Tuesday, May 10, 2011

What's the Matter with Koch U?

There's much ado in Madison today about the news that the Koch Bros. made a $1.5 million gift to the economics department at Florida State University accompanied by numerous strings, including significant power over faculty hiring.

Over at Sifting and Winnowing, professors and students are debating whether or not we should be concerned about this event given the potential the New Badger Partnership creates for changing the rules of the game at Madison in ways that could increase authority of a governor-appointed board to make such decisions based on pure economics.

One writer, "Patrick," contends that the FSU incident is no big deal, because "I was under the impression this kind of thing has been going on basically forever in one form or another no matter where the funding comes from. Maybe attaching explicit strings to funding like this is a bit more open than usual, but I don’t understand how it’s any different."

To some extent, Patrick is right: donors often have conditions. In particular, they have interests in specific kinds of work, methodologies, and expertise. But faculty have conditions and obligations too. For example, at UW-Madison right now:

(1) Faculty are protected from pressure to accept every dollar offered by being paid reasonably well by their institution. That includes time for research. Sure, we still feel a desire (in some disciplines) to raise summer money and money to buy out of teaching and money for assistants and supplies-- but the fact that our base salary rarely depends on external funds helps reduce that pressure. In fact, no matter how much external money we raise our base salary is not enhanced by that money (unless it gets us a raise, which I'm told is rare) and it (supposedly) doesn't affect our chances for tenure.

(2) Faculty are further protected by obligations to disclose funders to Institutional Research Boards and on "outside activities" reports. We are asked about potential conflicts of interest.

(3) Faculty are protected by shared governance. No donor can interfere in hiring or tenure as long as that stands.

(4) Faculty are further obligated by a community which (currently) has a strong norms that uphold consideration of ethics and values in decisions about funding. As the professors said in the Campus Connection piece, this wouldn't happen at UW-Madison-- at least right now.

Those protections are crucial, for what they do is minimize the potential consequences of "academic capitalism." That term, according to UW-Madison alum and scholar Sheila Slaughter and her co-authors, means "market and market-like behaviors on the part of universities and faculty.”

The risks of academic capitalism at public research universities include a move "away from “access” (for students who are not employed and do not have easy access to good jobs) towards “accessibility” (benefiting the already employed)....this reverse[s] a pattern established over most of the 20th century: a push to increase access for low-income and minority student populations. Interestingly, academic capitalism in the new economy involves the pursuit not of mass markets, but of various privileged, niche student markets, with the effect being to change one of the basic functions of most higher education institutions in the U.S."

UW-Madison seems increasingly vulnerable to academic capitalism: despite its high rankings it is clearly still on a quest for legitimacy, strongly inclined to try and enhance revenue flows rather than reduce dependency on resources, and seemingly quite open to embracing the influence of globalization. Frankly, it's a prime target for donors with agendas-- but right now, there is a substantial palace guard protecting us. Dismantle that guard-- as I think the NBP with its new Walker-appointed board and focus on private fundraising will-- and watch the chips fall.

Think I'm exaggerating? Here's the report on a top Walker cabinet member, Department of Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch, on the NBP (hey thanks Vince Sweeney for pointing this one out!):

"Speaking in Brookfield Wednesday at a gathering of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, he [Huebsch] told the group it would bring a free-market approach to the university system similar to that of a corporate business..."

UW-Madison -- the new Koch U?

This is depressing, so let me end instead on an alterative vision proffered by Slaughter and Rhodes:

"We believe that in place of these policies, faculty and their associations and unions should reprioritize the democratic and educational functions of the academy, in addition to the local economic roles in community development that colleges and universities can play. They should systematically challenge the privilege and success of the private-sector economy that is being mirrored in higher education today, subjecting the increased investment in entrepreneurial ventures to more public discussion and more public accountability. After all, as with the dot.coms in the private sector, much academic capitalism ends up losing revenue and cost shifting to the consumer—in higher education in the form of higher tuitions. We believe that faculty and their associations and unions should redirect attention to just who exactly is benefiting from certain forms and patterns of higher education provision, and in doing so emphasize the importance—particularly during a time in which some states are realizing a new majority population—of expanding educational opportunity for those who have historically encountered social, economic and cultural barriers to entry. In the face of academic capitalism in the new economy, academics and their associations and unions should consider their own participation in this process and begin to articulate new, viable, alternative, paths for colleges, universities and academics to pursue."

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