When Warren Bennis speaks, the business world listens. For fifty years, the revered U.S.C. professor, consultant, and scholar has taught legions of American companies the importance of ethical and responsible leadership. And so I definitely took notice when Professor Bennis teamed up last week with his provost C. L. Max Nikias to voice their opinions on the challenges facing American higher education: Don’t Let Cold Cost-Cutting Endanger the American Model of Higher Education.
To be fair, there is much in their opinion piece that I agree with, to wit, “Cost-cutting must be done without losing sight of higher goals that are unique to the mission of higher education.” And who could disagree that the country’s universities have a special quality that “drives American innovation, compensates for the weaknesses of our elementary and secondary education system, and keeps the United States poised as a pacesetter?”
Bennis and Nikias believe that the country must draw a line in the sand to protect its higher education system. Universities are so important to the nation’s future, they argue, that they shouldn’t be funded on the cheap. The country should thus resist “bringing a coldly calculating cost model to its chief intellectual and cultural asset.” And when universities have no choice but to cut costs, “wise administrators and trustees should cut surgically with a scalpel rather than aggressively with an ax.” I couldn’t agree more.
So what is the problem? The problem is that Bennis and Nikias would grant federal tax incentives to encourage corporations to “invest” in the nation’s universities. Having made this investment, companies could then “proudly trumpet their investment…as an essential element of their own brands.” I’m sorry, Messieurs Bennis and Nikias, but I think that’s a really bad idea.
For starters, university faculty members would never go for it. There is already great concern in the professoriate about too much corporate influence over higher education – about the embrace of business management practices by college administrators, about the strings attached to corporate funding, and even about the language and culture of the business world. In much of the academy, “efficiency” and “productivity” are fighting words, not to mention, ugh, “profit.” I’m not saying the faculty have got it right (this is a major topic in my book, and one that I will return to in future blogs), but for right or wrong, one can’t ignore the culture of academia. In this climate that culture would be quite suspicious of any financial lifeline that significantly increased corporate ties to campuses.
Another problem: business tax incentives, such as deductions for grants to universities, wouldn’t adequately tempt companies to cough up dollars in bad economic times which, of course, is when campuses really need the money. And setting aside that problem, companies would likely give their grants to the Harvards and U.S.C.s and Michigans of the country, and not to the Cleveland States and other public urban campuses which most need the dollars. Businesses aren’t going to “trumpet their investment” by pouring money into the impoverished lower tiers of the nation’s colleges.
But what about tax credits to corporations (as opposed to deductions)? Then corporate grants to campuses would basically be free, assuming the companies earned enough money to pay taxes in the first place. Sorry, but that doesn’t work either. Tax credits just shift the burden onto the federal treasury, and if one is going to do that, then why not just cut out the middleman and have the feds fund the universities directly.
Bennis and Nikias have their hearts in the right place. They want to prop up funding to the nation’s colleges by spreading the pain over as large a group as possible. Since state treasuries are depleted, and since the federal government is running up huge deficits, that pretty much leaves corporate America as the only remaining deep pockets. The sticking point, however, is how to get companies to step up to the plate without jeopardizing the independence and freedom that is a core strength of American universities.
Although Bennis and Nikias see a university-business partnership as “a grand covenantal approach” that could advance “the greater ideals that fuel our society,” I fear that most of their faculty colleagues (outside the business school, anyway) might see it mostly as a pact with the devil. University administration, like politics, is often about the art of the practical, and that can mean accepting the reality that’s really out there, rather than some hoped-for reality we might otherwise prefer.
So is there a better solution? I think there is. Perhaps it is time to rethink the core business model that historically has made public universities dependent on state appropriations for their survival. This model worked wonderfully for a century, enabling millions of Americans to better their lives by providing them with an affordable college education.
But as state treasuries have struggled to meet the needs of K-12 education, an aging population, dysfunctional inner cities, deteriorating roads, outsourced jobs, and desperate taxpayers, the model has broken down. Now public universities are hurting badly, even as the cost of a college degree has soared out of reach of much of the middle class. Furthermore, nobody in his or her right mind would suggest that the economic and demographic forces causing these problems will go away.
In my opinion, the only thing that will save America’s public universities is to rethink public higher education’s increasingly dysfunctional “business plan.” I’ve given it my best shot in “Saving Alma Mater,” but I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers. However, to those with other and possibly better ideas, I’d only caution that they take great care not inadvertently to toss the baby out with the bathwater.