Monday, February 28, 2011

Freeing or flogging flagships

As a denizen of big state schools, most of whom would be considered Flagship Institutions (and don't you forget to capitalize those, sir!), I am increasingly interested in two warring approaches to these venerable schools.

On one side, we have the Biddy Martin/U Michigan/screw-the-system approach: one that says that, as much is expected of the Flagship U (in terms of research dollars, educating many undergrad and graduate students, and contributing to the well-being of the state economy), much should be given to these behemoths in the way of independence and autonomy. Martin's bid to create the University of Wisconsin at Madison as a new kind of governmental entity, separate from the rest of the UW system and the Board of Regents, is seen as a slap in the face by the rest of the UW schools and the Board. But one can understand both Martin's argument and Gov. Walker's interest in setting the campus free (and further reducing state financial contributions to the campus).

On the other side of the same coin is a move by Governors and legislators in states as diverse as Connecticut and Kansas to nickle-and-dime state schools as regards their non-faculty hiring. Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy "wants to require that all non-teaching hiring at the state's public colleges and universities be approved by his budget office." Why? Well, an article in the Connecticut Mirror explains:
Non-faculty staff--which includes administration, maintenance, health service, public safety, financial services and information technology staff--comprise nearly 70 percent of full-time employees at the University of Connecticut. At the Connecticut State University System and the state's 12-campus community college system, the faculty-staff ratio is closer to 50-50, according to a State Department of Higher Education report.
"We've seen a lot of growth in non-faculty. Some of it is understandable but given the track record we've seen in the last 20 years, a little more engagement on position control is worth it," said Higher Education Commissioner Michael Meotti.
They explain this added measure of reviewing every new non-teaching hire, which they swear would not be a burden or add time to the hiring process (I am laughing out loud now), as saying that patrolling non-faculty hiring would make sure faculty didn't have to be laid off (laughing even louder now).

In Kansas, the state House has passed a bill to study outsourcing government services, including campus services. Now, this isn't uncommon, as many state schools outsource janitorial services, food services, and campus bookstores. But Kansas legislators, like Rep. McLeland, want to join the move to outsource even more, like residence halls.
For example, he said, there are hotel chains that are experts in housing. Perhaps, he said, dorms could be sold or leased to them.

State Rep. Barbara Ballard [who works at University of Kansas], D-Lawrence, opposed McLeland’s amendment. She said residence halls are more than places for students to sleep. They are homes for students where they participate in programs and can receive help. “Sometimes, privatizing will not quite do that,” she said.
As someone who worked for residence life as a grad student, I am VERY clear about the ways in which dorms are NOT hotels. The idea of treating dorms like hotels is kind of nuts to me. And many institutions have found that outsourcing is not necessarily the big money-saver they had hoped it would be. But that really isn't the purpose behind this post.

The larger question here is about the relationship between state governments and their institutions of higher education. As states reduce the amount of funding they give to their public colleges and universities, some state governments are moving towards less control over these institutions, while others are moving towards greater (some might say "micromanaging") control. It is difficult to say which trend will win, and which ought to win. Not every state school can handle being released to make its own way, and the outsourcing/micromanaging trend is sure to bring its own set of unintended consequences that will show up in the paper sooner or later, such as protests over low wages for workers, poor compliance with expected standards, rising costs of contracts, divisions among university and contract workers, and failure of contract entities to work well with university systems.

The goals of both approaches are much the same: reduce costs to the taxpayers and, reportedly, maintain strong public schools. The devil is in the details... and the definitions of what we mean by "strong public schools."


Colleen said...

An excellent post, and a question the faculty Senate at my University has briefly touched, then shied away from. As a non-flagship in our state system, we're (of course) underfunded. State funding has decreased sharply, and the only solution (since we're cut pretty lean after the past three years) is to raise the students' tuition or find the funds from private sources.

If the state continues to decrease the public funding, I do wonder what stops public institutions - other than the nasty and scary idea of a complete reorg, and perhaps some legislative issues - from claiming that they are no longer really state supported, and becoming private, and kicking the micromanaging (but nonpaying) state out.

Pipe dreams of course, but eventually something's got to give. Unless the state is okay with us selling the sides of buildings for corporate ads.

Anonymous said...

As someone who has taught at two flagships that enjoy a great deal of autonomy, I can appreciate the fight for others to gain a similar level of freedom. While Biddy Martin's efforts at UW-Madison are understandable, the culture and politics in that state are different from others. In addition, the timing was probably inopportune, given what Governor Walker is attempting to do there. So the bottom line is while I'm willing to cut her some slack, I think she needs to be a bit more politically savvy.