Public Research Universities Are Being Undermined by Bogus Financial Crises

At The University of Iowa, on October 21, 2015, several hundred students, staff, and faculty presented the Iowa Board of Regents with a petition demanding their resignation for rigging a search which accomplished the final step in selecting new presidents of the state's three public universities. This was not an isolated protest, but one that is likely to be repeated nationwide in an impassioned struggle for the public to maintain access to affordable and quality higher education -- a cornerstone of an enlightened and involved citizenry.

American public research universities currently face a serious, but largely manufactured financial crisis. Shrinking state support and soaring administrative costs have prompted pronounced tuition increases and fueled demands by the public for drastic cost-cutting measures. Those demands have been reinforced by mounting student debt, largely inflated by predatory for-profit institutions.

Less widely appreciated is that many critics are now using financial exigency as a bogus justification for questioning the value of a college education and, by implication, undermining the worth of public research universities. Those who exploit this unease -- including current candidates for the United States Presidency -- consider a college education to be little more than a credentialing exercise to produce new cogs for the corporate machine. These critics also argue that the status quo is unsustainable and that today's public research university must be destroyed and reinvented as an efficiency-oriented, bottom-line 'business corporation.'

One element of the current strategy being deployed for reinventing the public research university is for boards of regents and trustees -- who usually lack any experience in higher education, but who are products of the corporate regime -- to impose their narrow worldview on public universities. Their ill-informed or misguided decisions can wreak havoc for decades thereafter. Several extremely disruptive episodes have already occurred at the University of Virginia, the University of Texas, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of North Carolina system.

But, these may have been only initial skirmishes in an all-out nationwide war with far darker objectives. At both Purdue University and The University of Iowa, governing boards have recently chosen presidents who may encourage or enable decidedly political and anti-intellectual agendas ultimately capable of reducing universities to workforce trade schools rather than academic oases where learning, discovery, artistic and creative expression, and free thinking can flourish. Those political agendas -- already being proposed at Purdue University -- are particularly pernicious and autocratic as they would dictate the terms of faculty appointment, evaluation, compensation, promotion, and leave time, and remove the shelter of academic freedom. Critically, academic freedom is what makes otherwise arid teaching institutions into the intellectual oases that they are and what brings increasing numbers of domestic and international students to their campuses. Without the protection of academic freedom, university faculty would be reduced to mere disseminators rather than creators of knowledge, instructors rather than professors.

The scheme for hijacking academic control begins by politicizing the appointment of governing board members at public universities. There are, for example, no faculty members on either of our respective boards. In Indiana, most of the members of the Purdue University Board of Trustees are appointed by the Governor. The current President of Purdue University, Mitch Daniels, was awarded that position by a board that had already been packed by Daniels himself when he was Governor. Although such a blatant act of cronyism may be legal and common in the corporate world, it is manifestly shady and inappropriate in public governance; when the Board of Trustees is the creature of the President, there can be no authentic oversight.

In Iowa, all of the members of the Board of Regents are appointed by the governor. The board is currently commanded by an extremely wealthy and politically powerful agribusiness entrepreneur, Bruce Rastetter, whose key qualification for the position was that he was Governor Terry Branstad's main campaign contributor. The highly contentious choice of former corporate strategist and currently self-employed Bruce Harreld as University of Iowa President was elaborately and secretly orchestrated by Rastetter. In doing so, Rastetter and his team arrogantly defied the overwhelming rejection of Harreld by university students, staff, and faculty, because he not only lacked any academic administrative experience, but also because he provided misleading and inaccurate information on his professional résumé, prompting a faculty vote of censure even before his official installation.

Also problematic is the presidential recruiting process itself. Most university faculty members are chosen through a rigorous and open process of full departmental review. However, the recruiting of top academic officials is a much murkier matter. In the case of our two Presidents, the search process thoroughly lacked transparency and accountability, in order to cover the staged process leading to its predetermined conclusion.

The appointment of a university President then becomes an essential step toward imposing a plutocratic program, urged by manifestos from national political think tanks, on public universities. It is tantamount to the 'hostile corporate takeover' of public higher education: "Hostile" because it opposes education for its own sake, for innovations in knowledge and culture, and for the consequent expansion of the human mind. And "corporate" because it sees a college education as nothing more than job-training -- mere preparation for today's ephemeral corporate jobs rather than as a pathway for the lifelong intellectual and personal development of the student.

We do agree with critics who complain that the status quo in public higher education is unacceptable. One of the elements most in need of reform is the process of selecting governing boards and university Presidents. We should insist that public university boards include faculty members or others familiar with higher education in order to promote and protect shared governance, and that university Presidents and administrators be hired to fight for and not against the intellectual ideals of higher education. These positions should not be favors to those who have lavished large sums of money on the universities or the state governors in question.

Failure to appoint duly qualified and involved citizens on governing boards will effectively end America's proud legacy of public higher education, leaving only private universities as venues for academic freedom, intellectual growth, creativity, and discovery. That would be a national disgrace and ultimately an economic disaster. It is heartening that the University of Iowa community is currently uniting to defend public higher education. It is essential that others join in this effort to prevent the undermining of our great American public research universities.