Universities forced to be more businesslike

John Cardinal Newman’s “The Idea of a University” was something of a work in progress when it was first published in the 1850s. It was a collection of his discourses and lectures in Dublin, Ireland, given while he was in the midst of establishing the school that would become the largest university system in Ireland.

The lectures revealed his thoughts on what he was trying to build there, as he was doing it. His skill as a writer managed to capture the energy as well as the penetrating logic of his thinking, and perhaps for that reason his ideas remain alive, if somewhat sequestered, in higher education today.

Cardinal Newman described a university this way: “It is a place which wins the admiration of the young by its celebrity, kindles the affections of the middle aged by its beauty, and rivets the fidelity of the old by its associations. It is a seat of wisdom, a light of the world, a minister of the faith, an Alma Mater of the rising generation.”

Our world is very is different, of course, from the middle of the 19th century in a poverty-stricken Ireland struggling to recover from the disastrous potato famine. Yet while it must have seemed a dream to impoverished Ireland then, his idea became a reality and, remarkably, remains a part of our dream of what a university can and should be.

If you were to ask an interplanetary visitor what the purpose of a state university in America is today, the obvious answer would be: “Football.” That answer would be mistaken of course, as we earthlings all know. It neglects basketball.

There is another, more serious reason why the answer is, at best, incomplete.

If we look carefully we can still see traces of Cardinal Newman’s ideals not only in the musty corners of liberal arts programs but also, unexpectedly, in the highest of high tech education. While traces nourish nostalgia, though, they do not keep a dream alive. Today’s universities’ dreams are in thrall to a different energy source.

How else are we to explain the recent decision of Colorado State University to launch an effort to raise $250 million for a new football stadium for the purpose of attracting out-of-state students who pay higher tuition than Colorado residents? The project only makes sense if you accept the idea that a state university’s primary obligation is survival. With its life support system, taxpayer funds, dwindling in the face of cost increases, the university is morphing into a different, entrepreneurial organism, doing what is necessary to survive in a hostile environment.

Colorado State isn’t the only one. As state universities continue to be elbowed out of state funding flows by other public spending priorities, they have been forced to become more entrepreneurial. At the University of Washington, for example, this is a process that has been going on since the early 1980s when the state legislature first began to exhibit symptoms of a hearing problem regarding the university’s finances.

State universities will remain tax-exempt and to some degree tax-supported, but otherwise indistinguishable from any other business enterprise. There is nothing wrong with being a business enterprise; they are the heart of the American economy and the engines of our prosperity. Business enterprises, though, are driven by two forces: economics and a strong survival instinct. No dreams need apply.

It is economics, for example, that is driving universities to be more responsive to the immediate needs for workforce training. It is economics that underlies the move to jettison faculty tenure. It is economics that is motivating the “Dance of the Conferences” as schools attempt to elevate their teams’ level of play and television revenue to NFL and NBA standards.

It is also economics behind policies that attempt to attract more out-of-state and foreign students — sometimes openly, as Colorado State University is doing, or less publicly, as the University of Washington and other schools in recruiting foreign students to replace residents.

There is nothing illegal or inherently wrong about these moves, but the closer that state universities resemble business enterprises the farther they distance themselves from the dreams that established them; not only Cardinal Newman’s dream but the parents’ dreams of providing higher education opportunities for their sons and daughters — and a brighter future for each state.

The NCAA, supported by the Big Ten Conference, is making some efforts to halt the transformation of its athletic programs into “Mini-Me” versions of professional leagues, and those of us who love college sports wish them well.

Unless we change the underlying economic structure, though, we will not be able to stop the transformation of state universities into corporate brands and market-driven enterprises.

James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and consultant. He also writes a monthly column for the Herald Business Journal.

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