Academe, Claim Your Political Power

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

November 04, 2013

More than 40 years ago, Lewis B. Mayhew, of Stanford University, an early leader in higher-education research and criticism, took note of "romantic rhetoric and apocalyptical agonizing over the fragility of the university and its mortal danger." He suggested that the university is far from fragile, capable of standing up even to political threats. "That this does not happen frequently," he wrote, "is because of the unwillingness of those in the university to use its power rather than because it lacks it."

Mayhew's statement about power brings to mind the aphorism that in order for you to exercise power, both you and others must believe that you have it; lack of belief by either party taints its use. Unchallenged power is subject to corruption and abuse. Power is at its best when strong contestants are positioned to negotiate and compromise. Higher education tends to take a utopian "let us reason together" view of conflict, often refusing, or unable, to engage more-pragmatic power players.

Academe's unwillingness to use its power was on display during the recent government shutdown, a political event that had potentially enormous implications for the economic well-being of the nation and specifically for higher education because of its substantial dependence on government support.

The public reaction of the "Big Six" higher-education associations, coordinated by the American Council on Education, was startling. An officer of ACE said the associations did not want to take sides in the political debate and instead encouraged members to use the shutdown as a teachable moment by holding programs to enable students and citizens to understand government processes.

In fact, higher education, public and private, has itself taken on the elements of a government function, reliant upon national and state financing and increasingly subject to legislative and administrative regulations.

Still, many members of the academy behave as though politics and economics were or should be only remotely related to higher education's operations, and feel they are victims of politicians who are ignorant of the nature and needs of the academy. Thus the protest so often heard that education is apolitical and not a business—so give us money and leave us alone.

How does higher education play the game of politics—what political scientists call the competition over the allocation of values through money or favorable laws? More directly, "Who gets what, when, and how?"

In the struggle over governmental distribution and management of resources, is higher education an "interest group" similar to the economic and social groups competing to get their very substantial shares of the public purse and to forestall the impact of regulations flowing from legislation? Does the academy even have a program to promote its interests, or does it only react to perceived threats? Does the academy have any common goals other than pleading for money and for freedom from those who provide it? The academic world appears unable to grasp and wield its collective power, inherent in society's dependence on an educated citizenry.

Even curriculum and research can serve as sources of power. Mayhew refers to the rise of the great land-grant universities when their commitment to public service won support from state legislatures and relevant interest groups. Since then, many universities have eschewed such public service as too political, forfeiting a major source of power.

Similarly, the GI Bill refreshed public awareness of the significance of colleges and universities to the national well-being. Yet, in more recent years, the academy has shown resistance and even hostility to the military, which is among the major economic and social forces of our time. Many universities suspended ROTC programs to protest military actions; resistance to military policies on gay rights has been commonplace; and it is still the policy of some campus research institutes to reject military partnerships. A reversal in this attitude appears to be under way, as the academy seeks to profit from academic opportunities offered to military personnel.

Lurking over the reality of doing poorly in the game of political power is higher education's belief in its collective autonomy from "outside forces." Realistically, it is far from autonomous and rapidly losing ground to government regulation, business interests, and community pressure. And higher education takes one fatal step further down this road: Autonomy is claimed by each professional association and each college and university from one another, a classic case of "herding cats" for those trying to gather consensus for any academic or political issue. Theoretical collective autonomy, coupled with individual autonomy, is a poor combination to engage, much less achieve, political goals. Rather, it is a model of Benjamin Franklin's warning that if we don't hang together, we most assuredly will hang separately.

It is telling that academe has been unable to resist threats to its core values. The decline and potential fall of tenure, for example, highlight the low esteem in which the academic world is held by the larger society. Many concepts of academe, such as shared governance or institutional independence, have no significance to most people. One could surmise from the beating that higher education is suffering from state legislatures and many in Congress that the higher-education community has little if any influence.

Higher education cannot openly support or provide funds for candidates for office, but board members, alumni, and business leaders who profit from successful colleges can. Are such individuals or groups induced to promote educational goals? For-profit institutions lobby openly, like any other businesses, and major associations and many prominent universities have their own lobbyists in Washington, but little is known about their objectives or behavior. Considering that higher education is one of the most important and most costly enterprises affecting the entire country, it should be a lobbying force for its interests.

During the shutdown, Patricia A. McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, rightly objected to the higher-education associations' not-taking-sides posture when the damage to institutions, students, and families was manifest. She called on higher education to provide a "moral voice" in support of ending the crisis. Indeed, academe is obligated to call on government leaders to protect its appropriate interests.

That such confusion exists over the relationship between higher education and lobbying activities does not bode well for colleges, now under attack in many political circles. Any notion that education and politics do not or should not mix betrays ignorance of a simple reality of American life. It is beyond time for higher education to rid itself of any notion that its noble purposes speak for themselves.

Milton Greenberg is an emeritus professor of government and a former provost and interim president at American University.