which is not yet settled, isn't this what the common schools used to do? And wouldn't that involve a sea change in the coreless curriculum of the universities, and an end to the remedial and therapeutic regime that consumes mass quantities of university resources. Go here and here and here and here and here and here to get a sense of how many resources could be released for college-level instruction; go here for a dissenting view on the consequences, here for a defense of offering such courses in college, here for the opportunity costs, and here for a position paper by and for university administrators.
I suspect our legislative paymasters will be unlikely to come up with additional resources in the absence of evidence that the third graders (why not second graders?) are reading well, and the eighth graders are doing algebra well, and that the universities are using mathematics PhDs to teach more calculus and less middle-school algebra, and returning administrators to courses in the disciplines where they earned Ph.D.s. Perhaps such a stiffening of standards in the common schools will reduce the propensity of employers to expect a university degree of an entry-level file clerk, and equip the youngsters who have a vocation for the crafts and the trades to be able to master the tools and the tricks of the trade. (The Superintendent reminds all readers that there are plenty of good colleagues at Northern Illinois University that he wouldn't trust near his power tools. Trade school ought not to be viewed as a non-academic track.)
The coming crunch also presents an opportunity to provide some small nonpecuniary externalities that President Peters notes: "I have come to understand, over the course of my three years here, that Northern Illinois University is deeply committed to providing opportunity for all students, from all backgrounds, who want to learn. That belief is woven into the fabric of the institution. As a result, we have programs and practices in place to support students from all educational backgrounds." President Peters goes on to mention the opportunities to serve various ethnic, emigrant, and first-generation populations that the neighborhood presents the university. If anything, the heterogeneous neighborhood we serve presents an opportunity to play it straight: rigorous standards from first grade onward, and rigorous courses at university.
"Because when it comes right down to it, NIU is today what all universities must strive to become: a center of opportunity, founded on and driven by a very public purpose.
"Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for making it so."
Thank you. Consider whether doing some things differently might not enhance those opportunities, foster those public purposes, and capture some of the private benefits created at the same time.