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Turning Marketshare into Mindshare
As states continue to slash their budgets, the headlines focus on cuts to K-12 education. And that makes sense, both because that's where the big money is and because just about everyone cares about some child who might be immediately affected by K-12 cuts. But budgets are also being slashed at the state universities, and in the long run that might just as important.
The trend. The new budget from Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, for example, cuts Penn State's money in half, reducing state funding to 8% of the university's budget. And this represents a long-term trend, not just a reaction to the current economic situation. In 1970, Penn State got 37% of its budget from the state.
Other states have seen similar trends. The University of California was tuition-free until 1971. But under Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed budget, student fees in the U of C system will surpass state funding for the first time ever.
The student perspective. Federal aid to students trying to pay these fees is also being cut. President Obama's budget proposal cuts Pell grants, and Rep. Ryan's Republican alternative cuts them even more.
As a result, the days when a young person could "work his way through college" -- making enough to live on while paying minimal fees at a state university -- are over. To go to college today, you need either well-to-do parents or the willingness to take on massive debt.
And while taking on debt may be a reasonable financial move if you're getting a high-market-value credential like an MBA or an MD, it's hard to imagine degrees in special education or social work ever paying off, no matter how valuable such careers might be to society. A law degree may still be a profitable investment if you're going to Wall Street or becoming a lobbyist. But if you're planning to fight for social justice, it isn't.
Now put yourself in the shoes of a talented young minority student from a bad neighborhood. College already seems like a huge risk; few people you know have attended and perhaps no one has graduated. Cynical voices tell you that the powers-that-be don't want to hire people like you anyway. Are you willing to saddle yourself with, say, $100K of debt on the off-chance you'll be the exception?
The social perspective. Raising the costs and risks of college hardens the boundaries between economic classes. Even as we maintain the appearance of a meritocracy, the well-to-do children get the training they need to "merit" professional-class careers, while less privileged children don't.
Devil's bargains. Universities see this problem too, and it motivates them to chase after money that doesn't come from students or governments. So they press their alumni harder for gifts and manage their endowment portfolios more aggressively -- sometimes taking risks they shouldn't.
They also work harder to commercialize their research, which undermines their mission. The whole point of universities was to replace the guild system of the Middle Ages, where all technical knowledge was a trade secret, with a Republic of Letters, which distributes knowledge freely.
But in order to profit from something you have to put up toll gates, because people who can access your knowledge freely won't pay you for it.
Trust for sale. The most insidiously tempting way to raise money is to quietly sell off the university's greatest assets: trust and intellectual respect. Lots of willing buyers have lots of money. If no one trusts Lex Luthor but everyone trusts the University of Metropolis, then the solution is obvious: LexCorp needs to pay U-Met to distribute its message.
That's happening. This week, two Florida State professors drew attention to a deal FSU made with the Koch Foundation -- with the conservative Koch brothers, in other words -- to fund two professorships in economics. In exchange for their money, the Kochs get veto power on hiring for the two positions. Naturally, Paul Krugman's students need not apply.
Florida State has also made a deal with BB&T, an ultra-conservative bank holding company, to fund a course on ethics and economics. That sounds innocuous, but by "ethics in economics" BB&T means teaching that free-market capitalism is moral and socialism is immoral. So the deal specifies that Atlas Shrugged be covered, whether the course's professor finds it worthy or not. BB&T has made similar deals with James Mason University and Guilford College. Meredith College rejected $420K of BB&T money to protect their academic freedom.
BB&T also funds professorships at Clemson's Institute for the Study of Capitalism. Among its other activities, CISC runs an undergraduate summer conference on Atlas Shrugged. From its web site, I see no sign that CISC's "studies of capitalism" include, say, Karl Marx. (My nephew graduated from Clemson Friday. He had to read Atlas Shrugged, and endured a class from a global-warming-denying professor. Fortunately, his liberal antibodies were up to the challenge.)
For $30 million donated to George Mason University, the Kochs got the Mercatus Center, which specializes in giving academic cover to politicians who want to gut government regulation.
What's new? Billionaires have a long history of funding American higher education. That's why universities bear names like Carnegie-Mellon, Rockefeller, and Vanderbilt. The University of Chicago -- where I got my Ph.D. -- is a Rockefeller project that he didn't bother to name after himself.
But something is different now. In the Gilded Age, the robber barons were buying their way into high society with their good works. Where a British financier might marry a cash-poor countess or otherwise induce the crown to give him a title, an American industrialist would build a library or save the local opera company from a financial crisis.
The best ticket into high society was a project with high name recognition, but none of the taints of filthy lucre. Hence the robber-baron universities have high academic standards and a great deal of independence.
Today those forces are reversed; money is prestige. So billionaires like the Kochs have no interest in high society, and they use their foundations to gain hidden influence rather than to build their names.
Propaganda U. Imagine being an impressionable young student at University of Alabama/Huntsville, and wandering into this talk at the College of Business. It's a Koch-funded professor from CISC and the Mercatus Center speaking in a Koch-funded lecture series. Are you being educated or indoctrinated? It's one thing to run into a politically motivated professor, but it is quite another to have professors who were hired by special interests to promote views beneficial to those interests.
As public funds for higher education dry up, that is going to become more and more typical. Right-wing political indoctrination will be the price students pay to get an affordable college education, in the same way that they sit through McDonalds ads to watch television.
Worse in the long run is that society is losing a platform for disinterested research, and a source of expertise that can challenge the "experts" manufactured by corporate PR departments. Decades ago, when doctors from the Tobacco Institute told us that the smoking-cancer connection was unproven, we knew what was going on. But how many people today realize they are getting energy-industry propaganda when a talking head from "the Mercatus Center at George Mason University" appears on their TV? And how many Mercatus Centers does it take to discredit all academic voices?
Democracy only works when the electorate has access to high-quality information, and has some way to verify the trustworthiness of the experts it listens to. Otherwise it's garbage-in/garbage-out. David Mindich put it best: "Government supported by an uninformed citizenry is not a democracy; it is a sham."
If you're wondering what "ethics in economics" Atlas Shrugged promotes, it's a lot like what Rand Paul was saying Wednesday:
- With regard to the idea whether or not you have a right to health care you have to realize what that implies. I am a physician. You have a right to come to my house and conscript me. It means you believe in slavery.
I don't need to take Paul's statement apart, because Lawrence O'Donnell already did.
A California school board has ordered that high-school science classes be " politically balanced" when they tackle issues like global warming. In other words: the science has to be balanced with oil-company propaganda.
Wonder what those upbeat Exxon ads are about? Hydrofracking.
A global-warming-denying think tank recently announced that 900 peer-reviewed papers shared their skepticism. Are those 900 independent looks at the topic? Not exactly.
The Carbon Brief blog took a closer look: Ten authors account for 186 of those papers. Nine of the ten "have links to organisations funded by Exxon-Mobil, and the tenth has co-authored several papers with Exxon-funded contributors."
For example, 67 of the papers were authored or co-authored by one person: Sherwood Idso, president the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, which receives support from Exxon-Mobil and has even closer ties to the Western Fuels Association.