Review of Public No More: A New Path to Excellence for America’s Public Universities.

Reviews of Recent Books Concerning Current Issues in Higher Ed: No. 3

Fethke, Gary C., and Andrew J. Policano. Public No More: A New Path to Excellence for America’s Public Universities. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford U P, 2012.

This book has been very controversial. Not surprisingly, given that the authors have served as deans of business schools, they argue that our public universities should be restructured to operate as closely as possible to how the most successful business schools operate. At best, this perspective on the future possibilities for American higher education is very insistently and even grimly pragmatic. At worst, it can be said to miss the basic point that the increasing corporatization and privatization of our public colleges as universities is at least one of the root causes of the problems that the authors now propose to solve with the complete corporatization and privatization of those institutions. The book is undeniably thought-provoking and politically provocative, but much the same can be said for self-immolation.

To give the authors their due, they make some distinctions about the root causes of the current problems confronting American higher education that are essential to any understanding of the nature of those problems and of the ways in which they might be effectively addressed. For instance, they argue very adamantly and persuasively that tuition has been increasing very dramatically not because the costs of delivering higher education have been rising as dramatically, but because state and, to a lesser extent, federal support for public higher education has been dramatically decreasing. Indeed, they demonstrate that although tuition has been rising at two to three times the rate of inflation, the actual costs of delivering higher education have been increasing much more modestly, at only a third to half of the rate of inflation. To explain these modest increases in costs, they point to efficiencies created by the increasing reliance on contingent faculty and the expanding instructional applications of electronic technologies. But, they fail to note that these “efficiencies” would not have been fiscally as necessary if the decline in governmental subsidies had not been compounded by a dramatic increase in high- and mid-level administrative positions and in administrative support staff.  Indeed, the establishment of a professional administrative class in our colleges and universities and the subsequent proliferation of administrative positions and costs has been one of the major features of the increasing corporatization of American higher education. Never mind that the mantra of operating our institutions as if they were businesses has led to the proliferation of middle-management positions that seems more characteristic of a 1950s, rather than a 2010’s, business model.

Likewise, the authors rightly point that the decline in governmental subsidies for higher education is not likely to be reversed or the lost funding to be restored. But they also suggest that the “public” has simply placed increasing importance on other social needs and that successive recessions have made it increasingly difficult for state governments, in particular, to meet all of the demands placed upon them. What they are not noting, of course, is that for the last thirty years, attacks on “Big Government” have extended to attacks on almost all public institutions, including public K-12 education and public higher education. On the state level and on the federal, political figures with an innate antipathy to public institutions have funneled public funding increasingly to projects that directly benefit the private sector. In the last decade, this trend has led to the proliferation of privatized prisons, charter schools, and for-profit colleges and universities. For the most part, the public seems to believe that the costs of maintaining our penal and educational systems have simply been transferred to the private sector. In reality, much the same costs—and often substantially higher costs–are still being borne by government, by the public, by the taxpayer. All that has changed is that private corporations are now directly profiting from their operation of institutions that were formerly administered by public employees. It does not take an M.B.A. to understand that the lower compensation for most employees at these privatized institutions is not being realized as a cost savings but is, instead, simply being redirected toward higher management costs and dividends to stockholders in those corporations.

So what the authors are proposing is really nothing less than the ruination of most disciplines outside of business or those few other disciplines with the possibility of developing products, applications, or other innovations of direct use to business. They may be correct in asserting that if current trends continue, those disciplines as we now know them will be doomed. But, in effect, if they are proposing a solution that amounts to ruination, then how is an even somewhat more delayed ruination not a preferable alternative?

I would like to close by pointing out that the M.B.A. is apparently worth quite a bit less than it used to be worth. Consider the following chart, available online:

Top-Ranked Business Schools with the Worst Placement Records Last Year

School Unemployed at 2011 Graduation UnemployedThree Months After Graduation
Santa Clara University (Leavey) 78.8% 53.8%
Claremont (Drucker) 71.0% 29.0%
Thunderbird 69.8% 48.3%
UC-Riverside (Anderson) 68.2% 54.5%
University of Colorado (Leeds) 65.8% 34.2%
Rollins College (Crummer) 65.5% 32.6%
Fordham University 63.0% 51.4%
University of Oregon (Lundquist) 62.5% 30.0%
Pepperdine (Graziadio) 61.9% 33.0%
Baruch College (Zicklin) 61.1% 48.1%
Rensselaer Polytechnic (Lally) 56.0% 24.0%
University of Massachusetts (Isenberg) 55.0% 10.0%
Virginia Tech (Pamplin) 55.0% 32.5%
St. Louis University (Cook) 54.8% 32.6%
University of Maryland (Smith) 54.4% 16.5%
Syracuse University (Whitman) 53.3% 35.6%
University of Arizona (Eller) 52.4% 26.2%
Rochester Institute of Tech 51.5% 19.6%
University of Georgia (Terry) 51.4% 29.7%
University of Florida (Hough) 50.0% 19.2%
University of Kentucky (Gatton) 50.0% 25.0%

Source: U.S. News & World Report’s 2012 and 2011 Rankings of the Best Business Schools

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