Few would disagree that the root of innovation in America is education. Few would disagree that the root of social progress is education. Few would disagree that the root of democracy and the liberty and freedom that derive from it is education. Few would disagree that the root of the American dream is education, the dream that produces the wherewithal financially, intellectually, and emotionally to self actualize. Few would disagree that America’s state universities are central to all of these—innovation, social progress, democracy, and achieving the American dream.
Yet, for the last 25 years, state support for state universities on a per student basis has been declining. And, over these same years, we have been engaged in a classic blame game conversation on why this is so and on whose fault it is. What is going on and is there a way out?
The Blame Game
Both the administrators of state universities and the faculty generally place blame for the decline in resources with their state legislatures, indicating that the elected state legislators are uninformed about the value and importance of their state universities. The faculty also blames the administrators of the universities, indicating that it is the administrators’ job to convince the state legislature and philanthropic sector of their importance and to show how under-funded their institution is.
State legislators, reflecting the view of the taxpayers who elect them, generally blame the universities for their lack of accountability and productivity and for not controlling costs. They suggest that money will not be forthcoming until the universities first reduce duplication, streamline operations, focus more on teaching the state’s students, improve graduation rates, improve the skills and knowledge of their graduates, and show them that the faculty is fully productive. In response, university administrators compile reams of data to show the contribution of the institution to the economy of the state, to prove they are accountable and to show how under-funded they are. They further suggest that they can fix whatever problems do exist if the legislature will just give them more money.
The business sector, in turn, says: if you want money from us, you have to do your job better. You have to produce graduates in the fields in which we need them and educate them such that they can think critically, analyze data and information, and communicate well in writing and verbally. Business complains they must educate many of the college graduates they hire themselves.
The students say faculty does not care about teaching, that they have little access to the faculty or to career advising. The faculty suggests the students don’t come to see them when they do set office hours, that they don’t study, and that they are embedded in a party culture. The faculty further indicates that they have to pass the students because the administration puts pressure on them to increase retention rates.
As in any blame game, everyone is right. In this particular game, these same parties, in the same conversations in which the blame occurs, repeat the oft used statement: “regardless of all of these problems, American higher education is still the envy of the world”. Indeed, Secretary Spellings of the US Department of Education repeated this statement as she launched her Commission on the Future of Higher Education in October, 2005. The recommendations of this Commission, due in the summer of 2006, will also bring the federal government into the blame game. Indeed it shares some of the blame as it has withdrawn federal support for students to attend college.
In any blame game, nothing happens unless one of the parties takes the first step, in fact takes dramatic first steps. Universities must take those steps; they must lead. It will be very difficult but these steps are in their own self interest. I believe they are the avenue to prosperity. Universities must point the finger at themselves, acknowledging that perhaps they have met the enemy and she is us. It is a fact that duplication, accountability and productivity problems do exist inside universities, that teaching undergraduates is sometimes undervalued by the university culture, that graduates too often do not meet the standards that employers expect, and that state universities too frequently do consider state issues and priorities outside their concerns and purview. It is also true that duplication, accountability, and productivity problems are probably no worse than those in the private sector. But these efficiency issues are red herrings; they are irrelevant and intended to divert attention from the real issue. Red herrings are always present in a blame game. What is not a red herring and is the real issue is the disconnect between state universities and the priorities of their state. The dramatic steps—the leadership steps—are those that would reconnect the university to the state’s issues. Such a reconnection will bring prosperity to the university and innovation and social progress to the country.