What is occurring in Maine is the opposite of what has occurred in places where the “charter” university concept has taken hold–most notably Virginia. In those places, elite public universities have accepted lower state subsidies for more institutional “flexibility”–which has meant more aggressive efforts to attract out-of-state and international students who pay higher tuition. At the elite public universities, there are then fewer seats for -in-state students and especially for in-state students from economically disadvantaged or even less than affluent backgrounds.
Combine those realities with news such as that out of Indiana, where the number of degrees being awarded has increased but the number of state residents with degrees has declined, and it becomes clear that all of these efforts to privatize public education–to find ways of reducing public support for public education–undermine the goals that everyone keeps reiterating.
From politicians to university administrators, from faculty to students, from parents to taxpayers, everyone wants a first-class university system that has earned a regional, if not national, reputation for general excellence and that has become a national, if not international, leader in some specialized areas. This combination insures that a state will have an educated workforce attractive to any employer and that it will be especially attractive to employers in certain fields that can serve as drivers within the state’s economy. But both of those goals require retaining students in the workforce after they graduate, something that is a difficult proposition for most states and for most regions within states outside of their largest metro areas. It is a problem greatly exacerbated when increasing percentages of students at a state’s elite public universities have no real ties to the state.
At every level, administrators are proliferating and administrative “planning” seems to have become an unending preoccupation. Yet, most of the initiatives that have a real impact on how our institutions function are being driven by governors and legislators whose terms are limited by law or by ambition but whose impact may be disruptive well beyond their time in office. Most of them have, at best, only a passing interest in the complex issues facing higher education, and their interest in higher education is driven by ideological assumptions that have varying degrees of connection to reality. The result of this mix of increasingly corporatized institutional management and increasingly ideological state politics has been seen in very intensive but largely reactive exercises in administrative planning, which have resulted more in endless refinements to the planning processes than in any actual sustainable plans.
It is analogous to building a home one room at a time, one year to the next. No matter how much planning goes into it, it’s going to end up looking like something that needed a lot more planning—when, in fact, no amount of planning was ever going to make the finished product look and function like a well-designed home looks and functions.
Most fundamentally, the politicians in a given state must actually support the concept that public higher education requires public—that is, taxpayer–support or it is no longer public higher education.
With more specific reference to what is occurring in Maine, a state cannot hope to sustain a system of public colleges and universities when state policy is being determined by wingnuts like Paul LePage.