Douglas Greenberg on the Crisis in Public Higher Education

Douglas Greenberg is the Executive Dean of the School of Arts & Sciences at Rutgers University.  He has kindly allowed me to post the talk he gave two weeks ago to a small conference on the future of the public university.  I thought it was the best presentation of  the day, and that’s saying a lot because Craig Calhoun and Christopher Newfield were the competition.

Thanks to Doug.  Read it and weep.  Or celebrate the miracle that is higher education in this country.


There is something dramatic underway in public higher education, and we all know it. The core change can be described quantitatively as the cut in state subsidies that is rife all over the country.  The New York Times said this week that 41 states have cut state higher education in the last three years. Florida just announced cuts amounting to $250 million to its public colleges and universities, in addition to cuts since 2008 that total a 24% decline. The University of South Florida is facing a 58% cut in its state subsidy.

It is a mistake, however, to consider cuts without also considering their relationship to tuition because it is in the nexus of state subsidy and tuition that the real issues can be found.


What are the problems that data like these imply?

o Inability to plan…if I cannot predict my income (either tuition or state subsidy), how can I make a reasonable calculation about how to manage my expenses properly and support the vision of the faculty and the education of the students.
o The subsidy functions exactly like an endowment but less reliably…look again here at endowment slides.
o In addition, if we compare the publics to the privates over the same period, we discover that the privates were increasing tuition almost as fast as the publics and increasing their endowments more rapidly. Endowments were skyrocketing and tuition at privates went up 181% in the same period. Never mind what that money buys or bought, think about what that means for the comparative ability to plan for publics and privates.

Now let’s turn to the role of endowments and tuition increases in the private universities v. public universities:
The privates in the last two decades have had new and growing income from both sources for new programs (even including drops after the recession in 2008): new buildings, new faculty, decent wages for staff, better support for faculty research and curricular innovation, more effective retention strategies for students and faculty, higher faculty
salaries, luxurious dormitories, dining halls, and recreational facilities and so on.
The publics, in contrast, have needed to expend a larger and larger percentage of a shrinking subsidy on student aid in order to compensate for tuition increases that are up about 240%. To justify their existence, however, the publics still need to meet the public mission of providing access and education to a public that is paying a smaller percentage of the costs every year.
The result in many publics has been decaying physical plants, over-reliance on adjuncts, a distortion in fundraising that puts student aid above all other needs, financial squeezes of existing programs, a perceptible decrease in dollars to support academic innovation, slow or no salary increases faculty and staff, failure to invest in libraries, infrastructure, faculty retention or anything at all at the same rate as the privates. This has been exacerbated by declining support of all kinds: we have not had a higher education bond issue in NJ since 1988 so we cannot build new facilities or maintain old ones.

Some publics like Michigan and Virginia anticipated all of this (Michigan story, Duderstadt, state support, state location, state harassment, Shapiro, fundraising, income programs, out of state students). Everyone is headed this way now. But places like Michigan and Virginia – and some others – are quasi-public, quite different in character than others.
In fact, the real problem for publics is not budget cuts; it is the tuition increases that the budget cuts necessitate , which dramatically affect the affordability of institutions whose hallmark used to be precisely affordability for those who could not pay private tuitions.
The budget cuts also have another effect on tuition; they drive us in the direction of recruiting more out of state students, mostly white and middle class, who will pay a premium for a quality education. At Michigan, the percentage of out of state students is now almost 50%. This also drives an emphasis on out of state students, who pay more and tend to be white and middle class.
In New Jersey, we get hit in both directions: our state subsidy is cut, but we can’t control the tuition rate increase either. That is also regulated by the state, and we are always struggling to provide adequate aid for our students. For a long time, in fact, we had to return to the state the difference between out of state and in state tuition for every out of state student we admitted.
That is some of the bad news about public higher education. But the news Rutgers and at many other genuine public universities is not all bad. Things are not so bad yet that we cannot compete for the best faculty and even still steal a few from the privates on occasion. And that is because we have a secret weapon: our incredible students who still demographically replicate the public that we believe we should serve.
o More than half identify as non-white
o 80% on financial aid
o 1/3 first in their family to go to college
o 20% from families that make less than 30k a year
o 60% speak a language other than English at home
o Highest percentage of Pell grants of any public university in US
o AND in our honors program next year the average SAT score will be about 2200

Moreover, choose any economic category you wish and you will find that retention and graduation rates are about the same as in the school of Arts and Sciences more generally. We sometimes worry that we don’t have the dollars to do all that would like, but many schools wealthier than we are cannot come close to having a student body with our combination of academic achievement and diversity of every imaginable kind, which is at the center of what it means for us to be truly public institution. So whether there’s a crisis or not, we think we are still doing our real job, which involves not just public support but public accountability and responsibility.

I want to take a deep breath here, pause, and go back see how we might situate these developments in the history of higher education. American higher education, especially the public sector, boomed after World War II. New public institutions were founded everywhere and those that already existed got bigger. The most obvious explanation for this growth was post-war prosperity and the baby boom, but the Cold War was also an essential component of public higher education between 1945 and about 1970. The Cold War drove American competiveness across the disciplines, but especially in the sciences, while sheer demographic realities drove physicalgrowth. The explosive rise of federal research dollars, mainly to support scientific research arose from competition with the Soviet Union and fueled not only the growth of science faculties and the emergence of “big science”; it also reoriented the mission of many institutions, public and private in the direction of research. The term “research university”, private or public did not exist before the war. It is both a linguistic and institutional artifact of the fifties and sixties.
Holding aside the perceived need for more research in order to keep up with the Russians (the Chinese were only more numerous in those days), the presence of these dollars changed the university in myriad ways. Apart from initiating a disjunction between many senior faculty members and the education of undergraduates, the infusion of federal money altered the structure of the institutions themselves. One retired Ivy League president told me the story of doing the university budget in the late 50’s. With a fiscal year beginning in October, he would go off for the Labor Day weekend with the university treasurer, and they would craft the entire university budget by hand with an adding machine over cigars and beers on Saturday and Sunday afternoon – and still have time to join in the university picnic on Monday.
Without indulging a romantic nostalgia for a university system that was class-based, sexist, racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic, among many other ugly traits, we can still recognize the significance of this anecdote: no research university, perhaps no liberal arts college, could now responsibly manage its affairs in this fashion. The need to manage vast amounts of federal and privately donated money, to spend it responsibly, to use it strategically, and support a faculty whose endeavors legitimately require ever more support has reoriented the management of the entire enterprise and made it a business – a non-profit business to be sure, but still a business with vendors, customers, and competitors galore. Higher education is a commercial marketplace, whether we want it to be or not. This trend, which began in the fifties, has accelerated, virtually without pause, for fifty years. It is now shifting into overdrive.
But the expansion was not smooth and it did not affect all institutions in the same way. Consider the differential influences of the higher education marketplace on public and private higher education, influences that caused the rise of the one and the expansion of the other and are now causing the publics to decline altogether. Responding to the demographic explosion, public higher education grew exponentially after World War II in two ways: those that already existed got bigger and many new public institutions were founded. The private universities grew as well, but their numbers did not increase the way the publics did. By the 1970s, the major public research universities were being heavily subsidized by their states in the range of 60-80 percent of operating expenses. These state subsidies kept tuition relatively low and afforded access to higher education that no private institution had either the will or the resources to provide (and it was more a matter of will than resources); and it is essential to note that these state subsidies were, after all, actually subsidizing the students, not the institutions. The purpose of them was to ensure social and economic mobility to people who were largely and quite intentionally excluded from private higher education. This is the real key to understanding state subsidies for public higher education. When the subsidies decline, tuition goes up and students suffer; the rest of us – faculty members, staff, and especially administrators are just punctuation marks in what we hope is the poetry of their education.
The social and economic consequences of the growth of the public university were transformational, and they touched every state and its people. The great University of California grew not only in its Berkeley home, but throughout the state, as did the California State University System, and the community college system grew apace. The result was genuinely a system of public higher education and while no other state did quite what California did, almost all regarded public investment in public higher education as a public good of unquestioned value.
This was the natural and inevitable result of the belief, initiated in the Roosevelt administration and profoundly extended in the decades until 1980, that government (state and federal) could be an engine of investment in the lives of the children of the people who paid the taxes. Public higher education was a public good, not only for students but for all of society which, it seemed obvious would benefit from the presence of a cadre of well-educated citizens. Call me a tax and spend liberal if you must, but this still looks to me like a pretty wonderful and deeply American idea, an articulation of the best ideals of the country.
In the last thirty years or so, however, while private universities built multi-billion dollar endowments and raised tuition to compete for the most productive research faculty and build the physical plant needed to compete for federal dollars, the publics have had a more fitful history. With some ebbs and flows, culminating in the consequences of the 2008-2009
recession, public subsidies for public higher education fell off a cliff. And I have already outlined some of the results.
With the exception of the dark days of McCarthyism, the universities defended academic values with some real effectiveness when there was plenty of money and plenty of students. Now there is plenty of neither (the number of 18 year olds is declining), and scarcity of dollars and students is breeding not only financial decline but the erosion of academic values.
The ratcheting up of these pressures – now endorsed by President Obama’s thoughtless proposal to cap tuitions — is slowly but ineluctably altering the publics even more dramatically than the privates. The “completion agenda” will drive our best students from impoverished backgrounds out of the universities altogether and the money-making enterprises of professionally oriented off-campus courses and degrees, online courses, income- producing degree programs, entirely new campuses aimed at only producing income, and the like all threaten to make arts and sciences colleges purely service units and appendages of the new university mission: better vocational training and professional recruitment. I am a dinosaur in this respect, I know, but I believe the ideal dispassionate scholarship and passionate education, which has been eroding steadily for a very long time, deserves at least a stab at a defense.
Recent changes in American higher education — and especially in the publics — differentially touch the liberal arts and sciences the disciplines that focus on fundamental knowledge. Private institutions, if they have the will, are much better positioned to defend the liberal arts because they can afford to, as long as they still have students.
If there is a crisis, therefore, it is not really a crisis in public higher education at all; at the microscopic level, it is a crisis in the arts and sciences in higher education generally (the liberal arts are threatened everywhere, they are just in more immediate danger in the publics). At the telescopic level, the problem is far more serious and more profound than merely the destruction of the liberal arts: it is a crisis of what as society we mean by the public good or if we even still believe that there is such a thing.
We once believed that public higher education was a public good that benefitted not only the students but the public itself. We seem now to believe that higher education is a purely private good. If you can pay the tuition, in other words, you get an education. If you cannot, you do not. Public higher education is being rapidly privatized, but very few of the publics can compete with the wealthy privates with large endowments or even with the tuition-driven privates. In my view, however, the important point is that they should not compete in this arena. Their historic mission and social value came from public funding, public access, public focus, public responsibility and responsiveness, and low tuition. Abandon those virtues and a hundred vices will follow.
But wait: there’s more: Another consequence of the post-war focus on research competitiveness has been a shortage of people to do all the teaching our research universities require. While we often speak of the “job shortage” or the “job crisis” as though there were an insufficient number of jobs for new Ph.D.’s, we are concealing important structural features of higher education when we do so. If universities were able or willing to pay the tenure-track salaries, there would be plenty of jobs for new Ph.Ds. – or at least they would be competing with one another on their merits instead trying to find jobs that do not exist. The predominance of the research mission and the lure of paying underemployed Ph.Ds. less money for more work has progressively reduced teaching loads for tenure-track faculty, without increasing their number—and I say this as one who has been more a part of the problem than part of the solution.
Much of the instruction in our universities is done not by those brilliant and privileged souls defending tenure and the production and dissemination of new knowledge, but by men and women, who are cheaper to pay as part-time labor than as regular full-time faculty members. This is a universal issue – in fact, the privates are especially guilty. Columbia, Harvard, and NYU all teach more than 60% of their courses with people who are not in the tenure stream. Other institutions vary in percentages, but the long-term trend is consistent and much more worrisome for the publics because their political position is so vulnerable to demagoguery on this issue.
The rise of contingent faculty tracks the decline in state subsidies to public institutions tracks the rise in the number of contingent faculty very closely. During the same period that public subsidies have been declining (about the last 30 years), the employment, nationally, of contingent faculty went from 22% of all teaching faculty in 1970 to 44.5% in 2001 to 65% of all appointments today and 75% of all new appointments. At some universities, 80% of all undergraduate courses are taught by contingent faculty. I am told that at more than half the AAUs the percentage is above 50%.
his phenomenon is likely to be exacerbated by the decline in public subsidies to public institutions and then to be turned in upon itself when the politicians notice that tuition payers are spending more money on the research mission than on the educational mission of the public universities. We are utterly unprepared for that eventuality; we must defend the value of basic research, but the people who will come after us in the media will pay our arguments no heed except through caricature and anti-intellectual abuse.
This is also means that tenure now protects a smaller (and declining) percentage of those who teach in American research universities. The original idea behind tenure was that almost everyone would have a shot at getting tenure. Now not even a simple majority of those who teach will ever even be candidates for tenure, no less actually get it. We are rapidly reaching the point, in other words, where all research universities will have two faculties: one that does high level “world class” research and some teaching (mainly of grad students) and is handsomely rewarded for the tasks and another faculty that does most of the teaching, has no time for research, and is paid a pittance. Perhaps that is the way it must be. I am truly not certain, but I am certain that it leaves all universities, and especially public universities, in an economically fragile and politically vulnerable state.

So: is there a crisis in public higher education? You’re damn right there is, but I am sorry to say that despite all that I have said, I have not yet touched upon the single most profound characteristic of the crisis and the one that is most difficult to describe and to solve. It’s the crisis of leadership. Where are the presidents of the major private universities in New Jersey and California and Massachusetts and Pennsylvania when the public universities are pilloried by governors and legislatures? Why shouldn’t they see that the plight of public higher education is a plight that touches the entire enterprise and something about which their sometimes powerful voices should be heard? After all, they and their institutions are citizens of the states in which they live, their employees pay taxes in those states; they are part of a larger system of scholarship and education that extends beyond the boundaries of their hotels and restaurants and spas. Sorry: I meant to say their dormitories and dining halls and gyms. We don’t expect them to send us checks, but a little cheerleading for the home team, some collegial moral support, and some plain old concerned citizenship would be nice.

They have nothing to lose, by the way. President Obama intends to regulate their tuition too!
My dear old friend who was able to do a university budget over a weekend probably would not succeed in today’s environment: he was much too concerned with excellence in research and teaching, institutional integrity, and higher education writ large to survive the powerfully solipsistic pressures of a contemporary university presidency.
With rare exception, very few of the current crop of university presidents – public or private — has shown much genuine leadership on the big issues that matter in the long term – and I count some of them as friends and former colleagues. Consumed as they are with fundraising, lobbying, and intensely local concerns, driven as they are by the “business” of the
university, immersed as they are in the marketplace of higher education, it should surprise no one that they hardly ever have very much to say that someone else didn’t write for them and that they hardly ever issue a public utterance that contains a single idea that would disturb the status quo or cause anyone to think hard about the direction of higher education or the society it serves.

It may be a naïve hope to wonder if we might sometime hear some university president express a concern about student learning or a worry about the labor market for graduate students or engage a thoughtful discussion of how the changing sociology of knowledge may be transforming the work of the faculty or propose an analysis of the long run effect of federal dollars on the institutional mission rather than the institutional budget or even, heaven forbid, worry aloud about the future of the public research university. Name a big subject that matters to the entire enterprise and you can probably be certain the president of your local university either isn’t thinking deeply about it or won’t say anything about it publicly. And, perhaps it does not need saying that we certainly should not expect jeremiads from most university leaders on the need to defend the liberal arts and sciences as the foundational academic core of all higher education.
I close with this discussion of leadership both because the crisis is very real and because, I regret to say, it seems so intractable. It is trite to say that great leadership arises in moments of great crisis. I believe that we are at such a moment in the history of American higher education, and I can only hope that we will find the leadership we need to meet the challenges we face. We will surely disagree, in this room and beyond, about particular solutions to particular problems. But we need passionate, eloquent, and principled leadership if we have any chance at all to transform this crisis into an opportunity. At the moment, we need that even more than we need money.



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