How Public Research Universities Are Losing the Framing Wars

Remaking the University 2013-03-16

Does California, or any other "knowledge economy," want to have public research universities, in the sense of paying for them?  We have reached a point in the ongoing higher ed crisis where this is a genuine question. By "research" university I mean one that conducts research across the disciplinary spectrum and that has the doctoral programs on which research depends.  But I also mean, for the state's undergraduates, a university that connects students to brand-new knowledge and thus to tomorrow's skills today.   Putting regular folks on the technological, social, and cultural cutting edge is a unique and fragile--and enormously valuable--activity.  That is what public research universities uniquely do. This week's Legislative Analyst's Office report on Gov. Jerry Brown's higher ed budget proposal displayed the LAO's traditional dismissal of the research university's interest to the state. But they are not alone. The recent California Higher Education Summit, MCed by KPPC Airtalk host Larry Mantle, also mounted a direct challenge to the value of the category public research university.  We have posted a base transcript of the exchanges between Mantle and UC president Mark Yudof (thanks to UCSB's Alysse Rathburn).  Larry Mantle began the discussion by noting that the Master Plan was "the model to which everyone aspired.  For extremely low, or even no tuition, students had access to one of the three systems."  The frame is what I like to call mass quality, in which first-rate educational skills are not reserved for an elite but are distributed to every income level in the population.   The opening question was about tuition hikes, and Mr. Mantle was so concerned about rising costs leading to declining access that towards the end he asked directly whether we could still say that the master plan system still existed.  One answer he got was "not in practice."  Around Minute 41, Mr. Mantle asked California Community Colleges system Chancellor Brice Harris what he could do to fix constant complaints that counselors give contradictory advice to students and slow their progress.  Mr. Harris replied, 
Well, you're bound to get concerns when you have a ratio of 2000  to 1 for counselors to students [sic].   
2000 to 1? (Mr. Mantle exclaimed)   
That's the average up and down the state. The Master Plan for Higher Education is still the most elegant public higher education system in the world. It's jut grossly underfunded.
Underfunding has been going on so long that it has terminated normal operations at the CCCs and CSU, who turned away hundreds of thousands of students, and compromised educational quality at UC.    In addition, there is little sign that underfunding will end soon.  Leading lights like Jerry Brown and Barack Obama are first and second generation austerity Democrats, who call for next generation technologies, industries, and workforce skills on the basis of next to no new public investment.   Given the intersection of public-sector poverty and imposed austerity, Mr. Mantle saw mass access being put at risk by the costs of the research segment, the University of California, which he described as elite.  When the segment heads assured him that in fact per-student expenditures where not up but down, he asked, 
What about professors’ salaries though?  Because my sense is, at least for star faculty, maybe this doesn’t apply across the board – there’s been a kind of race to getting the top talent.  UC wants to get the very best and the brightest; as professors you’ve got to compete with private, as well as other really public institutions.  So, has the cost of faculty salaries not risen faster than the rate of inflation?  What used to be a very middle class job, hasn’t that become a very distinctly upper middle class job?
One possible response is that for younger faculty a UC assistant professorship is, in most fields, a lower-middle class job that entitles them to apartment rent and a long commune. But Mark Yudof did make some headway with averages: our faculty are 
a solid 10, 15 percent below our peers, both public and privates.  So I would say we have a very public-spirited faculty. If you teach at [UC],  . . . half your kids are poor. You are an agent of upward mobility.
Mr. Yudof continued on about the relatively low cost of UC's "60 Nobel laureates. I'd prefer they not leave our campuses."  Mr. Mantle, however, was worried about the costs of exactly this kind of elite quality. "It's a wonderful thing you've got them. But they cost money." He made this more explicit later on. 
The University of Texas, your former system, President Yudof, has been ground zero in this battle between those who believe that maybe some of these elite public universities have become too elitist, and no longer affordable for states to fund them in this age of belt tightening.  So, is this question over whether we can still afford a University of Texas or a University of California with all of its overhead, with all of what goes on – is that a legitimate debate in your mind to have?  Or are things just great, these institutions need to be protected as is?

This is a profound, important social question that deserves two serious answers.
  1. Research universities need to protected and upgraded.  Great ones deliver far more value to students and society than do average ones, especially in our absurdly competitive global innovation economy.  It would be a start to offer simple language about making California an "educational leader" once again.
  2. Research loses money now, for the sake of big returns later.  Only the public sector will take the important risks on high-value, basic research.  Private firms can't justify it to their accountants or shareholders. The state has to cost share with the federal government.
This is not what the audience heard.  Instead of (1), Mr. Yudof said that public research universities don't need to be protected, that we're not "going to have a 14 to one student faculty ratio" any more, and waxed on at a couple of points about how we're going to keep having bigger classes and more distance learning.  
This kind of answer just begs the question, so if the research university keeps getting worse, why does it keep costing more?  More generally, why would the public want to pay for expensive OK quality?
Instead of (2), explaining the real economics of research, Mr. Yudof doubled down on the false assertion that extramural research is a big profit center for the University.  Responding to a question about more sources of income, one exchange went like this. 
Yudof: We can raise more money from the private sector.  We have indirect cost recovery.  But if you’re sitting there at Berkeley you’re getting 240 million dollars from the state of California, and the faculty is bringing in 800 million dollars of research, would you, Larry – I have a question – would you give up the 800 million?

Mantle: Well, no.  And if research is actually making money, or paying for itself, why aren’t you going out hiring more professors to do research, if it’s that lucrative?

Yudof: We actually are.  Every time somebody does a study, and says, “Boy, you’ve got so many administrators," it always turns out that they’re either in the hospitals, where they’re doing booming business, or the research enterprise.  
Mr. Yudof is citing gross research revenues.  Net research revenues are negative, and an NSF report last fall finally confirmed that average losses are around 20 cents on the income dollar, even after indirect cost recovery is factored in (the one bit of UC coverage is here).   I'm writing this on Valentine's Day, and am sorry to report that Mark Yudof's answers broke my heart.   Public research universities are losing the framing wars because they aren't explaining why their costly knowledge-creation is special, or that this special function always needs public funding support.   As a result, someone listening to this summit could reasonably conclude that (1) the higher costs of research universities are blocking access to basic college education for veterans, working class students, immigrants, among many deserving others, and (2) that the great money-making scientific enterprise could easily be used to support UC students.  So, this line would conclude, move UC's state money over to the suffering CSU and CCC systems, and let science profits make UC self-supporting. This is where public research universities have long been headed -- towards self-supporting status.  But it is a political dependent and financially diminished one, which ironically includes exactly the higher tuition and lowered access that the public fears. It's going to take a huge collaborative effort to tell the truth to the public and to state government about the real costs and real uses of the public research university.