In Defense of Public Higher Education

03/24/2014 03:46 pm ET | Updated May 24, 2014

In recent months waves of ignorant criticism have flooded the airwaves with a great deal of blather about the nature of higher education at public universities and colleges. Consider the case of Ohio State Representative Andrew Brenner (R) who recently suggested that public education is socialism. Other such critics have said that our colleges are much like indoctrination campus that steer our young people away from "family" values and "free market" ideology. Taking their cue from the more neoliberal wing of conservative thought, a growing group of state legislators have used the rationale of "living within our means" to cut funding for public universities and colleges. Feeling the squeeze, public universities and colleges have trimmed "unproductive" programs like philosophy, music and foreign languages, and have replaced expensive retiring professors with inexpensive temporary instructors. In some cases administrators have been compelled to retrench tenured faculty and eliminate academic departments. This sad litany of events has provoked much lamentation from a whole range of scholars including Noam Chomsky who believes that the privatization of our public universities will soon undermine the foundation of public education. During an August 2011 speech at the University of Toronto-Scarborough he stated:

In most states, tuition covers more than half of the college budget. It's also most of the public research universities. Pretty soon only the community colleges -- you know, the lowest level of the system -- will be state-financed in any serious sense. And even they're under attack. And analysts generally agree, I'm quoting, "The era of affordable four-year public universities heavily subsidized by the state may be over.

At my institution there is move to wean the university, which has been highly productive, from the state system of higher education, making it a state-related school. Although our university has been operating in the black, local administrators claim such a move would give them more fiscal autonomy to deal with projected future deficits. Such a move would go a long way toward the privatization of the university.

This politicized climate begs the question: what are the costs of privatization? Privatization would certainly promote more administrative flexibility -- for budgets, for programmatic planning and for expanded assessment of faculty performance and student learning outcomes. What the administrators fail to mention, however, is that privatization would also trigger considerable increases in tuition. What's more, it would likely spark the expansion of temporary faculty who are paid a pittance and receive limited, if any, institutional benefits. From a corporate point of view, which is the viewpoint that most contemporary university administrators take, an increased pool of untenured and inexpensive temporary faculty improves institutional efficiency.

Indeed, much of the debate about university privatization is about the whys and wherefores of costs, benefits, budgetary flexibility and assessment outcomes. What gets lost in this mix, however, is the human cost of privatization. What impact would privatization have on our students? If tuition goes up, as it most certainly will if there is a transition to state-related status, many of our students will no longer have the financial wherewithal to continue their education.

I've been teaching at a public university for more than 30 years. During that period of time our institution has provided quality education at a reasonable cost, which means that many of our students come from families of modest resources. Many of my students work two or three jobs to help pay for their education. Despite considerable restraints on their time and energy, most of my students are serious about their education. They study, write papers, and look forward to their graduation. Many of them plan to further their education. They have never complained to me about their financial difficulties.

Consider the case of one of my former students. He was the first person in his family to attend college. From the beginning of our teacher-student relationship, I could sense his considerable intelligence. Given his modest familial circumstances and the deficiencies of his secondary education, he came to school a bit unprepared for university work. Even so, he worked hard in my classes, adjusted to constructive criticism, and gradually developed into an exceptional student. In time, he refined his research skills and learned to write clearly and powerfully.

During his undergraduate years, he did have some ups and downs, but my colleagues and I reassured him that he was intelligent and that with effort he could be the master of his destiny. His dream, he told us, was to become an attorney. In time, he found his way to law school and passed the Pennsylvania Bar Exam. He is now a partner in a law firm and has a family. He has become a successfully productive citizen in our society. If tuition had been out of his reach, as it would have been had we'd been a state-related school, my student may have never attended our university. It is also likely that he would have never realized his dream, which would have been a terrible waste of talent.

Given the pervasiveness of privatization, we need to ask some difficult questions about its human costs. If we take the road of corporate administrative efficiency, how much talent will be wasted? How many highly intelligent kids from financially challenged households will be denied a university education? How many of these kids will be denied the chance to dream about their future?

The sweep of privatization also exacts more general social costs. If a world class education becomes the privilege of the wealthy, if only the wealthy are able to dream their dreams, the resulting expansion of income inequality will accelerate the erosion of the middle class. This erosion is likely to continue to limit the middle class's considerable buying power, which will lead, in turn, to social and economic stagnation. Such stagnation will extend the downward spiral of economic and social life in America.

Here, then, are the social stakes of the privatization of education. Do we invest in the future of our children or leave their fates to the fickle winds of the free market? What kind of world do we want for our children and grandchildren? In the end, will our legacy be one of fortitude and pride or resignation and shame?