The missing message about universities and society.

The role of public higher education in a rapidly changing world rose to prominence  last week with two developments:  the University of Virginia’s governance debacle (see local commentary here) and the announcement of Gov. Scott Walker’s Flexible Online Degree initiative.

As noted in the previous article by another contributor, these two events have more in common than one might surmise from the above.  Both highlight the growing problem of affordability of four-year degrees, and both have their roots in the notion that the traditional model of university education has become outdated and inefficient.  In both cases, online education as a substitute for bricks-and-mortar lecture halls is/was touted as a solution.

Playing no small role in both stories is the  myth—encouraged by opportunistic political and business leaders—that the sole legitimate role of universities is classroom education leading to a degree and from there to a paying job.   In the most extreme versions of this myth, a university is a glorified vocational training school, and everything pertaining to publicly funded scholarship and research not directly related to teaching is parasitic — a taxpayer-funded boondoggle that benefits only faculty and other public-sector employees.

While folks across Wisconsin still want their kids to be able to get into a University of Wisconsin school and earn a degree, they are increasingly buying into the above myth and into the notion that the State “can’t afford” to support its public universities anymore.

It’s a bitter irony that the rising tuition costs that directly follow from sharp cutbacks in public funding are used to further fan public resentment against — you guessed it, the public universities.

One of the most insightful commentators on the University of Virginia saga has been one of its own faculty, Siva Vaidhyanathan, and he offers one of the most powerful defenses I have seen of public universities in general in this article for Slate, which I urge you to read in its entirety.

One paragraph in particular stood out for me, and if it were up to me, every voter and elected official in Wisconsin—indeed, in the country—would find it printed on the backs of their cereal boxes:

We Americans take these institutions for granted. We assume that private enterprise generates what is so casually called “innovation” all by itself. It does not. The Web browser you are using to read this essay was invented at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The code that makes this page possible was invented at a publicly funded academic research center in Switzerland. That search engine you use many times a day, Google, was made possible by a grant from the National Science Foundation to support Stanford University. You didn’t get polio in your youth because of research done in the early 1950s at Case Western Reserve University. California wine is better because of the University of California at Davis. Hollywood movies are better because of UCLA. And your milk was not spoiled this morning because of work done at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

I believe that there are few things more important to the future of this country than vanquishing the pseudo-populist myth that publicly supported research universities are  a drain on society.  True populism, I believe, celebrates affordable education for all, and it embraces the scholarship and innovation that universities produce as being among society’s greatest shared public resources.

The only remaining question is, how do we cut through the fog and noise of the privatizers and get that message back in front of the taxpaying public?  Stay tuned for some ideas.



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