Chris Uggen's Blog: public education as a value choice

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

public education as a value choice

As my college searches for a new dean, I'm eager to hear what the term "public" (and "research" and "university") means to each of the candidates. Does it connote openness, universality, and community? Or, does it just mean that we're broke?

As a department chair, I'm privy to reams of data documenting the declining proportion of my college's revenues coming from state coffers. Aside from the material privatization of flagship public research universities, the great publics seem to be privatizing in a cultural sense as well. For example, are the faculty, students, and staff now returning to public school campuses even dimly aware of the land-grant ideals of the Morrill Act? While we might be sympathetic to its mission -- to "promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions of life" -- most of us made the choice to work or study at public universities because these organizations offered us the best deal on the market.

There's nothing wrong with that, of course -- I'm glad that publics such as the University of Minnesota can still compete and win on the open market. But a storm is threat'ning, both in terms of resources and in terms of meaning. In my view, if public research universities are to prosper, our academic leaders must somehow reclaim, reformulate, and nurture a clear public vision, one distinct from that of the great private institutions.

To be sure, many of the challenges are economic -- and our new dean had best be equipped to deal with resource constraints. Nevertheless, I'm convinced that academic leaders must also build a better normative case for public education if they are to garner the needed human and financial resources. Here are five things I'd like to hear from a prospective dean, provost, or president at my public research university:

1. We will strengthen the core -- and build around it. Field-shaping research and first-rate instruction must remain our core priorities, but we can do a much better job building around this core and exploiting our comparative advantages. Our status as public employees can make for cutting-edge research, particularly when it grants entree to unique data sources or research partnerships with state and community leaders. Because our departments serve a large number of undergraduates, our graduate students will gain first-rate instruction and experience in teaching. Undergraduate students, in turn, will get first-hand experiences in community service learning, as research assistants or independent researchers, and as teaching assistants.

2. We will make ourselves useful. One way to strengthen and legitimize our claim to public resources is to conduct more engaged scholarship, outreach, translation research, or extension work that provides some benefit to the citizens who pay a portion of our salaries. Public events and projects with a clear outreach mission (e.g., Contexts magazine) help cement these claims. And we will celebrate and grow those projects that combine field-shaping disciplinary scholarship with the university's public research mission.

3. We will preserve access. Administrators know that students from disadvantaged backgrounds can mess with a university's four-year graduation rate. Great publics must avoid the temptation to "cream" applicants even when it may lower their standing on crude indicators such as the annual U.S. News rankings. A century and a half after the Morrill Act, public universities still provide access and mobility opportunities for students from the "industrial classes" and their modern equivalents. There's nothing more rewarding, as a teacher, than helping students from disadvantaged backgrounds take flight. And, to the extent that we fail to provide access and mobility opportunities, our claim to public resources is correspondingly diminished.

4. At minimum, we will always make it possible for great scholars to do their work. Faculty, students, and staff all wish to be well-compensated and supported in their work, but few of us expect to get rich. As chair, I can often put a strong deal on the table for those I'm recruiting, but it will rarely be a cushy deal. We're not big on permanent teaching reductions or vanity centers, in part, because we're not big on aristocracy. But a great public must create a research-friendly environment in which faculty can do their best work. The minute that such faculty can do work in a private institution that they cannot do in a public institution, the game is over.

5. We will cultivate the idea of public education as a value choice. This is the most controversial element, since education is an elite-driven field. But public schools that don't embrace a positive sense of themselves as public schools are like progressive politicians who don't mention taxes for fear of playing "class warfare." Around campus, we routinely sanction our colleagues for the value choices expressed in the cars they drive or the coffee they drink. Yet the value choice expressed in leaving a public for a private -- or transferring one's kids from a public to a private -- is off-limits in civilized conversation.

Writing this, I realize exactly why the dean candidates we'll be interviewing probably won't discuss such value choices in polite company -- like me (and my kids), they don't want to burn their own bridges!

3 Comments:

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