Susan Ervin-Tripp: Selling the Public University

Susan Ervin-TrippSusan Ervin-Tripp: Selling the Public University
Susan Ervin-Tripp is a professor emerita

Coming from Harvard to Berkeley in the fifties, I was amazed to hear that Berkeley students didn't pay any tuition. One of the wise early moves in the California legislature was the decision to see the university as a major public resource. The legislature was willing to pay for educating its students, whether in undergraduate or graduate school. Fees were about $38 or around $275 in recent dollars. A recent cost estimate was $3408.

Why did the legislature make that investment? As in many countries, they believed the cost of public support of higher education was justified by a society that clearly profited from leadership and knowledge. They trusted that scientific and technical innovation would "grow the economy." Our university both created and attracted a highly educated citizenry. These bright students created a tax base for supporting later generations of students. In the same vein, all over the country the G.I. bill brought a generation of poor veterans into the middle class at taxpayers' expense.

The upward creep of student fees in California has been apparent for many years, one cost I saw being 12 times as much. According to at least one published analysis, undergraduate students rather than the legislature now pay almost all of the cost of their education. As a result, the fraction of the state's students who can afford to come here has been shrinking. Although this is by law a public institution supported by tax dollars, it serves a smaller and richer part of the population. While the gap in wealth is increasing all the time in this country, economic mobility has been decreasing since the seventies. Many gifted high school students never make it to college if they are poor.

When I was academic ombudsman serving both academic staff and students years ago, I became aware of a reality hidden from most faculty. Many undergraduates have to work for thirty or forty hours a week to help their families, as well as pay their fees and the rising cost of books and readers. Faculty unwittingly require higher cost materials: elaborate textbooks and expensive photocopy packets, rather than sending students to Moffitt to study library materials and personal copy reserves.

With the reluctance of the state to support public universities with adequate taxes, universities are turning more to private and corporate support for paying for research and graduate study. We are becoming more and more like private universities in these respects.

Chancellor Robert Birgeneau has spoken of pressure to go beyond the support of the state and federal governments to pushing for endowments, like private universities, and partnership with the private sector. But what effects will these changes have on the university and its mission?

What are the ways that privatization can present hazards to public universities? Conflicts of interest and conflicts of commitment can be present when universities receive corporate money for research, when heads of public universities serve on corporate boards or when private or corporate funders pay for the hiring of faculty and have a direct or indirect veto power over who will be hired. The university officials who serve on corporate boards receive income for this service. Frequently there are no restrictions on what ties universities have to the corporations the officials serve. They can include using universities as training institutions for specific corporate needs, thus influencing curriculum.

The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 gave the patents from federal tax funded research to universities to license businesses to use these tax-derived patents. Now research could be a profit source, post-docs could be brought in to work 24/7, and some professors sought results that allowed them to set up businesses.

A direct connection of corporate funds has developed, bringing university administrators to spend their time, as one dean said, "whoring" for private money. Some public universities have set up private foundations to administer fund-raising without public oversight. The board members of these foundations can influence how the university deals with controversial issues and opinions on campus.

One way corporations can have ties to universities is through direct sponsorship of research whose outcome affects corporate profits. Who would believe pulmonary health research sponsored by a tobacco company? How credible is research gene proliferation sponsored by corporations selling genetically manipulated products? Since companies often have their own labs, it appears their sponsorship of self-interested research through universities is a way to legitimate public claims they want to make-and to control public information about the effects of their products and policies through proprietary secrecy. The erosion of intellectual independence is a high price to pay for a university-industrial complex.

It is important that a well-balanced, full discussion of the potential impact of privatization on the public missions of education and research in universities occur before sectors of public universities have been completely sold to private bidders.

The Daily Californian, 07/10/05