Funeral for higher ed

Yesterday, the students at CU Boulder held a mock funeral as if all of higher ed is dying. They constructed a coffin and many protest signs with ingenious commentary like "higher ed is too young to die". They will take their demonstration to the state legislature in Denver later this week in hopes of turning the tide against the students who are drowning in soaring cost increases.

Over the past week, I've been reading the best book ever by a college President: Saving Alma Mater: a rescue plan for America’s Public Universities by James C. Garland. I gained a lot of new insights into the reasons that legislative funding is declining, costs are soaring and innovations are getting shot down. Garland agrees with my own writing about the business model in higher ed being broken. Yet he understands why it cannot be fixed better than I have. In the book he proposes the elimination of state subsidies, the distribution of state funding as scholarships to students and the introduction of competitive pressures into the decisions of public colleges.

I especially enjoyed Garland's understanding of faculty committee incompetence, inevitable conflicts with administrations and the impossibility of any college President fulfilling all of the position's responsibilities. He opened my eyes to the huge cost and predictable avoidance of tough decisions that are endemic to participatory decision making. All these details speak to problems with academic bureaucracies, administrative hierarchies and subsidized enterprises.

James Garland is optimistic that a change to a competitive business model could revise decision making, priorities and spending within a public university. He sees private universities as far better managed and worth emulating. He anticipates the end of state subsidies will force the faculty to agree to cutting weak departments, degree programs and faculty members. He hopes the empowerment of students to "vote with their wallets" will improve the quality of teaching, relevance of course requirements and utility of capital expenditures.

I am more convinced, however, by his thorough explanations for the declines in the present situation. It seems more likely that stagnation, stubbornness and self pity will predominate the varied reactions among faculty and administration as they face their deteriorating situations. See students marching with a coffin on their shoulders on the local TV new last night seemed like a perfect picture of the prognosis for higher ed in the coming decade.


  1. I'm afraid I can't agree with you here (what a surprise!). I didn't read the book, but I did a little research on Garland and read one of his oped pieces for the New York Times.

    In New York State, our university system was systematically dismantled and put back together for the good of big business. Read into Garland and you see that this is the model he is supporting.

    However, there are enough of the reminants (and memory from a generation that benefited from public education) of the original system where I teach that I see a new model if people don't buy into the model Garland is purporting.

    1) The differencial between administion salary and instructors salaries have be growing over the last 10 years...CEO salaries with presidents making half a million dollars a year. Sorry, there is no job that requires that much pay in the Public Sector. Government has always been for the good of the people and to push goals and objectives that will benefit us as a people, not individuals.

    2) Less and less tenue track positions are opening. I do feel that this system needs to be modified, but not thrown out. In private corporations, we allow those who have a profit motive to cut the older larger salaried workers because their skills are "outdated" supposedly. However, the fact is that they just want to cut their overhead. What is wrong with a tenure system in which status is reviewed every ten years, but there are golden parachuts like administrators have if you loose tenure? All of a sudden, it doesn't look so good, does it?

    3) Education and students have to be put back into the center of the formula, not money and the industrial heavy hitters who just want trained drones for their companies.

    4) The "accountability" movement which Garland supports just creates more demand for administrators, gives cheap research to businesses (don't get me wrong, I believe in Business-University cooperation...but not when the business then gets to own the patent, make money off of university research, without having to pay a dime--instead getting paid to make money off of the research through tax incentives, grants, etc...).

    5) Public higher ed has become a money maker for states as they raid the universities for bankable research, transfer social service responsiblity to the universities, and in the case of New York state, take 80% of the tuition for non-instructional/non-school related expenses. I think any "company" working with a 80% overhead that is then given back to the "shareholders" would be suspect. Why are some people profiting from the business of "public higher ed."

    While I agree that there are many things we can do to make higher ed more affordable, I don't think the business model will work, nor do I think Garland's model will work. Let's look to the Scandinavian model which seems to put the Public before individual interests.

  2. Thanks for this impassioned exposé, Virginia! I agree with your mission for higher ed in your #3. I have begun to dismantle Garland's solution in my follow up post today. I'm hyper-vigilant about "foxes in the hen house" and those "privatizing interests destroying public good". In his book, Garland did not come across as the monster you've found him to be in your research. His accountability argument plays a small role in his overall solution. Within the covers of his book., he certainly did not advocate those horrific exploitations of good will, trust, commitment and professionalism you describe.

    Removed from the higher ed context, you're also describing the partisan gridlock in Congress. The privatizing interests seem to think that no good can come from providing and supporting public good. We've seen an erosion of social safety nets, rights of citizens and the infrastructure to support a "Main Street economy" throughout the country. I was unaware of how SUNY has been violated so severely, but it fits the larger pattern all too well.

    When accountability is lacking, it usually backfires to "turn up the heat". Those who appear to need of higher standards are "in no shape to shape up". They are entangled in a system of abuse which maintains them as second class citizens, targets for exploitation and powerless voices in the dialogue to resolve issues. The solution requires dismantling the system of abuse, not further exploitations by those in power over the powerless. I completely agree with your argument that "this has to stop" but see the solution at a level above the political struggles between legislatures, corporations and institutions.

  3. It is interesting that for 2 years we did not have a president, yet we were able to continue on. In a way, it made our campus stronger as we were able to have greater input into the problems we were having. Suddenly, we were asked for our opinions. Interestingly enough, the focus has gone back on the undergrads. We would like to see the infrastructure improved, but there has been a renewal in teaching. Research brings in money that will allow departments to teach. I feel the quality of students have also improved over the last two years as students can't afford the ivy leagues and private schools, so they turn to the public universities.

  4. Fascinating!! Your experience brings back to mind a principle of governance I had forgotten: No leader can deliver authentic democratic processes like a group that is leaderless where authentic democracy emerges. The emergence of emphasis on quality undergrads and teaching suggests to me that the destiny or underlying design of higher ed is good for students and those that serve them effectively. The drama that disguises that "core technology" amidst all those noisy leaders, legislators and commercial interests can lose its footing because it's actually unfounded, merely propped up on the illusion of substantial value. Great news! Thanks!