Beyond flagships, assembly lines, & social compacts for privatized decline

Gary Rhoades is a professor at the University of Arizona’s Center for the Study of Higher Education and served as general secretary of the AAUP from Jan. 2009 to June 2011. Below is a summary of Rhoades's talk at “Defending Public Higher Education,” an October 7 conference at the CUNY Graduate Center cosponsored by the PSC. Audio of the conference, including Rhoades's full remarks, is available at the conference website.


Nationally, three models of state public policy in higher education are prevalent. In some states there are elements of more than one model, but typically one of the three is dominant. Each of the models is presented as a solution to key problems in the academy, yet all of them actually exacerbate longstanding problems of affordability and access, educational quality, and public financial accountability. Each is represented as an innovative approach to a new reality, yet all of the models are actually continuations of three decade old patterns in public policy that have contributed to the problems we face.

Although there are variations on the theme nationally, Texas exemplifies productivity metrics at their counterproductive worst. Shaped by proposals of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the state is implementing productivity measures that frame higher education as an industrial assembly line, reduce faculty to piece rate workers, and prioritize volume (student credit hours) over all else, including educational quality. Ohio epitomizes a second model. The Chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents has proposed an “Enterprise University” plan (originally called charter universities) that favors the rich and disinvests in the rest. Featuring the flagship (Ohio State) as an independent firm, and as a model that other universities should emulate, the plan sees trickle down benefits to deregulating tuition and various business practices surrounding selling of land and construction of facilities. New York’s SUNY2020 plan represents a third, social compact model that actually locks the system into a thirty year pattern of reducing state support and shifting the burden of paying for higher education to students and families. It casts universities as entrepreneurial economic drivers of the state economy and features investment in high tech ventures and facilities even as the system cuts academic programs and reduces its investment in faculty and professionals serving students.

Each of the state public policy models is consistent with premises that define the national policy discourse being shaped by national foundations (e.g., the Lumina Foundation), the federal government, and national groups of state politicians (e.g., the National Governors Association). Three key premises are: (a) an austerity assumption that there is no new public money for higher education; (b) an inflexibility assumption that academe resists change and innovation; & (c) an inefficiency assumption that academic productivity is best measured by simple metrics that prioritize output volume.

Despite the prevailing and promotional public policy discourse, in each of the states I discuss (Texas, Ohio, and New York) there has been pushback from faculty groups against the introduction of particular state public policy models. In the midst of constant assaults on public higher education it is possible fight against the public policy initiatives that are sweeping the nation. In some cases faculty have successfully reduced or contained the damage of policy proposals. Yet faculty largely find themselves on the defensive rather than in a position of offering alternative policies to rally around. It is a primarily defensive negotiating position and discourse of “it could have been worse.”

Part of taking the offensive should include the sort of campaign articulated by the Professional Staff Congress in calling for a continuation of a progressive income tax on the wealthiest tax payers in New York. The academy has a revenue problem, not an inefficiency or productivity problem, and it is necessary (though not sufficient) to enhance public revenues. We need proposals for how to renew old revenue streams and generate new ones for public education, as in the legislative proposal supported by the California Faculty Association (AB 1326 to tax oil and natural gas at the wellhead).

However, part of taking the offensive should also include counterproposals to the prevailing three models of public policy, as well as provisions regarding how public monies will be allocated and utilized differently than they have in the past. In the case of productivity metrics, that could mean proposing metrics to advance key public functions of the academy, and at the same time providing financial accountability measures that would ensure campuses are shifting monies back, on balance, to core academic missions. For example, a progressive aim of public higher education is serving lower income, students of color, and immigrants (as well as of returning, transfer, and local students), a function that involves not only expanding the life opportunities and making possible the upward mobility of individuals, but also diversifying and enriching the class structure of the community—as in CUNY’s historic role of strengthening and expanding a middle class of color in New York City. Prevailing metrics push institutions away from serving the growth demographic of traditional aged students and the growing number of adult, returning, and transfer students. Prevailing resource allocation patterns involve cuts in programs and personnel serving lower income students even as there is increased investment in programs such as honors colleges that serve more privileged students. They also involve continued disproportionate growth in administrative salaries alongside cuts in the health care of all professionals and particularly of the contingent majority workforce of adjuncts. Part of taking the offensive should involve reversing these patterns in proposals that include targeted metrics rewarding institutions for enrolling and graduating certain sub-populations of students (e.g., lower income, transfer, and students and color) and that require a refocusing of institutional monies on core academic missions relative to administrative and non-academic facilities costs.

In the case of social compacts, taking the offensive should include a commitment to reverse the thirty-year pattern of state disinvestment in public education. Ironically, most social compacts now lock public higher education in to historically low or reduced levels of state support. In exchange, they accord universities greater flexibility in setting tuition and/or in some business matters (for example, in “construction reform” that involves reducing or eliminating rules surrounding competitive bids, prevailing wages that must be paid in state funded projects, and public oversight of decisions). Part of taking the offensive should involve ongoing pressure to index tuition against the Higher Education Price Index, and to set as a floor for building greater state support in the future a guaranteed maintenance of current effort adjusted for inflation over time. It should also involve ensuring that any social compact addresses, prioritizes, and invests in the human capacity and infrastructure of colleges and universities relative to facilities and administrative costs.

In the case of flagship models, taking the offensive should involve featuring an alternative model of public higher education that is key to the democratic future of the country. CUNY is particularly well positioned to propose such an alternative, given its history and now its current chancellor’s focus on being a flagship. The city, state, region, and country’s future lies not in flagships, that largely run from the growth demographics of students, ignore or gentrify the local communities in which they are situated, and that exacerbate the defining problems of access and affordability, quality higher education for the broad population, and financial accountability. Rather, the best future lies in colleges and universities that serve and enhance the lives of the growth demographics of students as well as of the communities, cities, and regions in which they are situated, and that make affordable, quality higher education available to all who can benefit, regardless of income, ethnicity, or immigrant status. That is at the core of the CUNY legacy, and it is at the core as well of the country’s future. The PSC’s opportunity is to provide us with a model of public higher education that integrates the essence of CUNY’s historic mission with our future, that is not simply situated in but is of the community, and that is transformative not just in individualistic and economic senses but in socio-cultural, political, and communal senses.