Our Universities: Stewards — not Wards — of the State

State funding has its place but too much might create organizational laziness, leadership ineffectiveness, and unattainable expectations.  Unbridled dependence morphs into a form of gluttony.

“The more subsidized it is, the less free it is. What is known as `free education’ is the least free of all, for it is a state-owned institution; it is socialized education,  just like socialized medicine or the socialized post office  and cannot possibly be separated from political control.”

Frank Chodorov, “Why Free Schools Are Not Free,” 1948 _____________________________________________________

You may not like these few observations.  They may be misunderstood.

All states are underfunding higher education compared to Cold War levels.  It won’t change. In addition, all states are underfunding every department from Agriculture to Workers Compensation…I looked for a state agency that started with “Z”, but “W” was the best I could do.

States have underfunded pensions, insurance systems, and other long-term benefit provisions.  Leaders expended funds from those coffers to help alleviate broken campaign promises in other areas: Robbing Peter to pay Paul.  Detroit may epitomize the phenomenon. It is not alone but the leading edge of a relentless curve.    Our eyes are bigger than our stomachs.  What else is new? It’s human nature from the beginning of recorded history.

Is higher education important?  Absolutely.  And so is Workers Compensation: just ask someone injured on the job.  Some beat the Workers Compensation system with false claims.  Some institutions beat the higher education system with false promises.

Many leaders fear underfunding of public higher education will lead to privatization of the enterprise. It’s too late.  That horse is out of the barn — in fact — it was never in the barn.  Public higher education, from its inception, has always been a marriage of public and private effort of individuals and institutions. And this coupling requires a unique view of leadership.

Universities are distinctive organizations in the matrix of entities that receive state support. By their nature the opportunity exists to use the primary function of the university to mine funds from other sources to augment state dollars.  For example, state dollars may be used to help build buildings, and those buildings provide classrooms, food service, residence halls, theaters, outreach, consulting, and stadiums that generate cash flow: a form of “fracking” for funding.

Heightened entrepreneurship, risk taking, courage, and vision are necessary. Not unlike Christ’s Parable of the Talents recorded in the 25th chapter of Saint Mathew’s Gospel; or John Milton’s sonnet, “On His Blindness” that also crystallizes the immutable responsibilities of stewardship.

Calculated risk and productive action are legitimate expectations.

State funding is down and costs — everything from plumbers to professors and milk to gasoline — are up.   Missions appropriate to available resources and institutional purpose are discoverable, but must be doggedly pursued and tailored to each other simultaneously.

To be sure, opportunity for investment differs by institution type.  In universities with extensive research activity, more entrepreneurism is possible.  Relationships with other funding agencies, private enterprise, and donors create partnerships and develop strength through diversity.  Bemoaning or retreating from scarcity provides neither solutions, nor progress.  It is a form of aggravated gluttony.

The best institutions ply their craft of promoting quality learning experiences and excellence in results with the resources that are provided. Guided by concerned faculty and institutional leadership greater freedom from interference of all kinds should accompany success in spite of declining state appropriations.

Limping leadership hardens inaction into a calcified culture and “woe-is-we” policy.  Institutional burdens have shifted to the statehouse, through dependence, and on to the White House, through low-cost loans, so universities could levy ever-increasing tuition and fees regardless of quality or benefits accrued to students.

The best institutions of every kind crave the concept of entrepreneurial spirit and the collective power of their faculty and students.  The state’s seed corn provides all institutions a chance for excellence through ingenuity and work.  The slothfulness of flagrant dependency kills quality.

Resourcefulness in response to a changed environment is not privatization, but savvy investment of scarce capital.

I told you — you might not like it.  But, that doesn’t change the reality our universities face.

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