Public or Private?

The proposal by Illinois State Senator Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, to convert state universities into private non-profit corporations run by a board of directors addresses a basic question: “What is a public university?” As politicians frequently reflect, if you want to know what something is about, follow the money.  It reveals priorities.  The ebb and flow of cash evidences nature, purpose, and mission.

The United States Government Accountability Office reported that state funding to higher education from 2003 through 2012 decreased from 32% of total university budgets to 23% on average. Simultaneously tuition’s share increased from 17% to 25%. A watershed was reached in 2012 when tuition exceeded state appropriations. Following the money would lead one to believe that public institutions became private at that instant in time when private citizens made a bigger commitment to public institutions than the state did.  For reference, during the same decade tuition at four-year institutions increased from $4,781 to $7,350 per year.

It sounds increasingly more private than public to me — even without Brady’s provocative amendment to Senate Bill 1565.

Tax dollars going to university budgets come from sources other than state appropriations. For example, Johns Hopkins University last year received $2 billion in federal research support, besting the next competitor, the University of Washington that clocked in at $1 billion.  With 21,871 students Johns Hopkins University is spending $95,826 per student in tax dollars supporting research alone.

Public money all the way to the bank.

At the University of Michigan, arguably one of the great public universities in America, the state appropriation per student is $11,561. The Wolverines’ total federal research budget is $820 million.  With a student population of 43,625 research spending is $18,796 per student. Even when coupled, the state appropriation at the University of Michigan plus federal research spending equals $30,357 per student — only 33% of what Johns Hopkins spends per student.

Which one of these universities is the most public?  John’s Hopkins University motto says it all:  Veritas vos liberabit — The truth will set you free.  Evidently.  And thankfully, not free from public dollars.

In Illinois, Gov. Bruce Rauner proposed a 31.5% budget reduction for higher education. It is a stark and thorny, seemingly draconian, reality for university leaders when considered in isolation. However, the impact is differential.  At Southern Illinois University, that 31.5% reduction in state appropriations amounts to a budget reduction of approximately $62.5 million, near 7% of the $900 million total system budget.  For comparison, and to better understand the differential impact, at the University of Illinois that 31.5% represents $209 million, an impact on the total budget of approximately $5 billion or 5%.   Three times the cut, but a markedly lesser impact.

Illinois is not alone.  The University of Virginia’s state appropriations of $154.4 million represents 5.8% of its $2.6 billion budget. A thimbleful of support for what I imagine is a truckload of reporting requirements, habitual processes, and a bureaucratic labyrinth that stifles initiative and invention. The President of the University of Virginia should adopt what Sen. Brady proposes in a two-sentence suggestion to the statehouse, “Keep your money, free us from your numbing oversight; and let a self-perpetuating board guide the institution for the public benefit.” And, “Please give us a 100-year lease on the buildings that resulted from Mr. Jefferson’s vision — for a dollar.”

Could this arrangement effectively serve the public good?

And lest you believe this public-private thinking only deals with high dollar flagship research universities, the Southern New Hampshire University is a private counter point providing reasonable-cost, online educational opportunities for students. It has a physical campus, but additionally enrolls nearly 35,000 students online at costs that beat most of the major for-profits and many publicly supported state institutions wading into online waters.  SNHU is focusing on a tailored hybrid approach that attracts students and tuition dollars (privately) through accessible, seemingly valuable offerings.

The marketplace is occasionally fickle but currently it values SNHU’s vision.  The same marketplace is speaking loudly about “public” higher education right now, if leaders but listen.

The “wailing and gnashing of teeth” agonizingly heard on many public university campuses can be silenced by listening, light-on-its-feet, responsive leadership.

Bill Brady’s bill begs a trifecta of questions.  “What’s public? What’s private? What serves the public good?”

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