University of Oklahoma President David Boren published a passionate and insightful op-ed last week that encapsulates perfectly the seismic decline of state government funding for public higher education in this country.
I want to first praise Boren’s commentary, and then add some of my own points.
In an aptly titled editorial, “Will public higher education disappear?,” Boren calls the funding crisis of higher education a major threat to our country. “The result of declining state support for public higher education and cost shifting to students,” Boren writes, “is threatening America’s role in the world.”
As OU’s president since 1994, Boren makes his argument with good authority. He notes that state funding for OU has declined from 32 percent of its overall budget when he became president to just 15 percent now. Costs have been shifted to students, who often go into debt with loans secured by the federal government.
As a long-time professor in this state I’ve followed Boren’s comments about higher education since he became president, and I’ve read his pleas before for more state funding for higher education. I can’t recall reading a more passionate call for more state funding by Boren, and his points are succinct and convincing. We can’t ruin our public education system in this country without, essentially, ruining our country. I agree with that.
But I would like to add to Boren’s comments because I believe he leaves a couple of important things out of his arguments, which need to be addressed in any discussion about funding for higher education.
(1) I couldn’t even pretend to know the influence of the “corporate model of education” on OU, but the philosophy underpinning it has been a complete disaster for more than two decades on the country’s overall public higher education system. The corporate model of education argues that students are consumers and instructors are providers, and their supposed free-market interaction will result in thriving universities. That hasn’t happened. Across the nation, universities face severe budget problems. In fact, the corporate model can be directly blamed for beginning to take the “public” out of “public education,” turning it into a consumer-driven product rather than the sustaining of deeply-needed centers of intellectualism and critical inquiry.
Those of us, like myself, who have spoken out against the corporate model of education have been ignored while powerful higher education advocates, such as Boren, more often than not simply ignore the issue. I can only guess it’s because of political expediency. Conservatives, which now control our own state government, believe in the moral viability of the free market and privatization of government. Some may well see the drop in OU’s state funding as a great victory of the free enterprise system and conservative values. Higher education leaders obviously have to be careful how they phrase their requests for more funding, but nothing can be systematically changed until the corporate model of education is exposed as one of the main culprits in what Boren calls the move to “dismantle public higher education.”
Let’s be clear: Students come to universities to learn, discover and create. They are not coming to buy a pair of shoes at the best price possible nor are universities trying to make the best profit possible by selling shoes. Conflating the academic mission with corporate ideology will result in exactly what we have now: Corporations and the rich people who control them pay less in taxes and students pay more in tuition in a system that is not even remotely sustainable. Both Boren and I will be long retired when it happens, but it’s conceivable given current trends that many of our public universities, especially in Oklahoma, could become private enterprises in the decades to come. Students will get priced out, and the country will rot in its conservative debris.
(2) My second point is that depoliticizing the call for more education funding hasn’t worked here. It’s true that both Oklahoma Republicans and Democrats have participated in creating budgets that have defunded higher education in recent years, but it’s the liberals who have stood up here consistently and argued for more education funding for universities and schools. It’s also the “movement” conservatives, or Republicans, who are most apt to argue in favor of the corporate model of education and tax cuts for the wealthiest among us, which leads to smaller or stagnant state budgets during poor economic times.
Gov. Mary Fallin and the GOP-dominated legislature are even on the verge of cutting income taxes once again under the dubious Republican argument that this will create a better economy here, but it’s probably going to mean less money for higher education down the road.
So my point is that there’s no hiding the fact that education funding issues, with some exceptions, are as politically partisan as anything else in our culture today. Nothing will get done by ignoring this obvious dilemma, as Boren, a former Democratic U.S. Senator, does in his commentary, whether the omission was intentional or not.
For years, universities have been under attack by conservatives, such as David Horowitz, for supposedly embracing liberal values across disciplines, which is a myth. I think many universities, perhaps even at OU, have been overly sensitive to this reductionist argument. The truth of the matter is that liberals actually need more space, freedom and recognition on our state’s campuses, in our culture and in our media here. If that doesn’t happen, then the funding issue for higher education won’t get seriously resolved anytime soon or ever.