Why Flagship Public Universities Should Stay Public

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

August 07, 2011

Two years ago, I traveled to the University of Wisconsin at Madison to give a lecture on the obligations of flagship universities. I had recently returned from a vacation in Turkey and was thinking of the library in Topkapi Palace, where the best and brightest Christian students from throughout the Ottoman Empire were brought to study in comfort and splendor behind high walls that overlooked the Sea of Marmara and Constantinople below. As one historian said, "Theirs was pride of the most splendid and forgivable sort; for they were fitted to rule."

Madison, I knew, had plenty of cause for pride, too. Walk the campus and you'll see everything a Midwestern flagship should have and be: crew teams slicing across Lake Mendota; the iconic, castellated Red Gym; a sign commemorating the invention of vitamin D milk. But the best public universities, I argued, had responsibilities beyond their high walls. Great societies could no longer educate only the chosen few. Flagships were blessed with the most of everything: money, talent, and acclaim. They needed to do more to help the regional public universities and community colleges that most students attend.

Somehow, my short talk delivered to perhaps 50 people did not fundamentally change the mind-set of Madison's administration. Earlier this year, as the nation watched tens of thousands of citizens rally to protest Gov. Scott Walker's assault on collective bargaining, another drama was playing out a few blocks from the Wisconsin Capitol. Biddy Martin, then chancellor, was trying to broker a deal with Walker to cut Madison loose from the University of Wisconsin system.

She wasn't alone. Across the country, flagship public universities are trying to disentangle themselves from their obligations to the states that created them. In New York, the research campuses want more flexibility to set (that is, raise) tuition. In Michigan, lawmakers have floated the idea of privatizing the Ann Arbor campus. University of California campuses, and particularly Berkeley, are enrolling more students from out of state. The University of Virginia went semiprivate years ago.

University leaders usually justify privatization on financial grounds. "We used to be state-supported; now we're just state-located," they quip. It's a good line. It's also not true. To be sure, some states have mismanaged their finances and hurt their public universities in the process. But according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers, inflation-adjusted state spending per college student declined by only $154 between 1985 and 2008, an average annual drop of less than one-tenth of 1 percent. And that was during a time when the number of full-time-equivalent students in college increased by more than four million.

Universities prefer a different calculation: state support as a percentage of their entire budget. That number has definitely dropped—but that's because university spending has grown so quickly. Taxpayers don't have a blanket obligation to support every new project, ambition, and edifice erected by universities engaged in positional competition with their status-seeking peers. And while state support has substantially declined since 2008, that's because there was a gigantic recession that caused pain throughout society, not just in academe.

Flagship universities, moreover, get a disproportionate share of public money. Looking only at instructional and student-related spending—not research—Madison spends twice as much per student as do branch campuses in the Wisconsin system.

Yet Biddy Martin, like her colleagues in other states, used the economic crisis as an opportunity to push Madison further down the road to privatization. Under her plan, tuition would have inevitably risen toward private-university rates, burdening families that struggle to pay for college. Freed from governance by the larger system, Madison would have had fewer obligations to accept transfers from branch campuses and community colleges, narrowing the road to opportunity for the less privileged. Privatization supporters responded by saying that they "remain committed" to affordability and cooperation. When university administrators assure you that they are "committed" to something without explaining how, their statement can be safely translated as "not committed in any way."

It was strange, indeed, to see Biddy Martin, a supporter of abortion rights and an author of academic books on sexuality and gender theory, make common cause with Governor Walker, an antilabor extremist and a member of the radical right. But ultimately both were working to preserve the interests of powerful, wealthy institutions and let the less fortunate fend for themselves. As full of left-leaning professors and students as flagship universities may be, they are essentially conservative organizations—old, established, protective of their authority, and sure that they deserve it. When public-university leaders look at their private counterparts, wealthy and unencumbered by meddlesome politicians and responsibilities to enroll a large, diverse student body, they often say to themselves, "That should be me."

Martin's plan ultimately failed to pass the fractious Wisconsin Legislature. Soon afterward, the chancellor announced that she was leaving Wisconsin to take the presidency of Amherst College. A few weeks earlier, The New York Times described the departing Amherst president's successful efforts to enroll more low-income students. Now the institution regarded as one of America's best liberal-arts colleges has traded a president who is best-known for bringing public values to a private college for a president best known for bringing private values to a public university.

Meanwhile, the fight over the essential character of public higher education in Wisconsin and elsewhere continues. Proponents of Martin's plan have vowed to continue trying to break up a system that, as one put it, "shackles" Madison to public institutions that receive less money and serve a more economically and academically diverse student body.

Those people and too many others have forgotten that flagship universities aren't owned by faculty, administrators, or alumni. They're owned by the generations of citizens who built the universities with their tax dollars and hard work, even though most of them had little hope of going there themselves. It was an act of generosity and faith in the future good will of their descendants. Betraying that trust would be an act of the least forgivable sort.

Kevin Carey is policy director of Education Sector, an independent think tank in Washington.