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Privatizing the Public University

Recently a committee of the University of California’s Academic Senate effectively threw cold water on the plans of UCLA’s Anderson School of Management to take its M.B.A. program private.

The plan was for the program to give up state funds and, in return, for the state to give the school more leeway in issues such as setting tuition. The school’s faculty and the UCLA Senate had approved the plans, but it ran into unanimous opposition from a committee of the Academic Senate. It was troubled that donors might have too much influence, that faculty priorities might shift, and that costs would rise without sufficient financial aid for poorer students.

That decision by the committee could prove to be a mistake.

On the surface, both sides have been pleasantly disingenuous. The Anderson School claims that it wouldn’t really privatize its full-time graduate program but was simply seeking some economic breathing room—“self-supporting status”—that would benefit all UCLA. The Senate committee says it voted not to kill the idea, but to table it.

Beneath the diplomatic two-step lie two competing visions of the public university. The Senate’s vision is one that has held constant since the creation of the Master Plan: Higher education is a public good that is supported largely by the state. Decisions about the system function by way of shared governance across the system. The Anderson School is reacting to a fiscal environment that “is threatening the very essence of our university.” State support is unpredictable as well as declining. The result is that the school’s vision moves away from state support—and in consequence, say some, support for the public good.

In a system of shared governance like UC’s, a systemwide faculty committee has every right to comment on a move as significant as an individual school’s desire to effectively break away from the constraints of the UC system. Indeed, it’s a natural step in the process that began with a review by the Anderson faculty and dean and then by UCLA, and which now has arrived at the system level. Such a deliberative—and conservative—governance structure has served the university well for 50 years, ensuring that if a reform is to move forward, all parties must have an opportunity to weigh in.

Change is slow and incremental in such a system, with reform largely taking the form of tinkering with a model that most agree works well. The proposal to privatize Anderson’s M.B.A. program goes far beyond tinkering; it blows up the public-university model.

I’m not surprised that the Anderson School’s self-supporting proposal was viewed with alarm by the system’s faculty. The idea goes to the heart of how we define a public university. Public universities and colleges derive—or should derive—the bulk of their funds from the state government. By this logic, these institutions are just another state agency, and their employees no different from, say, DMV workers.

But faculty don’t see themselves that way. They regard themselves as more akin to partners in a law firm. Their overriding concerns are with the prospects of the entire university system, not the fortunes of an individual school at a constituent university.

While I sympathize with the process that has decided the issue for now, I am troubled by the faculty’s decision to just say no. It seems emblematic of a desire on the part of many professors to hope for the best and to stay the course in the belief that in a few years, current challenges will have passed, and academic life will return to what it once was.

I don’t see that happening.

No state, especially California, has the appetite, let alone the capacity, to support public institutions in a manner that we once did. In part, that’s why our elite public institutions have developed alternative sources of revenue. But technological advances are also forcing them to change in ways unheard of just five years ago. The rise of massive open online courses, of models of learning involving for-profit platforms and nonprofit institutions, and of alternative providers that offer skills in place of course credits—all these developments will only further challenge the academic status quo. We are at a moment when organizational innovation is necessary if we are going to maintain academic excellence.

I’m not suggesting that privatization is a fait accompli in public higher education. But I do not see a way forward without actions akin to what UCLA’S Anderson School of Management has proposed. Those of us who are suspicious of privatization schemes need to put forward alternatives that take into account the economic and technological realities we face, not simply hope that our challenges will go away.

William G. Tierney is director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education and a professor of higher education at the University of Southern California.

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