07 September 2009

Mark Yudof on the "hybrid" university.

Back in 2002, when he was President of the University of Minnesota, Mark Yudof wrote a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education (which can still be found here) describing the prospects for the development of a "hybrid" university system in the era of diminishing state support for public universities. It is a very compelling read, because it allows us a close look at the current UC President's thinking in the present fiscal crisis.

When Yudof refers to a "hybrid' system, he means a system of higher education that is "mixed" in that it  follows in part the traditional public model and in part the traditional private model. The current model of a public university comprises high support from the state budget accompanied by low tuition, at least for in-state students (to the point where in California in-state students pay no tuition, just a few thousand dollars here and there in "fees"). The hybrid university would have a more balanced source of funding —what this means in the present situation of low general fund appropriations from the state is that students would pay "dramatically" higher tuition (although perhaps not quite as high as at the privates) while state funding would remain about the same.

According to Yudof, diminished state support is already here, so we need to re-balance the other side of the equation and "dramatically" increase tuition for students. This is based on the idea that higher education is more and more a private good, and that as such those who stand to reap its benefits should pay for it. There is nothing new here, in many ways this is what here in California was already envisaged in  the 2004 "higher Education compact" between UC and the Governor.

But there is more in Yudof'a article than just this re-balancing of funding sources. First of all, Yudof points to the causes behind diminished public support, and second he describes the effects that such a funding shift would have on the internal functioning of the university. These are important aspects that have not been sufficiently addressed.

Among the former, two factors would seem particularly relevant:
  1. Demographics: as the US population gets older, resources are shifted from education to other areas of interest to seniros, such as health care and security.
  2. Globalization: as multi-national corporations get less and less tied to a specific geographic location, they have less interest in developing a well-educated local workforce.
The combined effect of demographics and globalization is precisely the diminished support for public universities around the country. To the extent that these causes are at work in the present situation, there is not much that can be done to counterbalance them, and certainly nothing that UC faculty can do to reverse them.

Rather interesting, on the other hand, is Yudof's take on the internal effects of this funding shift. Fully embracing a market-oriented approach, Yudof points out that
As tuition pays more and state dollars pay less of the freight, accountability will shift more toward students and their needs and away from the priorities of legislators and other state leaders.
This means greater investment in those areas where there is greater demand for instruction (instruction, not research): business, pre-med, pre-law, social sciences, etc. Instruction in these areas will have to be "delivered" in the most efficient (i.e., cost-effective) possible way. This means "new partnerships with foundations, school districts, non-profit organizations, and corporations" and either eliminating or start charging fees for "outreach" activities that are not of immediate benefit to the "customers" (once referred to as students), such as free legal or medical clinics in low-income areas.

In this market-oriented institution, "cross-subsidizing," as Yudof refers to it (i.e., revenue sharing from, say, medical centers to humanities programs), will be subject to strict scrutiny and it will not occur as a matter of course. It will be limited to those cases where it will bring the university a very specific competitive advantage, for example in building a highly ranked humanities department at relatively little cost to boost the institution's ranking and attract more paying customers.

What has been described so far is no different from the mission of a private, market-driven institution. In fact, traditional private institutions of higher learning are arguably less market-oriented than the "hybrid" university described by Yudof.

There is of course the residual problem with this model that, especially in the case of the professional schools, even increased tuition will not be enough to cover actual costs. These are so expensive in fact that, as Yudof points out, no private medical school has been started in the US in the last 23 years.

So we already have a tension in the hybrid model, as Yudof himself acknowledges. But there is more: what about the "public" part of the hybrid model? What happened to it? Public universities, in particular land-grant institutions (such as UC) provide benefits to the state as a collective subject that go beyond those provided to the individuals. They train doctors and other professionals, and at the same time attract resources and stimulate growth. But if higher education really is a private good, there is no incentive for state legislatures across the country to pour resources into such hybrid institutions. There is no principled reason why, if growth is the goal, states should not deploy their resources (assuming they have any) into a direct stimulus as opposed to funding public institutions. Or,   if affordability and access are the goal, there is no reason why any such extra resources should not be distributed directly to students in the form of financial aid and other direct grants.

This is a challenge that Yudof acknowledges, but he fails to follow the logic wherever it may lead him. If we do follow the logic, the conclusion seems to be that the hybrid model is inherently unstable. Once funding is shifted from state appropriations to tuition, fees, and revenue-generating "partnerships," there is no longer any incentive for the state to step in and make sure that the university also delivers the public good besides the private one. In a slippery slope that is all too familiar, once emphasis is shifted to tuition, and absent widespread pressure to keep delivering the public good, states will feel all the more justified to cut the university loose.

There is no such thing as a "hybrid" university, or at least not for very long, anyways.

We should rather go back to the beginning of the analysis, the causes of the decline in public funding that were identified at the outset: demographics and globalization. Whatever else is true, and however irreversible these trends might be, California is perhaps in a somewhat better position than most other places. The state is still a hotbed of economic activity, and start-ups (supported by local venture capital) mostly rely on the local workforce, hence a need for the proper production of locally grown talent through affordable, high-quality institutions of higher education. Moreover, California's burgeoning immigrant population is mostly younger, tax-paying and child-bearing. These two factors combined constitute the basis for possible political action to restore adequate levels of public funding for higher education, along the lines laid down in the Master Plan. Perhaps ironically, far from being a burden on the state's finances, immigration might just save California.

So our best hope is not to give in to the myth of the hybrid university. At least here in California there are other options, and as long as we can represent and organize our own students' and their parents' needs and aspiration, there still might be a future for UC.

1 comment:

  1. very nice post and deconstruction of Yudof's hybrid vision. Yudof, obviously with the regent's blessing, has started the clock ticking on this reinvention of the UC system, and he is doing so with little to no faculty input. He has four faculty on the commission for the future, and added a few to the workgroups, but a look at the worgroup topics show that the deck is stacked to reach the conclusion desired by the regents and Yudof IMO. There is nothing I see in that list which adheres to a vision of UC as a remarkable institution and discussing a way to preserve that asset of UC while changing for the future, one key to that being the vision of UC as a great PUBLIC university.