Panel: Public higher education in state of decline

Lost funding and shifting costs are adding stress to university budgets and faculty.

A panel of scholars discussed wha† they described as the "death spiral" of public higher education's ideals during the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association on Sept. 2.

Panelists included Center for Policy Analysis Director Clyde W. Barrow, University of California at Berkeley professor Wendy Brown and American Association of University Professors President Cary Nelson.

According to the panelists, public universities have grown more expensive, largely in part to state funding cuts.

“The pattern of public higher education over 16 years or so has been to shift costs from state to student,” Nelson said. “This has produced unacceptable levels of student debt. It means that too many undergraduates work too many hours while they’re going to college. So that alone has really undermined the very notion of public education.”

Nelson said if public education is becoming too expensive for families, then it’s not really public education anymore.

“Qualified students are being excluded in huge numbers, simply because they cannot afford to attend a public university," Barrow said. "That generates a lot of other problems about how we administer university. The main one is that if students cannot attend, it makes it harder for us to fulfill our mission.”

MU spokesman Christian Basi said MU has seen a budget cut of 5 percent after agreeing to freeze in-state, undergraduate tuition for the next two years.

“You’re talking about a budget year that is 10 months away," Basi said. "There are a lot of things that could happen between now and then, both positive and negative. While we do try to forecast, and we have a great fiscal management team, it’s difficult to discuss possible impacts when we’re this far out."

Basi said that in response to the cuts, MU has asked departments to find more efficient ways to spend money. Bringing in additional students helps relieve some of the stress put on the university’s budget.

“For example, in the last three years we have had very large freshman classes," Basi said. "The additional revenue from that tuition has helped pay for additional faculty to teach those additional students."

The effects of lower funding put added stress to professors' responsibilities.

“Increasingly, because universities are so concerned about managing their budgets, more and more faculty time is being diverted away from teaching and research into clerical and administrative responsibilities,” Barrow said.

Nelson said the increased reliance on part-time instructors rather than tenure-track to save money is a destructive pattern.

“The AAUP believes that job security for teachers who are tenured is what enables teachers to speak forthrightly in the classroom," Nelson said. "It is to teach with courage.”

Columbia University professor Claudia Dreifus said she thinks professors have become so focused on tenure that it becomes the center of their lives.

“What it has created is a culture of conformity rather than a culture of questioning,” Dreifus said.

Barrow said education has three missions: to produce and transmit cultural traditions of the nation, to support economic development and technological innovation for the economy and to support citizen education. Liberal arts plays a role in one of these missions, but is often ignored in favor of more practical values.

“That’s what’s going to get you through life knowing to do in hard circumstances,” Dreifus said. “There’s nothing like the ideas of the ancient Greeks to give you a basis. There’s nothing like reading great literature to give you insight on life.”

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