October 31, 2003

Privatizing the Public

After two years of severe cuts, my college's state-funded budget is down to less than $50-million, and I have $49-million in salary commitments. Not much room to maneuver.

But if we could set our own tuition, and the dollars came directly to us (as they now do not), we could double the tuition rate (which is now about $5,000 a year), and, given an enrollment of 10,000 students, we would instantly become a $100-million college. We could then say to the state, keep your $50-million, continue to pay for our capital projects, pensions, and health plans, and we promise to give the citizens of Illinois an educational product superior to the product they are unwilling to pay for in tax dollars.

-- Stanley Fish, "Give Us Liberty or Give us Revenue"

Fed up with "irresponsible politicians" who "play to the crowd and do not speak to the realities facing public universities," Stanley Fish (who recently announced his resignation as Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago) calls for a privatization of public universities. Given the breakdown of the compact between state governments and public research universities, Fish argues, public universities are already being forced into a kind of privatization "by default," which "usually means a combination of higher tuition, fewer services, aggressive outsourcing, aggressive patenting, distance education, technology transfers, and private donations." Fish suggests they should go big or go home:

They can privatize, not by default and in a desperate attempt to deal with forces beyond their control, but by design and with a view to creating conditions that would allow the flourishing of those values in whose name Bok writes.

Well, that's one response to the cutbacks. Is this a serious proposal, or a new twist on what Timothy Burke characterized (in his "A Tale of Two Administrators"?) as "a kidnapper's threat to kill a hostage. 'Don't make me do it, man!'"

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at October 31, 2003 08:53 AM

Maybe Fish's administrative skills aren't so hot... as anybody who's had intro economics knows, doubling your price won't double your revenues, because demand will fall - and significantly in this case, because of the nature of UIC's customers.

It's really too bad he's gone though, it was a brilliant move on UIC's part to bring him in there, even just for the name recognition...

Posted by: paul goyette at October 31, 2003 09:54 AM

I think Fish is right about this in the abstract, (which does not surprise me much) and maybe even right in this specific case, which does surprise me. I think he is right in saying that direct state aid to higher ed has been declining steadily and that it will continue to decline. Student loan programs are politically popular. Giving money to colleges is not. All the major state schools are looking less and less to the legislature and more and more to tuition and gifts because they have to. I think Wisconsin-Madison or somebody like that even floated the idea of ending the relationship. There is something to be said for a school thinking about the implications of this rather than treating it as a crisis every summer.

The question is will it work at Circle?* I think Paul is wrong for bringing in Intro economics. In a normal company you don’t have an admissions office who’s job is to turn away people who want to pay money for your product but aren’t worthy of it. Yes enrollment might fall if you doubled tuition, but it might not fall much. Currently we use SAT scores and such to ration out the scarce good of seats in college, in almost every other part of society goods are rationed using money. The old method is only viable with a broad commitment to liberal higher ed. among politicians and the public. That seems to be dying, and there is little hope of reviving it.

Fish’s larger point seems to be that if we are going to move towards a market-based Higher-Ed system we should stop fiddling around and do it, and that there would be important benefits to the switch that would outweigh the problems. I wish he would be more specific about the costs and benefits, but it seems an interesting idea.

* I call it that just to annoy Fish.

Posted by: Ssuma at October 31, 2003 01:27 PM

Hadn't thought of that Ssuma, but I still think doubling tuition there would tend to dampen interest. UIC is mostly night schoolers, who probably don't have too much trouble getting in. I, for instance, took a class there a couple years ago, and I seriously doubt I would have done so had the price been twice as high.

Part of the point of having state schools is to make education more accessible, and doubling the tuition, especially when we're not talking about a flagship school, would seem to run counter to that mission. And while I certainly sympathize with the budgeting problems UIC has, as an Illinois taxpayer I'd rather see the money going to the primary or secondary education systems, which are in even worse shape...

Posted by: paul goyette at October 31, 2003 02:51 PM

Fish is no doubt serious, and his proposal is not even very radical. Two years ago, I participated in a presidential retreat at the University of Virginia exploring whether the school should sever its ties with the state. Many participants thought it was just a threat, but I'll be damned if the law school didn't go private last year.

The situation for an elite public school, like Virginia or Michigan, is different from that faced by Fish. The Virginia lawmakers can freeze in-state tuition for five years and make up the lost funds by increasing the costs for all the out of state students desperate to enroll. Of course, then threatening to require that the university reserve a greater number of places forin-state students doesn't help the matter.

I think Fish has exactly the right attitude. If you are being forced into a position, rather than holding your ground you should seek the best compromise possible. Replacing a vibrant system of public universities with private schools would be a great loss, but watching these institutions wither through negelct would be a greater loss.

Posted by: Frolic at October 31, 2003 03:54 PM

"I think Fish has exactly the right attitude."

It's the right attitude if you are prepared to have someone call your bluff. Which is to say, if you're not actually bluffing and are prepared to follow through.

As paul goyette points out, we're not talking about a flagship school here. Could they double tuition without seeing a significant, perhaps even a drastic, decline in enrollments?

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at October 31, 2003 06:49 PM

Well ...

Fish forgets that the big attraction his university has is its low tuition. When your position is price leadership and you give up that advantage, your chances of keeping your revenue stream are dramatically reduced.

It is like community college enrollments.

How many private community colleges are there that charge tuition of any scale?

Posted by: Anon Again at October 31, 2003 07:06 PM

It's an odd kind of privatization that Fish proposes. The state still gets to pay for capital improvements and funds pension and health insurance costs. It just loses all say over tuition, which is what matters to Illinois voters.

So I doubt that Fish, who is the last person I'd accuse of naivete, actually means his proposal seriously.

Posted by: jam at October 31, 2003 07:44 PM

Fish seems to want to have the independence and autonomy to run things like a corporate CEO (with no effective board of directors) but still get money from the state for capital expenditures, etc. Things don't work that way.

Posted by: David Foster at October 31, 2003 09:57 PM

I pay nearly three thousand pounds a year for the pleasure of being a PhD student in Britain. I see my supervisor once a month and sometimes use the library. So how do they justify making a research student pay all that money? I'm very angry about it.

Posted by: Claire at November 1, 2003 07:07 AM

Subject to the caveats you folks have listed, Fish's ideas are fine. But it's funny that he wants to make some kind of global statement rather than just doing some ground work related to actually starting a private school. How does he think we got all these private schools in this here country? It is the one great and distinguishing feature of US higher ed. Fish is free to start one up and I for one wish him well.

Posted by: gerald garvey at November 1, 2003 10:51 AM

The situation in Canada and specifically at McGill University, where I am an undergraduate, is even worse than the public schools in the U.S. At McGill for instance, funding at the federal level was cut 20% in 1996 and there have been provincial cuts as well. In 1994, the Quebec government froze tuition for Quebec students ( a freeze for Canadian tuition is also imposed by the Federal government). One of the many ways McGill is hurting is that McGill has been forced to postpone $180 million in campus maintenance, of which, 8 years later, only $40 million has taken place. McGill has also had to cut library services (student fees now make up for some of the lack of funding), reduce service staff, and privatize food services. In addition, the Quebec government, under the Parti Quebecois, failed to give McGill its fair share of funding (for being the bastion of English Imperialism). The only control McGill has over its income is international student (15% of the total student body), who have faced 10% tuition increases every year for 6 year and will for many years to come. Also due to the shortage of funding, McGill needs to raise 100 million in alumni donations in the next five years. All of this at the same time as McGill is replacing, due to retirement, and hiring 100 professors per year for ten years (it is currently year 4). The current debate is McGill wants control of tuition, the new Liberal Party Quebec Government seems to agree but Quebec students oppose this (protests in the 1000's have taken place). It can all be summed up in that everyone wants something, and more of it, for nothing. Students want government to pay. Government wants students to pay. McGill just wants some money so it can pay its staff fairly and fix all the leaking roofs on campus.

Posted by: Ben at November 1, 2003 02:13 PM

Fish is missing the point when it comes to the mission of public university systems. No governor or legislator would ever admit it, but Big State U. is not an educational institution; fundamentally, it's not even an institution dedicated to perfecting an "educational product." Big State U. is a credentialing institution. It's mission is not to "perform groundbreaking research," let alone "promote arts and culture"; Big State U.'s mission is to confer the baccalaureate so that the state's residents (voters) can enter the workforce with a college degree on their resume (and a corresponding bump in their paycheck). Education is a byproduct, something that occassionally happily happens because faculty and staff give a damn anyway. Higher tuition and fees defeat the purpose of credentialing if they mean said residents/voters enter the workforce (and the economy) saddled with student loans. Governors and legislators will never allow this, and so Fish's argument is either willfully or woefully naive. The credentialing engine will continue to grimly churn and grind long after budget cuts and tuition caps have removed all possibility of education.

Posted by: Prof at Big State U. at November 1, 2003 09:58 PM

Well, I wrote and asked Fish what he meant and what his thinking was.

Here is his response:

Dear Steve Ethesis,
The answer to the first question is that I mean for the state to still be
responsible for capital projects and health plans. The answer to the second
question is that I have no doubt that a university with a internationally
renowned faculty, like the faculty at UIC, would do very well indeed if its
tuition were $10,000.

Sincerely yours,
Stanley Fish

Stanley Fish
Dean, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
University of Illinois at Chicago
601 S. Morgan Street (MC 228)
Chicago, IL 60607-7104
Phone: 312-413-7329
Fax: 312-413-2511

At 11:24 AM 11/4/2003 -0500, you wrote:

>Begin forwarded message:
>>From: Steve
>>Date: Sat Nov 1, 2003 7:13:49 AM US/Eastern
>>To: careers@chronicle.com
>>Subject: some debate going on, question
>>Reply-To: Ethesis@aol.com
>>When Fish says "But if we could set our own tuition, and the dollars came
>>directly to us (as they now do not), we could double the tuition rate
>>(which is now about $5,000 a year), and, given an enrollment of 10,000
>>students, we would instantly become a $100-million college. We could then
>>say to the state, keep your $50-million, continue to pay for our capital
>>projects, pensions, and health plans, and we promise to give the citizens
>>of Illinois an educational product superior to the product they are
>>unwilling to pay for in tax dollars"
>>does he mean he wants the state to continue to pay for capital projects,
>>etc. or does he mean "keep your money and we will continue to pay for
>>capital projects, etc.?"
>>Also, does he really think that an institution that has as its
>>competitive advantage low price will be able to draw students when it
>>loses the advantage?

I think he mistakes the will of the State to cover his heavy costs -- capital, pensions, medical, etc. -- while at the same time letting him double his tuition in order to double the amount of money available for salaries.

Though, quite frankly, that would be a way to have enough revenue in order to have more tenure track faculty and fewer adjuncts, etc.

So maybe he has something going there.

Posted by: Steve at November 4, 2003 04:14 PM

The problem here is Fish, not the legislature. Or maybe its the guys who hired him and then made him Dean.

I need to explain SSuma's referrence to "Circle." Until a few years ago the school that Fish is Dean of was the "Chicago Circle Campus of the University of Illinois." It was, as one local wag had it, the only college in the world named after a freeway interchange. (Chicago Circle is the confluence of 3 major freeways, just south of the Loop downtown area)

It should not be confused of with the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign, the mother ship and a great research university, 140 miles south of Chicago. Its faculty won two Nobel prizes this year. Circle was founded, in the 1960's, IIRC, as a commutter campus to take pressure off the Champain campus and provide opportunites to urban students who did not want to could not afford to or did not qualify for the main campus downststate.

Nor should UIC be confused with the University of Chicago, founded by John D Rockefeller and William Rainey Harper about 110 years ago. U of C is a private institution and one of the top research institutions in the World. They had 2 Nobelists also this year, but that is neither unusal or surprising.

At some point somebody decided to upgrade the commuter campus to a full research university. They hired Fish away from Duke for $200,000 a year, just before he would have been run out of Durham on a rail . Fish, in turn, assembled an outstanding (and expensive) group of Theorists to complement his august self.

At some point the Illinois legislature looking to save money, must have said to its collective self. Why did we let them do this? We needed another research university on the south side of Chicago like a moose needs a hatrack. We can fund 2 campuses poorly or one well and downgrade the other.

I assume that they have decided to put UIC on a diet. Its all right. Universities are good but they are not absolutely good. Instead of privatizing, they should can the Theorists, shut down any unfunded research programs and go back to their orginal mision of providing education for the urban masses.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at November 5, 2003 09:47 PM


I don't believe "the PQ screwed us" line, not for a minute. The Charest[1] government won't be that different from say, Bouchard's[2] PQ government when it comes to social spending. Worse maybe. Last week you had CEGEP students rioting in Quebec City about the Liberal's proposed tuition hikes. Note that it wasn't all those poor McGill profs and students.

Incidentally, Shapiro (an incompetent fool, even for a university administrator) used to float ideas about privatisation in the Gazoon.

Places like CUNY and the U. of California system used to be free or almost free. Now that universities are degree mills cranking out bureaucrats, the idea is that the individual should pay -- through the nose. I guess the assumption is that it is the individual benefits, so that's who should pay. The beauty of the current system is that you have to go into debt thereby committing yourself to being a corporate functionary to pay it off. Bureaucracy reproduces itself with greater efficiency. Hooray!

[1] former Tory
[2] ibid

Posted by: che at November 11, 2003 03:49 PM