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Viewpoint: Defending Public Higher Ed

Gary Rhoades is a professor at the University of Arizona’s Center for the Study of Higher Education, and was general secretary of the American Association of University Professors from January 2009 to June 2011.

Rhoades was a speaker at “Defending Public Higher Education,” an October 7 conference at the CUNY Graduate Center co-sponsored by the PSC; the article below is adapted from his presentation. A summary of Rhoades’s talk is available as is audio of speakers and discussion.


There is an opportunity today for New York to define a different policy model for public higher education – to help shape the future not just for CUNY, for New York City and State, but for public higher education nationally.

In Ohio and Texas and in state after state, governors, state legislators and boards are putting forward models of public higher education that influence what’s possible and what seems reasonable here in New York. That’s why I think this conference is such a heartening thing. I encourage you to take up that gauntlet, to see your role as a national one – to redefine what is possible, in the way that California did 60 years ago.

Gary Rhoades speaking at the Grad Center October 7.

In a national discourse. It is a discourse shaped by politicians and by foundations, not only Gates but also Lumina. And by other groups, as in the McKinsey report, Winning By Degrees. Published late last year, this report declares that to graduate up to one million more students per year without increasing public spending or compromising quality, the US higher education institutions would need to improve their degree completion productivity by an average of 23%.


Now, instead of stopping at that point and saying, “This is foolish, this is silly, this is unachievable,” instead they say, this sounds like a formidable challenge but our research shows that it is feasible by boosting graduation rates and improving cost efficiency as has been demonstrated by top quartile US institutions that have increased their productivity 17%–38% over their peers.

So we face this constant litany about productivity and measurement. We have a confluence of policy makers, policy wonks, reporters, administrators and frankly too often faculty as well, invoking a “new normal” of austerity that identifies the problem as productivity or lack thereof – not as revenues or lack thereof. This perspective claims to focus on human capital, but it demonizes higher education employees as an obstacle. And it’s in this context that these state models emerge.

In the states today, we see three main models for public higher education. I’ll call them assembly lines, flagships, and compacts for privatized decline. Let me describe the first: production assembly lines and the return of Frederick Taylor.

Texas is a quintessential example of productivity metrics at their counter-productive worst. Odds are you haven’t heard of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, but the state is implementing productivity measures generated by the TPPF, working with Governor Rick Perry.

The first measure promoted by the TPPF is, in a sense, like paying K-12 teachers according to narrowly measured gains in their students’ performance on standardized tests. Only the TPPF model is worse, if that’s possible, because the outcome metric is simply student credit hours generated, period. You get rewarded by volume of credit hours.

Measuring professors’ productivity by student hours is a little bit like measuring physicians’ productivity by the number of patients they see. Students, like patients, are not well served by an assembly line model of professional work that mistakes volume of immediate output for quality of treatment.

Texas-style, a productive arrangement is one in which a single, low-paid faculty member, probably an adjunct, teaches hundreds of students. If it’s thousands of students that’s even better. The students might not learn much, they might not have much opportunity to interact with faculty, they might not graduate, they might not get jobs, but what matter? Because in the eyes of the TPPF and Governor Perry, they will have insured that the professors are being productive.

Now Texas has also moved to calculate the costs and productivity of each individual faculty member in terms of their salaries, and the credit hours – and revenue – that they generate.

There has been some pushback against these proposals. But this assembly-line model and these productivity metrics are nonetheless being picked nationally, in different ways. They’re picked up by the National Governor’s Association and by the Lumina Foundation, and so on.

As these metrics are being defined nationally, we can either rail against them in a blanket sense and watch them get implemented nonetheless, or we can try to play some sort of role in defining alternative metrics that benefit our students and our commitment to a public mission for higher education.

For example, we could develop a metric not unlike what David Lavin and colleagues did in evaluating the open-access experiment at CUNY. We could ask, what is the contribution of CUNY to upward mobility and to diversifying New York City’s middle class? That would be a socially useful metric that could help shape the national debate.

The second state-level model is focused on flagships, with a “trickle-down” model of higher education. This is the return not of Frederick Taylor, but Ronald Reagan. In Ohio, for example, university presidents and the board of regents have proposed what were at first called “charter universities,” which they have now renamed “enterprise universities.” The starting point for this model is a focus on the elite research universities – everybody wants to be a flagship. The idea is to let flagships fund themselves.


This model is similar in important ways to the PHEEIA [Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act] proposal recently debated in New York. It calls for a level of deregulation, with university presidents thinking like CEOs of independent firms. The deregulation increases tuition, and public oversight over the construction of facilities is eliminated under the label of “construction reform.” In exchange for this deregulation, schools get less state money.

The incentives in this plan are all wrong for addressing affordability, accessibility and quality. It supports the rich and disinvests in quality education for the rest. In fact, this model opens up public monies to a variety of forms of abuse with which Ohio has been all too familiar.

Let me move to the third model: a social compact for privatized decline. As with the recent budget deal in New York, this systematically shifts the funding burden from the state to the student. It projects an increase in student tuition well above the higher education price index, while the state’s contribution in real dollars gradually falls.

The claim is that somehow universities can generate their own revenues to replace state revenues – but we have 30 years of evidence in academic capitalism in higher education that indicates the opposite. There are very serious limits to a university’s ability to generate new businesses, or to generate royalties. What’s worse, this model ignores the most fundamental ways in which universities do in fact impact the economy.


The biggest economic benefit that universities provide is educating the broad population. Survey after survey indicates that what employers want, both private- and public-sector employers, is people who can communicate, who can write, who can present themselves, who have a broad education. That is the consistent and overwhelming message from the people who hire our graduates.

That runs completely counter to this model’s narrow idea of universities’ economic impact, where the key is to pick a few fields that will be entrepreneurial winners, like nanotechnology or biotech. To pay for those initiatives universities eliminate humanities – because after all, how will graduates get jobs? But the evidence from 30 years of moving away from a broad education is that this runs completely counter to our biggest potential economic impact.

Similarly, our greatest contribution, especially in an institution like CUNY, is in providing upward mobility for growing numbers of students who are the growth population across the country, and not just in New York City – low-income, first-generation immigrant, both documented and not, and students of color. If we’re going to succeed as a nation culturally, socially and economically, we need to counter the pattern of the last 30 years, of expanding the gap between not just the haves and the have nots, but between the 99% and the 1%.


We’ve been colonized by a culture of constraint and fear. The counter-narrative that we have to organize around is one that speaks to priorities and possibilities. We need to not just defend public higher education as it now exists, but advance new ways of thinking about what it is for – because the world is changing.

This is a time when the scale of our thinking and of our mobilization and action needs to extend beyond our battles at the local level. In the national debate, faculty and professionals from institutions like CUNY should play a central role. So I would encourage you, as you continue thinking about the role of CUNY and of the PSC in shaping public higher education, that you see yourself on a national stage. You are fundamentally important to the future of public higher education, and we need to hear your voice.


Defending Public Higher Education - Conference Website