Commentary

Bernie Sanders's Charming, Perfectly Awful Plan to Save Higher Education

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

July 06, 2015

Bernie Sanders, the self-described socialist senator, Internet hero, and apparent front-runner in the race for second place in the 2016 Democratic presidential campaign, has ideas about higher-education reform. Like the man himself, they are bold, charmingly utopian, kind of weird, and most important for how they might eventually move the boundaries of mainstream political culture.

Sanders wants every student in America to be able to attend a public college or university without paying tuition. Legislation he proposed to that effect a few weeks ago includes a reasonably plausible mechanism of multibillion-dollar federal subsidies and new regulation of state spending. The current Congress, it is safe to say, will not soon be passing such a bill.

But in trying to define a new fiscal federalism for American higher education, Sanders has sparked a conversation that is likely to expand. Without something like the Sanders plan, the disgraceful dismantling of public higher education, underway in many states, will certainly continue.

The no-tuition part of the Sanders plan attracted a great deal of attention, aided by canny headline writers who understand that "Bernie Sanders" is catnip for social media. Less discussed was the corollary part of the plan: In exchange for billions of new taxpayer dollars, the federal government would enforce a specific vision of what a high-quality college education means.

States would have to promise that, within five years, "not less than 75 percent of instruction at public institutions of higher education in the State is provided by tenured or tenure-track faculty." In addition, any funds left over after eliminating tuition could be used only for purposes such as "expanding academic course offerings to students," "increasing the number and percentage of full-time instructional faculty," providing faculty members with "supports" such as "professional development opportunities, office space, and shared governance in the institution." States would be prohibited from using the money for merit-based financial aid, "nonacademic facilities, such as student centers or stadiums," or "the salaries or benefits of school administrators."

In other words, states would be required to embrace and the federal government would be obligated to enforce a professor-centered vision of how to operate a university: tenure for everyone, nice offices all around, and the administrators and coaches can go pound sand. It’s as if Bernie Sanders looked in the mirror, regarded his rumpled, redistributionist self, and said, "What legislation would most please the people who look and think the most like me?"

This is understandable — and a terrible idea.

Tenure is the Israeli/Palestinian dispute of higher-education policy: As soon as you utter a word on the subject, you are immediately assigned to one of two warring camps and subjected to lengthy ritual denunciations by the other. So, for the record, I don’t believe that tenure is responsible for most or even many of the ills besetting higher education.

Tenure is not the main reason college keeps getting more expensive, which should be obvious given that tenure has been declining in lock step with rising tuition over the past 30 years. Tenure is an important part of vital academic freedom that has been under fresh assault in Wisconsin, Kansas, and elsewhere.

Tenure is also a rigid and unwieldy way to organize a profession. Combined with the overproduction of Ph.D.s, it can be a vehicle for heartless labor exploitation within the academic guild. When tenure-protected academic freedom shields classroom teaching from oversight and accountability, it prevents colleges from having any kind of collegewide educational standards or practices, or from experimenting and innovating in any systematic way.

Deciding who should and should not be a member of the tenured faculty goes to the heart of scholarly identity and self-determination. This is the very last thing a college should want subject to federal regulation. A U.S. Department of Education charged with putting the Sanders plan into effect would start drafting regulations defining the exact meaning of "tenure" and how to define the numerator and denominator of the 75-percent equation.

Does a cubicle count as "office space"? What about a shared desk? What percentage of a building’s total usable square footage has to be devoted to student-oriented activities in order to classify it as a verboten "student center"? (Which leads to another question: What activities are and are not "student-oriented?") Is governance officially shared if faculty members are cc’ed on all the memos? Is a department chair who also teaches a couple of classes too tainted by administration to receive federal funds?

Expect lengthy regulatory guidance explaining all of this and much more three to five years after Sanders takes office. Expect lawsuits based on your noncompliance within three to five minutes.

It is unwise to anchor a college-affordability law to a single, undeniably expensive organizational model. It is almost certainly possible to design an organization that provides a high-quality college education at a reasonable price using a mix of labor, capital, and technology that is different from that of the traditional university.

Instead of "expanding course offerings," such organizations might specialize in fewer. Instead of tenure, classically defined, they might protect academic freedom in a different way. The Sanders plan would harden a system that is already not nearly flexible enough.

This is important not because the Bernie Sanders’s plan will become law, but because some other plan might. Middle-class anxiety over rising tuition and growing debt has become a potent force in American politics. Candidates are responding with an array of proposals for free college, debt-free college, or some combination of the two. None of those will provide states or colleges with blank checks. They will come with serious conditions based on some vision of what constitutes a high-quality college education.

Rather than define the means of education — more tenure and offices, fewer stadiums and lazy rivers — these plans should define the ends, requiring each state to meet them in a way that fits its own blend of politics, population, and types of institutions. Bernie Sanders is right to call for new federal support for affordable higher education. But there are many ways to reach that goal, some based on a kind of organization that doesn’t even exist yet.

Kevin Carey directs the education policy program at New America.