Friday, August 31, 2012

The College Cost Debate: Stuck in a Rut

The cost of higher education in America has become a national issue - not on par with the debate over jobs or health care, but far more visible than at any time in the past few decades. When there's more discussion about higher education than national defense, you know you've made it to the A list of national policy issues.

Unfortunately, the debate has gotten mired in bifurcated, partisan politics. I'm not referring here to the divide between Democrats and Republicans - neither party has said much that's either coherent or detailed about higher education. The closest that debate has come to coherence was President Obama's sweeping (but largely detail-free) call for broader access to higher education, followed by a Republican charge that he was being "elitist". Don't expect real leadership from either party on this issue.

No, the battle over college costs is being waged inside higher education, between its two most powerful tribes: faculty and administrators. At a time when union representation is fading in industry, both sides seem determined to reinvent campuses along the lines of the battles between the UAW and the Big 3 - Labor and Management, forever at odds, always battling. We're turning back the clock to the 1970s.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the debate over the cost of college, in which each side blames the other. Recently, a commentary article in the Chronicle suggested that part of the problem with college costs was faculty profligacy, which needs to be curtailed. On the other side is this piece blaming administration for the whole mess. It is no surprise that the former article was written by an administrator, the latter by a faculty member.

I wrote on the former piece a few posts ago, suggesting that the administrative position was a little rosy about what faculty politics and faculty governance is likely to accomplish (or not). Today I want to take on the faculty perspective - particularly this nugget from the good professor's commentary:
Reason and data alike suggest that the largest part of the problem is that it is administrators and members of governing boards who have too much influence over how resources are used.
He goes on to argue that, although the "pursuit of self-interest by both faculty and administrators is at work here", "tenure-track faculty members' influence on campus priorities has declined steadily, while the number of nonacademic professional staff has proliferated." He cites statistics about the growth of administrative positions, implying (without evidence) that this growth is entirely a function of the "self-interest" of greedy or self-aggrandizing administrators. He concludes with this: "shared governance is the only natural constraint on the pursuit of self-interest."

The fact that administrative positions have expanded is unarguable. But as I've pointed out before (here,here, and here), there are a multitude of reasons for this expansion, some of which are outside the control of anybody at the university. So the simple "expansion is evidence of greed" model just doesn't hold water - this is a complex system, and attempts to treat it as a white hats/black hats story is both silly and counterproductive.

Then there is the assumption in the good professor's conclusion - that the solution lies in giving power back to the faculty. But faculty, too, have their own self-interests. I've been in that position, and I know well what faculty value - smaller classes, more opportunities to teach new things, more colleagues to broaden both one's own horizons and the opportunities of our students. There's nothing inherently wrong with these things - they are all good for students, which is frequently the justification used. They also tend to reduce the workload of the faculty, which is very much in their self-interest. And - a key point - they add to the cost of the institution.

Turn the budget over entirely to faculty, therefore, and I've no doubt that the number of administrative positions would go down. But if the number of faculty goes up and class size goes down, will this drive down costs? Probably not.

We've reached the point where the "point the finger at the other guy" nature of the debate is effectively blocking out real conversation on the issue. Many faculty do not trust administrators (sometimes with good reason), and many administrators don't value faculty input. In that environment - just as in the American auto industry in the 1970s - it's almost impossible to have a real conversation about how to boost quality and productivity and keep costs in check. That's a complex conversation that needs to be conducted by grown-ups, not tribalists with axes to grind. I hope we can get to that point, before we too start needing government bailouts.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Universities Acting Like BAD Businesses - Again

One of the recurrent themes here has been the intersection between universities and business. While many faculty friends of mine over the years have claimed that universities are not businesses, I beg to differ. Universities are businesses, they are just rather odd ones.

Acknowledging that universities are indeed businesses doesn't excuse them from behaving badly. In writing on the UVa flap over the firing and subsequent re-hiring of Teresa Sullivan, I argued that the lesson wasn't that universities shouldn't act like businesses - it's that they shouldn't act like bad or stupid ones.

Today we are treated to a new story, published in the Chronicle, about yet another university going off the rails when it comes to business practices. This one involves the University of Alabama, which reported threatened legal action against a small-town bakery for making cookies and cakes featuring the university's "Crimson Tide" elephant and other Alabama-themed icons.

The threatening letter in question actually came from the Collegiate Licensing Company, a corporation hired by UA and some 200 other colleges and universities to represent the university on trademark issues and manage its licensing deals. The letter was a standard "cease-and-desist" type: stop making the cookies, or pay the university the mandated licensing fee.

The baker, Mary Cesar of Mary's Cakes and Pastries in Northport, Ala., has become an instant hometown hero. Hers being a small business, she doesn't have the money for the licensing fees, and lots of people have flocked to her defense. In the current economy, the "big, bad corporation vs. the small main-street business" narrative is easy to construct. After coming under a hail of PR gunfire for a few days, the university instructed its reps to back off.

Those paying close attention will note that this isn't the first flap the Crimson Tide has gotten itself into over trademarks. Earlier this summer, a federal appeals court ruled in favor of an artist who had been painting scenes of Alabama football. The university tried to argue that the uniforms and logos in the paintings were protected trademarks, for which they deserved royalties. The court agreed with the artist that the works were protected by the First Amendment as artistic expression. No word yet as to whether cookies count as art (how good are they?), but the university lost $2 million fighting that earlier case - not a sound business decision.

The problem here is not that the university, in the cookie case, is technically wrong - this is the kind of legal action that corporations take all the time to protect their trademarks, and it's entirely possible that if this case were to go to court, the university would win. The problem isn't even that it makes the university look politically tone-deaf, although it does. The administration can't hide behind having hired an outside company - those are your reps, you hired them, you have to keep them on an appropriately-lengthed leash. The political damage in this case is probably containable, and won't last forever. But it was stupid and entirely avoidable, and makes them look (for a little while) like fools.

The real problem is that the university has misunderstood the nature of the trademarks it "owns". The fact that the "Crimson Tide" elephant, colors, UA logos and the rest are popular is the direct result of having been given both subsidies and (far more importantly) the imprimatur of the state. UA is the "flagship" state school, bearing the state's name. The university didn't create that, it was handed to them - by the state government, on behalf of the people of Alabama - on a silver platter.

So for UA (or its hired guns) to go out and claim that these are somehow "their" trademarks is absurd. Their popularity, as well as their very existence, comes directly as a gift from the people of Alabama. Big private corporations like Apple and Disney did create their own trademarks, and the value underlying them. UA did not, and therein lies the difference. One would imagine that sooner or later, the leaders of Alabama's flagship public institution will figure that out.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Solving the Wrong Problem

There's a recurring joke in Scott Adams' "Dilbert" comic strips. It's the one where the pointy-haired manager thinks that every problem can be solved by reorganizing the boxes on the org chart.

Today comes a story from the University of Scranton that smells disturbingly similar:
U. of Scranton Faculty Fights Effort to Yank Department Chairs From Its Ranks
Let's take the administration at face value here. The stated goal is to "improve the academic quality" of the institution. The president proposes to solve this problem by "prevent[ing] them from feeling torn between loyalty to the administration and loyalty to their union".

As psychologists and social scientists of all stripes know, everybody has multiple loyalties. The only time these are problematic is if the groups to which we have loyalty are in conflict. What the president is, in effect, saying here is that the faculty union stands in conflict to the goal of improving academic quality.

If that is really true - if the union at Scranton opposes the goal of academic quality - then this president is up a creek. Without the faculty's cooperation, no administration can hope to achieve any significant goal. There are just too many ways for a faculty to veto, resist, or drag its heels.

On the other hand, if the faculty (including the union) and the administration agree together that improving quality is important, and can sit down and mutually negotiate a series of measures to achieve that goal, there's no more "dual loyalty" problem. It wouldn't matter where the lines on the org chart go, because the loyalties would be mutually reinforcing with respect to the goal of increasing the academic quality of the institution.

Reorganization is the lazy management approach, fueled by the illusion that greater central control on the org chart will translate into greater control over outcomes. In universities, this is a dangerous illusion. It generates lots of fights, and lots of sound and fury signifying nothing. In the end, the administration's most powerful tool - perhaps the only one that really works - is persuasion. If you can't persuade the faculty to go in the direction you'd like them to, trying to force them with sticks probably isn't going to work well. It appears that Scranton is going to find this out the hard way.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Thoughts on Peace

The only peace we have comes from within ourselves. We each choose, each moment, whether to have peace or not.

The choice is a hard one, because many things around us are not peaceful, are distracting, are agonizing, are worrying. The world around us, much of the time, is not a peaceful place. And many of the people around us are not peaceful people.

We make the choice harder for ourselves when we expect the world to deliver peace to us. If only ... a person would change, my bank account would change, my circumstances would change, the world would change ... then, we think, peace will come.

But peace is already here. The world will change - it changes all the time - just not in the way we expect, or demand, or want. Making our peace dependent on what the world around us does is abdicating, surrendering ourselves to a million forces indifferent to ourselves. We will never have peace if we expect it to be delivered to us.

There is nothing new in this, of course. That's one of the secrets of the world - that there really aren't any deep secrets. The most important things are already with us. The wisdom of peace has been around for centuries, and is all around us - in the Prayer of St. Francis, in the Serenity Prayer, in a thousand other places we've seen or heard of or read somewhere.

So why don't we seek peace where we already are? Because we're distracted by other things. Because some part of us believes the lies of the world when it says If Only ... if we just wait for this or that, things will be better then. Because we want other things more than we want peace - we want fame, or money, or excitement, or experiences, or love, or things, or just Our Way. We want to impose our Will upon the world. We want to Be Right.

I can only speak for myself, but the older I get the more I find that peace is what I seek. This means, of course, not just for myself but for those around me, those I love and care for. But how can I give them any peace if I don't have any to give? So pursuing peace is not a selfish goal, but an act of love.

There's no conclusion here, no pithy observation at the end. It is the same truth that we've always had, just rehashed and recycled. But maybe that's the thing about truth - that the important thing is not to discover but to rediscover, to renew, to recirculate. Because we already have peace within us. We just need to be reminded to look for it.

Faculty Governance is Hard!

The question of rising costs in higher education is a perennial one. It's certainly interesting at the broadest level - how many other industries can raise their prices 5%-7% per year for decades and claim "rising costs" as the reason? There are lots of arguments about where those costs come from, some of which I've written about before.

So I read with interest this article in the Chronicle listing suggestions for how to bring those costs under control. Much of the discussion is well-reasoned, and there are a lot of good ideas in it. I want to comment on only one of the author's suggestions - because I think he's missing an important variable.

In his list of suggestions for reining in costs and controlling unchecked expansion, the author includes this:

Share curricular governance. Professors own the curricula and administrators share governance. That's how it is supposed to work. Too often, professors share the curricula—rubber-stamping new courses and degrees—and administrators overlook the governance.
Chairs of curriculum committees should publicize agendas and minutes so that all are aware of proposals and can contest duplicative courses. Better still, faculty senates can use technology so that everyone can view where a proposal stands (as well as arguments for and against it). This is a system that mirrors that of academic journals, informing authors online where an article stands in the review-and-publication process.
We know how to do this, folks.

As a committed democrat (small d) who believes in participation, I like his idea about making agendas, minutes, and curricular proposals public so as to get the broadest possible participation. However, there are a couple of reasons that doing so won't have the cost-saving and expansion-checking effect the author wants:

1) In circumstances of mutual accountability, it's very easy for a "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" culture to develop. In an environment in which expansion and empire-building is in the individual's interest (from the faculty member who wants a new course in the field he really likes to the chair who wants to grow her resource base), everybody will at some time or another want approval for their new thing. That makes faculty reluctant to veto others' expansion plans, knowing that others may do the same to them tomorrow. I've seen this at all levels, from faculty committees to statewide governing boards between universities. It is a powerful dynamic, not to be ignored.

2) Using technology to get proposals out there assumes that faculty a) care and b) know enough about the broader curriculum and mission to be able to say something sensible. The latter is, as the author points out in other parts of the article, largely not true - faculty often don't understand the curriculum beyond their own small corner of it. Fixing that problem would require a massive public education campaign at any college or university. The author's blithe assertion that "we know how to do this, folks" isn't true for large swaths of faculty.

Even if the faculty can be brought up to speed, getting them to care enough to go read and comment on proposals is likely a Sisyphean task. In my experience, faculty governance tends to end up in the hands of a few faculty in large part because most faculty really aren't interested and can't bring themselves to pay attention to the minutiae necessary. If I say "they don't care", I'll get berated by faculty who insist, "of course we care!" But that "caring" doesn't translate into time or effort - other things (research, teaching, other forms of professional service) tend to take precedence. As the old saying goes, don't pay attention to what people say - look to what they do. Most faculty (beyond governance geeks like me) just don't want to get involved in this stuff.

I think the author's logic is sound - getting faculty on board the project of checking expansion and reigning in what a former provost of mine called "course inflation" is key. I'm just not that optimistic about the success of such an effort, and anybody who tries should at least know what the obstacles are.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Dangerous Relationship Between Sports & Universities: Another Case

I've written before about the relationship between sports and higher education. In my previous blog post on the subject, I suggested that while sports have a number of excellent qualities, they tend to breed a tribalist loyalty that causes people to do bad things in the name of upholding the identity of the tribe. The Penn State debacle was Exhibit A in that problem.

Now comes another case, this one at the University of North Carolina's flagship campus at Chapel Hill. In this case, there is evidence that athletes were given all sorts of breaks to maintain their academic eligibility, including the creation of "no-show" courses and administrative grade changes. That this sort of behavior violates the most basic tenets of education is obvious. This is clearly a major problem (and NOT just a PR problem) for UNC, and I hope they can get it cleaned up (hope - not expect).

What dismays me about this is not just that this happened - I find that I can't bring myself to be surprised, we sort of all expected that this kind of thing was going on. What is dismaying is how little coverage it seems to be getting. Sporting News is doing a great job, if you read it. But neither CNN nor Reuters - two mainstream news sources that claim to cover everything - have even a whisper of the scandal, which broke over a week ago. The NYT has a discussion - on a sports blog, and in a sports-section piece about how the team is trying to move beyond the scandal and "put it behind them". Basically, if you don't read sports news, you have probably not caught this story.

A part of this may be because most people just aren't that surprised - this really isn't news. Jerry Sandusky was (hopefully) an aberration - but fudging grades for athletes? That's not news, it's background noise.

For those that want to argue that there needs to be a fundamental rethink between sports and higher education, however, there's plenty of fodder here. Does anybody want to bet that UNC is the only school in the nation to do this? How many NCAA Div I schools are engaging in this kind of cheating right now, today? We have no way of knowing, of course, in part because sports departments will do their best to keep it quiet and in part because digging too deep into a sports program's shadows makes you a lot of enemies - as many people discovered in trying to investigate Penn State for years before the Sandusky scandal finally broke.

UNC's football program, I'm sure, wants to simply say "Hey, we've stopped, let's let the kids play football." Even assuming they have stopped - what's to keep them from starting again, in two years when no one is looking, if there's no consequence for getting caught this time? How many incredibly egregious violations can these programs get away with before somebody - a college president, a state governor, somebody with some leadership - says, enough is enough? It appears, from this latest case, that we haven't yet found the bottom of that barrel.

More on the Privatization of "Public" Universities

For those interested in the future of public higher education - which, judging by the hit count on my previous blog post, could be a lot of you - here's a new wrinkle from today's Chronicle:
Colorado's Public Colleges Brace for Loss of State Support
There are a number of notable points here:

1) People in Colorado are apparently thinking seriously about what would happen if the state simply stopped subsidizing "public" universities. What would they look like? How would they behave? How long would they retain their "serve Colorado first" missions, or their current tuition cost structures? It's almost impossible to predict the outcomes here, although I'll venture out a little onto one limb: if this actually happens, and if the state's universities continue to function reasonably well, expect other states to look seriously at doing the same thing. If the sky doesn't fall, other legislators will discover a great new way to pretend to solve their budget problems.

2) Colorado is already most of the way there already. If you read through the article, you'll find that the state support payment to the flagship University of Colorado is 4.5% (!!) of that institution's budget. That's effectively a private institution by almost any measure; I think the horse-racing industry in Indiana is more heavily subsidized than that. So we're not talking about a massive practical shift, but a symbolic one - although it's a really important symbolic step.

3) The irony here is that the threat to what's left of public higher education spending in Colorado comes because of a lawsuit about inadequate state support for K-12 education. That lawsuit - similar to several others filed around the country, with varying results - turns on a basic promise in the state's constitution to provide a "thorough and uniform" education to all students. It's a promise that, according to at least one state judge, hasn't been met. It's not hard to imagine making that argument, with plenty of evidence to back it up.

4) The really big underlying point: what got us into this mess is the penchant in our politics for allowing politicians to spout promises with their mouths that we lack either the means or the will (mostly the will) to pay for. Nearly every state in the union has a clause in its constitution on education similar to Colorado's; for the most part, these clauses are warm, fuzzy works of fiction. Like the No Child Left Behind Act, we can't bring ourselves to admit that there's a disparity between our rhetorical value on education and our willingness to actually prioritize it over other things in making budgets. As a country, we're like the dad who talks about how important it is for his kids to get a good education, but spends all of his money on cases of beer and cigarettes, leaving a pittance for books.

The problem is clearly bigger than education - primary, higher, or otherwise - but it's most obvious in the fields of education and health care. These are two things that, if you ask people how important they are to their lives and the life of the country, rank consistently at the top.

Yet we have constructed, and continue to maintain, a political system that by its budgetary choices clearly thinks other things are more important. And for the last 30 years, rather than having a grown-up conversation about what we are and aren't willing to afford ("can't" afford is a cop-out; the US economy produces enough surplus wealth to afford all sorts of things, depending on what our priorities are) we have politicians who make grandiose promises about increasing government services and simultaneously cutting taxes.

We get single-issue talking heads who convince us that cutting taxes, or bringing down the deficit, or this or that health care solution, is the only thing we should think about - ignoring the existence of trade-offs. Every dollar spent on one thing is a dollar that can't be spent on something else. But where among our public "leaders" is there someone willing to admit this, and deal with it directly? Better to pander to everyone, I suppose - you're more electable that way.

And we have quietly created a new "third rail" in US politics - the defense budget - which nobody wants to talk about, even though the US leads the rest of the world combined in military expenditures, and nobody can define how much security is "enough". Nary a word has been said on the presidential campaign trail about a budget category that, by itself, is 20-25% of the Federal budget - but already, defense contractors are lining up on Capitol Hill to try to block the "automatic" cuts built into last year's last-minute "budget deal".

What does defense spending have to do with state spending on universities? That's the point - they're all connected. Our penchant for breaking these issues out into separate boxes, and treating each one as if it were isolated and by itself, has led us to a point where our mouths and our wallets no longer align. We talk about how important education is, but we don't fund it. We talk about tax breaks without talking about what we would not be able to fund if we cut taxes. And so the privatization of "public" universities continues.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Thoughts on Rep. Akin's "Foot in Mouth Disease" Problem

I'm usually smart enough to stay away from really nasty political issues. I guess today isn't one of my smarter days.

Actually, in thinking about Rep. Akin and the flap-du-jour stemming from his comments on abortion, I'm not really interested in the debate about abortion policy. Akin and his supporters may want to eliminate access to abortion in cases of rape, but they are in the minority in this country and will always continue to be. That's not a fight they're ever going to win. Beyond that, I'll let others carry on the fight.

What I found most disturbing (this will really label me as a pointy-headed intellectual) is not the policy debate, but the epistemology underlying what he said. For those who have been hiding in a cave, here's the core of his remarks that have drawn the most fire:
"It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that's really rare,” Akin said, referring to conception following a rape. "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down." (from the LA Times)
Efforts to identify the "doctors" Akin refers to have apparently come to naught. Yesterday another news outlet ran a piece on the history of this line - that there's some kind of biological defense that keeps rape victims from getting pregnant. This is a claim that's been made before, repeatedly - always (no coincidence here) by politicians with a particular stance on the abortion policy debate.

The epistemological problem, of course, is that this is crap. There's not a shred of evidence - not statistical, not biological, not medical, nothing - to support this contention. It is, quite simply, made up. It is sustained and passed from person to person within parts of the anti-abortion community via the mechanism of Wishful Thinking. It's a "fact" that certain people want to believe, and so they believe it, completely sans evidence.

As various folks, including Bernard Baruch and James Schlesinger, have pointed out - everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts. Richard Feynman famously noted after the Challenger disaster that "for a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled." It is reality, not the "spin" we put on it, that determines life and death.

People are welcome to make whatever moral arguments they like about abortion - which is a morally challenging arena, open to legitimate debate over hard issues. What nobody is allowed to do - at least, not in a society based on reason, discourse, and laws - is make up "facts" to try to bolster their moral position.

Anybody who does so is not merely guilty of being "wrong" on an issue. Akin, and those who have come before him, is either a charlatan (a fancy term for "liar") or a fool. He is either willing to invent things to suit his own purposes, or he is willing to believe things other people say without regard for whether they might be true or not. Either condition should exclude him from public office.

There are folks who will disagree, of course, and if he stays in the race some people in Missouri will vote for him. These are folks who think he's right on the moral issue, or on something else, and don't care about Akin's grasp of facts. And that is one of the real divides in American politics.

There are plenty of people in both political parties who think this way - who are so Tribal in their identities that (as Fritz Heider pointed out) they will bend reality around them to fit their feelings. There are also plenty of people in both parties who really do care about reality and facts, and who try hard to seek evidence, think rationally, and change their minds when the facts demand it.

To my mind, that's a far more important distinction than party ID. Two people from opposite parties who agree on epistemology and process can come to agreement, or at least narrow the scope of disagreement, by pursuing the facts together. But two people who have completely different, unverifiable sets of facts will never agree on anything. They can live separately, or agree to an uneasy coexistence, or they can try to eliminate each other. But living in community together is probably not going to be possible.

I'll be interested to see whether Akin drops out or not - as of this writing, he has not. The battle among Republicans over his candidacy is, at least partly, over this very issue. It will be interesting to see who wins.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Speaking of "Public" Universities Acting Like Privates...

No sooner did I pen the last blog post than I see this in the Chronicle:

U. of Oregon Courts Hard-Hitting Tactics in Persuading Students to Raise Fees for a Renovation

This student union project, of course, isn't about keeping the lights on. It's possible (even likely) that the driving motive is some administrator's ambition - the same thing that gets cities to pay hundreds of millions on sports stadiums that enrich others (*cough*Indianapolis*cough*), without asking their voters if it's OK.

Regardless, here's an example of a university administration at a "public" university acting like a private business - in this case, a foolish one. Hiring PR firms for "spin" to manipulate customers and/or employees is nothing new in the private sector. I guess Oregon's caught on now.

How they're going to argue in the future that "the university is a free marketplace of ideas" is anybody's guess. Apparently, the administration has decided to follow the political system - if corporations (since Citizens United) can talk louder with money, why shouldn't universities use their money to talk louder than their own students? Wait ... where did that money come from again?

How "Public" Are Public Universities?

There's been an evolution happening in recent years in the nature of "public" universities. This evolution predates the current economic downturn, and like all evolutions it's hard to watch - sort of like trying to watch grass grow. You just wake up one morning and see that your lawn needs mowing.

In this case, California (always on the leading edge, even downwards!) provides an excellent glimpse into what's happening and where it's headed:
Anger on Campuses Greets Cal State’s Plan to Admit Only Out-of-Staters
The accusation here, in essence, is that the Cal State system is limiting the number of in-state students it will take but opening its doors to as many out-of-state students as will come. The administration has backed away from this claim, and in truth there probably isn't as much of this going on as people fear - at least, not right now.

But the underlying dynamic is laid bare here. After years of steadily declining state subsidies, followed by a few years of drastically reduced state dollars, "public" institutions face a choice: cut back on how much they do (meaning how much education they provide), or find ways of raising more revenue. Most can't raise tuition freely - states regulate tuition increases, especially on in-state students. And after decades of above-inflation increases, that's probably not feasible anyway.

Downsizing isn't really an option, either, because the demand for higher education - especially cheaper in-state public higher education - is rising. Students have been shifting from private to public universities for a few years, and are unlikely to reverse that trend in large numbers anytime soon. National leaders in both parties (with President Obama leading the charge) are calling for more students to get college degrees, not less. Of course, none of them says who's going to pay for it...

That some "public" universities should reach an obvious conclusion and start chasing out-of-state students, who pay more tuition, should come as a surprise to no one. This is simply a way of balancing the books, one that businesses engage in all the time - go after the customers willing to pay more for your product.

The argument for why this is bad rests on a premise now more apparent than real. At heart, people believe that state-subsidized public schools should serve their own state first in large part because state taxpayers pay their bills. But what happens when the taxpayers don't pay the bills anymore? Do the taxpayers still get to make the same claim on the university's resources and attention?

I'll use my own institution as an illustration. 20 or so years ago, state subsidy dollars outnumbered tuition dollars 2 to 1. There were few other relevant sources of revenue (not much in the way of research funding or alumni giving), so the state was essentially paying roughly 60 - 65% of the university's cost. At that rate, a reasonable claim can be made that the university should serve the home state's needs first.

Fast forward to today. Tuition has grown, but state subsidies have declined, such that now the ratio is reversed: for every dollar we get in tuition, we get maybe 50 cents from the state. Combine that with more robust fund-raising and grant-chasing activities, and the money we get from the state now accounts for about 20% of the university's total budget. At that rate, how much claim do the state's taxpayers have in our efforts? How "public" are we?

I am deeply sympathetic to the position my colleagues in California have been put in, because there the drop has been much steeper and much faster. But the underlying problem is the same. States no longer have the wherewithal to support genuinely "public" institutions of higher learning. The Federal government supplies support primarily on the demand side, through student aid, which by many accounts has simply allowed universities to raise their tuition to eat up the extra money. There is little stomach either in higher education or in DC for a "national higher education policy", much less for federalizing the existing system.

What all of this means is that leaders of "public" universities now look at their balance sheets and budgets, and realize that they are running mildly subsidized private institutions - that they are, in effect, on their own. No one expects public funding to increase anytime soon. And so public university presidents, in an effort to keep the doors open and the lights on, increasingly think and act in ways their private counterparts have done for years. This will undoubtedly anger some people. But until those people pressure their state legislators into restoring state funding to truly "public" levels, that anger isn't going anywhere - because anger doesn't pay salaries and utility bills.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Undermining the Political Conventional Wisdom

Although I find most political horse-race coverage boring and useless, this article caught my eye:
Obama's Lead Over Romney Grows Despite Voter Pessimism
A couple of quick thoughts about this piece:

• It's August. As the Bush campaign famously pointed out in 2004, nobody rolls out anything important in August, because nobody is paying attention. Poll numbers this far out are a particularly pointless exercise, except to provide "news" for media outlets to write about. I'm sure this is what the Romney campaign is busy telling themselves - and they're probably right.

• What's interesting here is a result apparently contrary to conventional wisdom. In 1992, Bill Clinton won the White House with a famous slogan: "It's the economy, stupid." Scads of political research (by real political scientists!) has shown a strong correlation between the success of incumbents and the health of the economy (Reagan, 1980; Reagan, 1984; Clinton, 1992 & 1996; etc.). If Obama manages to win in spite of people's perceptions of a bad economy that would be, well, counterintuitive. It would overturn one of the basic understandings we have about American politics. And that's always interesting.

Of course, this is one poll in August, and the proof will be in the pudding in November. But if we assume there's something real happening here, I wonder if one or more of the following might be true:

1) Romney hasn't convinced anybody that he's going to be any different. Usually, the non-incumbent has an edge because they present something genuinely different from the incumbent, and people figure that something different would be better if things are bad now. Perhaps among "independent voters" - those who don't have a tribal identity with one of the parties - Romney hasn't convinced anybody that he's likely to do anything that different from Obama.

2) The American people have figured out that a President's ability to "fix" the economy is nearly non-existent. If this is the case, then a campaign predicated on "I will fix the economy" isn't going to win, at least among those crucial independent voters - if they have come to this conclusion.

3) Americans are tired of both parties. There is some evidence of partisan identity declining among Americans. If that's the case, voters might decide that the incumbent is a better choice simply for stability.

4) Elements in Romney's campaign, or in the GOP in general, on which they are in the minority are hurting the campaign. This would include gay marriage (see the Chik-fil-A controversy, which garnered a lot of attention shortly before this poll), foreign policy (Romney's disastrous foreign trip, anyone? John Bolton and the neocons?), and various other social tolerance and policy issues. It could be that these other things are scaring independents away with more force than his "I'll fix the economy" argument can attract them.

The campaign will, as always, come down to how many of each side's partisans turn out and how the small band of independents falls out (do they vote, and if so for whom).

Finally, politics is always a Rorshach test - we tend to see what we either want or expect. This is never more true than in presidential election years, in which everything is interpreted through the lens of one's own preferences. Since I don't particularly like political parties, I'm fond of 2) and 3) above - we'll have to wait to find out whether they are actually true or not.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Thoughts on the Ongoing Chick-Fil-A Controversy

In the interest of full disclosure: I like Chick-Fil-A. I like their food, and I have fond memories of taking our kids there to play in their playspaces when they were younger. The place was generally cleaner and better-run than many fast-food restaurants. Anyone who's been in to one knows that they are clear about the "not open on Sundays" thing, but I have never otherwise felt evangelized or preached to for walking in the door and eating their food.

That having been said, I have felt for some time that the "controversy" surrounding Chick-Fil-A and the issue of gay marriage has been a bit overblown (hat tip to my wife, who arrived at this conclusion before I did). The CEO of the company, whose views were probably predictable ahead of time, gave an interview to a religious media outlet that shares those views. That he would say what he said is hardly surprising, given both the person and the context.

Some have called Mr. Cathy out for speaking on behalf of his company - which is true (grammatically speaking), and which the company at large has backed away from. There isn't any evidence that I've seen that Chick-Fil-A as an employer goes out of its way to discriminate against gays either as employees or as customers. Otherwise, as a company its opinion on gay marriage is largely irrelevant - sort of like asking Ford its opinion on dating rules for teenagers.

Others have argued that the point is more egregious because Cathy is using Chick-Fil-A money to sponsor political groups that are working against gay marriage. Since the company is private and family-owned, it's a little hard to tell what's his money and what is the company's - but without having examined the books I'll grant the point. What then? Companies whose executives have particular views routinely do this sort of thing.

The only argument I can see that this is wrong is that having that much money gives Mr. Cathy a much bigger megaphone. But that isn't particular to this issue or this company. Moreover, given the broader social trends the size of the megaphone probably doesn't matter. 40 years from now people will wonder what the fuss was all about - much as interracial marriage went from being outlawed to being "controversial" to being mainstream.

A given company taking a stand on an unrelated social issue doesn't convince anybody one way or another - it just drags the company into an existing fight. As such, it's bad business. It was pointed out recently that Coors' success in going national came about in part because the founding/owning family learned to separate their politics (which are quite conservative) from their company. If Chick-Fil-A wants to become a national chain, they will have to do the same. If they are content to remain largely regional, and to serve a largely conservative audience, they're welcome to do so.

What strikes me as really silly is the extent to which people have taken Mr. Cathy's few largely unremarkable comments and made eating at Chick-Fil-A into a political statement. Some people, strongly in favor of gay marriage, have called for a boycott, and there's no doubt that the chain has lost some customers - although given their geographical spread (mostly in the South), probably not a lot. Others have made it a point to patronize them - I saw a FB announcement for a "Buycott" that urged "all good Christians" to make a statement by going and eating there on a particular day. And Chick-Fil-A catering has apparently become the "in" thing for Tea Party candidates, at least in Texas.

This is the part of the story that strikes me as the most tragic. If you're in favor of gay marriage, you're going to win the fight eventually - that train is already moving, and although the counterforces are loud and shrill they are powerless to stop it. Attempting to punish a fast food chain over an unremarkable and entirely predictable comment just looks churlish.

If you're opposed to gay marriage on religious grounds (are there others?), obviously you're welcome to spend your money where you choose. But this too is childish. Every day we spend money with companies that do things, espouse things, or support things we don't agree with. If you're determined to align your spending with your theology, good luck with that. Is watching a Muppets movie now on the Vatican's list of venial sins? Should I confess that I ate at McDonalds instead of Chick-Fil-A? What car would Jesus drive?

Finally, the element in all of this that makes me most uneasy is the zealotry on both ends of the spectrum. We live in a free and pluralistic society in which we know there are plenty of people who disagree with us on any given issue. We don't (or shouldn't) take their disagreement as an existential or theological threat. To those Christians who are convinced that God is on Chick-Fil-A's side - remember that there are other, equally faithful Christians who see things differently. What happened to "judge not, lest ye be judged?" Are we so eager to pluck out the weeds that we forget the command to do otherwise?

So to all sides - eat where you want, say what you like, and think what you want to think. Understand that others can and will do and say differently. Understand also that your ability to change others' minds by eating a particular food, or shouting into a particular microphone, is limited. In the end, perhaps we just need to find more productive things to do.