• August 22, 2014

A Governor's Attack on Academic Freedom

Gov. Jerry Brown's 2013-14 budget for California intrudes on academic freedom in a way that could harm the 23 campuses of California State University and the 10 campuses of the University of California—but the impact of his attempt to control academic decision-making threatens every public college and university in the country.

If his attempt to dictate policy succeeds in California, where those two public systems are home to almost 660,000 students and 165,000 faculty and staff members, then no state-university system is safe from such impingement.

Putting aside for the moment the fairness of Brown's proposed $250-million increase for both the CSU and UC systems, and an additional $10-million to each one to develop online courses, the governor's budget attempts to dictate how the increased funds should be spent. That is a violation of academic freedom, the bedrock of colleges and universities.

Universities exist to promote the public interest, not to further the interests of individual professors, the institution as a whole, or, in this case, the governor of California. The public interest is not served by Brown's inserting himself into education decision-making.

Academic freedom fosters an independent academic voice and encompasses the conflict-of-interest issues that might impair impartiality. This conflict is between the goals of the governor in dictating how the increased funds should be spent and the wishes of the college administrators and faculty members who should be making the educational decisions.

Several statements by Brown on his Web site are troubling. "The people in the university are going to have to find a way to do the same thing with fewer growing resources," he says. What does he think we have been doing for the past five years? While it is true that tuition increases have been excessive and unfair to the students, they have been necessary to stem the tide of canceled classes, overly crowded classrooms, and good faculty members lost to institutions that actually have increased faculty salaries during the past five years. In the California state systems, we have seen no such increases and have endured a 10-percent cut in salary during one of those years.

Brown wants to tie financial support to the universities' ability to improve graduation rates and to graduate students on time. Fair enough. But such linkage is likely to lead to a decline in standards in order to "improve graduation rates," as has been the case in the elementary- and secondary-education systems.

Moreover, doesn't the governor know that virtually all colleges and universities in the state are subject to accreditation standards by, at a minimum, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges? Professional programs undergo a more specialized accreditation process as well, such as that of AACSB International—the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. Those organizations already look at graduation rates and the quality of programs, and are more qualified than the state to make such assessments.

The most intrusive demand by Brown is that universities expand their online courses to reduce costs and allow more students to get the classes they need to graduate. Once again the governor is placing quantity ahead of quality. Among the many questions involving online education is whether the same quality of education can be made available online as that available in the classroom.

What's more, the costs of developing and maintaining online courses may divert funds from other programs, lowering the quality of the educational experience of all students. The state spent $1.6-billion less on higher education in 2010-11 than it did 10 years earlier, according to the independent Public Policy Institute of California. While that decline is due in part to the recession since 2008 and to lower general-fund revenues, it also reflects changing state priorities. During the past 10 years, state support for higher education has fallen 9 percent, while that for corrections and rehabilitation services has increased 26 percent. Shouldn't we devote more funds to higher education, in the hope of developing skills among people who might otherwise get in trouble and wind up in our prisons?

I have taught in the California State system for 25 years, and it no longer resembles what once was among the best public-­college systems in the country. The facilities on many campuses have not been modernized, the failure to keep up with salary levels of comparable institutions has led to a brain drain, and the lack of funds has inhibited the development of programs to meet the needs of a changing world.

The irony is that faculty members have continued working as hard or harder to maintain the quality of education, despite overall declines in salaries and being asked to teach more classes with more students in technologically marginal classrooms.

State universities exist to serve the needs of young people who want to be educated and advance their position in life. They should provide a low-cost alternative to private colleges and universities, and should have faculty and staff members committed to excellence in education.

Part of the process of running a multicampus system, such as CSU and UC, is to leave academic governance to local campuses. It does not matter whether the state universities are in California, New York, or Wisconsin—the principle is the same. Shared governance on each campus dictates that decisions should be made by the faculty and academic administrators of that campus and not by a government official.

California has the largest and most diverse state-run university systems in the country, and it often serves as a bellwether for other large state-university systems. Governor Brown is using the state's woeful budget situation to exact concessions from the University of California's chancellor and California State University's Board of Trustees, who are content to avoid further program and salary cuts in the 2013-14 academic year.

What happens in California does not necessarily stay in California, which is why faculty and staff members across the country should sit up and take notice of our governor's efforts to use a financial crisis to dictate academic policy.

Steven Mintz is a professor of ethics in business and accounting at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo.

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