Saturday, January 28, 2012

The President at College

No, we are not at present discussing the fact that President Obama, who promised unparalleled transparency, has not released his college transcripts. Why he has not, no one can be quite sure: perhaps his transcripts would run counter to the myth of Obama's native brilliance, a myth, it's worth pointing out, that involves far more than the current President himself, since every Republican Presidential nominee in our memory has always been portrayed as a dunce (sometimes amiable, sometimes not) and every Democratic nominee as an intellectual giant. It is an article of faith in the mainstream media, so much so that one can hardly blame John Kerry for famously lamenting on election day 2004 in regard to George W. Bush, "I can't believe I'm losing to this idiot." The reflexively contradictory nature of the statement itself might have been a clue that something is inherently wrong with the myth; for those innocent of elementary logic, the historical fact might have been instructive, since the putative Republican dunces more often than not defeat the Democratic geniuses. In an enterprise of such complexity--rhetorical, historical, sociological, statistical, economic, and so on--as a national election, the intellectual David really should not be able to slay the mental Goliath with such predictable regularity.

But let all that pass: it is with President Obama's comments yesterday at the University of Michigan that we have to do. In decrying the rapid rise of college tuition, the President put public universities on notice that if they do not find a way to curb cost, he will find ways to withhold Federal money from their budgets. As usual (and as more usual in an election year), some Republicans reacted negatively to this proposal, arguing that the President is again interfering with Freedom of Enterprise by telling colleges how they should charge tuition. Now we have no doubt that the President, also well aware that this is an election year, is saying what he is saying for the worst possible reasons, but it does give one pause that in the matter of college tuition, the President at the very least has a genuine issue on which to give a speech. For the past fifty years, the best path to a comfortably affluent life led through a college education to a profession that allowed one the potential for growth as the economy continued its predictable expansion. Now, however, college, and with it the reasonable certainty of a good life is being pushed beyond the reach of the middle class. In the case of TMH, college some thirty or so years ago cost (without room and board) about $1000 per year, and the last two years were easily paid for by unsought scholarships that came as the reward of the merest modicum of effort. This was of course at a public university, but certainly not a third-rate one: the fact was that a solid education in the Honors College of a major public university could be had in those days for so modest a cost. In such a case, paying for tuition and books was well within the reach of most middle-class parents, even if it meant some sacrifice. One of the major reasons for these low costs is that the universities in those days were modest affairs that functioned by providing the basic elements of a university education: students, faculty, facilities (including dormitories and a library or two), and the minimal administration necessary to keep faculty and students together.

Now, however, things are different. College costs vastly more--so much more that providing children to college now requires on the order of $15,000-$20,000 a year, even at very small regional public universities. To be sure, some of the increase is due to the cost of better facilities, such as dorms that look like reports, with suites for sleeping, basement wellness center for exercise of the body, and lounges and computer labs putatively for improvement of the mind. Still, such costs are relatively fixed in the sense that the residence resort gets built only once and probably does not cost vastly more to maintain than does the old concrete dorm built a quarter-century ago in the brutalist style apparently so essential to the aesthetic experience of a higher education across the land. A much larger potential expense is new employees at the universities. First, such employees, whoever they be, are not a one-time expense like the new building: they require an annual salary, which may be frequently increased over the course of their twenty-five or thirty years of employment, and they require the medical plans that come with these salaries. Second, colleges over the past quarter century have tended to hire not so much new faculty members but administrators. Colleges do so for the simple reason that colleges--at least public colleges--are, like virtually all other governmental or quasi-governmental organizations, bureaucracies, and the main principle about bureaucracies, first and last, is that they exist primarily for the benefit of those they employ. In the case of public colleges, they have since the 1980s almost without exception evolved into institutions which exist primarily to provide (relatively well-paid) employment for those working there. And so, like all bureaucracies, they must perpetuate themselves, primarily by continuing to hire more administrators to oversee the paradoxically growing number of administrators. Spatula has pointed out that as a national average colleges now employ more administrators than faculty members, a baroque condition entirely unnecessary if universities existed to educate students.

TMH has only a sentimental opposition to bureaucracy: in the cold light of logical analysis, we have no firm opposition to any private corporation that wishes for its own ends to hire as many administrators as there are offices in its buildings, computers to monitor, or keyboards at which to type. But public institutions, which are funded to a large degree by taxpayer money--that is to say by the salaries of average men and women working in order to provide better lives for their families--have a responsibility to treat their budgets and their missions with the greatest respect. Those administrators who are paid by public money have an obligation to use those funds precisely to educate students. When faced with a choice, they should always decide to hire the extra faculty member, who may very well be essential and thus by educating his students make a very real contribution to the public good, rather then the third assistant vice president for intramural affairs. The unfortunate matter of fact is that over time college administrations have grown more autocratic and have taken on more and more power to make the essential decisions, while faculty lose ever more voice in collegiate governance; it is no surprise that in the end the administrators in charge of slicing the pie slice it so that they receive ever larger portions. As an actual fact, then, public universities have to a large degree become marked by a soft and genteel corruption, in which administrators partly direct funds meant for education to increasing their own salaries and hiring lieutenants onto whose shoulders they shift more of the actual workload required to run the institutions they control. This has long been the state of public education from kindergarten through high school; it should be no surprise that the contagion has now spread to public universities.

I suspect that in the case of President Obama's proposal, the devil may be in the details, as it has been in so many of his policies (such as the Affordable Halth Care Act); but in its general outline, we agree with his central idea. If public universities continue unthinkingly to increase the size, wealth, and power of administrations, then they should do so without public money. For the simple matter is that these institutions could never survive if they genuinely had to compete in the educational marketplace. If they had to do so, then they would have to focus upon education and put most of their money to that task: university administrations are free not to do so precisely because they are sheltered from the rough weather of competition by the steady supply of government money. Take that away, and administrators, faced with the choice of extinction or education will either retire or turn their attention to educating students, which will result in leaner administrations and a redressing of the current imbalance of power in favor of faculties. It may be heresy to some whose knees jerk in too reactionary a fashion that President Obama is on the right side of an increasingly important issue, but so he seems to be. We hope that it accrues to our favor to point out that saying so at least causes us considerable pain.

1 comment:

  1. Administrators, unlike faculty, answer to nobody. If we need a new faculty member, we have to beg the administration for years (in the case of my department, over 20 years and still counting). If the administration decides they need a new member, they just hire a new member. The typical voter only sees the front end of the university -- the faculty. Thus, when tuition goes, up, it must be the fault of the faculty. The faculty where I teach haven't had a pay raise in five years. Yet, we've added new administrators and leading members of the administration (like the provost) have had at least one, if not more, raises during the same time period. For the typical voter, higher costs are obviously the fault of the teachers. Tuition exceeds inflation, but faculty salaries don't.