Lightships and Leaders: Higher Education in the Twenty-first Century

Mark Emmert

Preparing this lecture has turned out to be a transforming event for me, something of an epiphany. Having agreed, with pleasure, to present this year's Honors Lecture, I confronted the obvious matter of choosing a topic. After brief consideration, I must confess, I concluded that a primary goal for the lecture would be to show that the Provost does, indeed, "have clothes," that he too is an active scholar within his field, with a disciplined mind and able to make well-reasoned, even entertaining, intellectual arguments.

And so, I picked through my most recent papers, convincing myself that this occasion was a good opportunity to revisit some interesting questions, polish up some older work, maybe even dredge one of my favorite drafts from the file drawer bulging with rejected manuscripts. And in this search I kept looking for an older topic that would fire me up; an issue that would prod the little homunculus in my head to keep me up most of the night with witty questions and vexing riddles. And that is when I had my revelation. It came to me that the questions that challenge and fascinate me no longer come from my old work (my life as a Professor of Political Science), but from my new work (my life as a Provost). I realized that it is questions about higher education that haunt me now. (Although I'll admit it's hard to tell today where politics ends and higher education begins.)

At first, this revelation brought a wave of guilt. I had left my discipline behind, fallen from grace, and become another "damned administrator." But, after a contemplative glass of scotch, I concluded that my conversion was not a loss of intellectual curiosity, but simply a refocusing of my interests--a change, I hoped, that was natural and even healthy. Then, having poured a third scotch, I began to feel good about this conversion, for I fully believe that there is a great need to bring as much rigorous thought as we can muster to the issues of higher education. When I shared this exercise in introspection with DeLaine, she finally said, "Mark, for Pete's sake, just talk about what excites you, not what you think will excite the audience, and if it's dry as dirt, keep it short." Then, having read the first draft of this paper, she promptly advised that I shorten it. So here is the shorter version. I will leave to you to determine its moisture content.

There has been much talk about the transitional state in which higher education now finds itself. So much so that many of us have become anesthetized to the shock value of educational horror stories. Nonetheless, we in academe are, in fact, confronted with a panoply of changes. The list is long and daunting. Today we see major shifts in funding sources, as many states reduce their contributions to higher education which lead to significant, even catastrophic, declines in total funding; student bodies whose demographics seem to change before our eyes, bringing with them demands for new instructional methods, curricular reform, and student services; federal science policy which is shifting support from basic science to applied research, while also demanding much greater institutional and state-level support; a rapidly mounting assemblage of unfunded state and federal mandates which, along with other forces, are driving up the cost of doing business at a substantially faster rate than the rise of the Consumer Price Index; calls from both the state and federal governments for greater accountability and reporting; rapidly increasing demand for access to education as citizens try to "retool" to cope with the dramatic shifts brought on by global and national economic forces well beyond their control; and, finally, there is the exponential growth in the body of knowledge we in the academy are expected to master, to teach, and to push to even more distant frontiers.

The academy finds itself at the vortex of this whirlwind of change. And our reactions, so far, have been far less than creative. Like Dorothy and Toto, we have run for cover back into our own houses, falsely believing we will find shelter there. But Auntie Em could not protect Dorothy, and she cannot protect us. Instead, we need to understand the winds of change and learn to sail with them.

This is hardly the first time that external forces have promoted change in higher education. It is unlikely to be the last. As Frank Newman has pointed out, the needs and interests of American society have long driven the agenda and structure of our universities. Among these "external" forces, we can count the Jeffersonian call for public education to safeguard democracy (initiating the whole notion of public higher education), the Morrill Act launching the land-grant university system (leading to the founding of MSU), the Industrial Revolution and the first notions of an "industrial policy" role for universities, WWII and the explosion of educational needs for returning Gls, the Cold War and the creation inside the academy of the largest research infrastructure (a university-led space race begun by Sputnik), and, last, the Civil Rights movement with its dramatic expansion of access to universities and a demographic transformation of immense magnitude. Higher education has responded to each of these forces with quite amazing facility and deftness. And each wave of changes has left our universities transformed.

So why, if we are so good at change, is the current transition causing us so much angst? The answer is quite simple. All the past transformations have called upon the academy to take on new roles, to expand, to spread its wings. Today, universities are asked to contract, to reduce their scope, to trim their sails. In all the past transitions, America turned to higher education to help solve major societal problems. Many observers today claim that higher education is the problem. For most of two centuries, and certainly for the past fifty years, there has been a clear consensus that higher education was inherently valuable to society and worthy of support almost without question. Today, however, the questions come fast and furious. The consensus is falling apart. We are having trouble dealing with these new external forces because for the first time in the memories of even the oldest members in our ranks, citizens are questioning the value of their investment in higher education.

We in the academy are left asking, "Why aren't we loved and trusted as in the good old days? We are working just as hard, doing all the things we have done for decades, many of them better than ever. More students are being educated. Research is marching forward at a spectacular pace. We provide more service to more folks in more places today than at any time in the past. What else could we possibly do? Just what is going on here?"

This crisis of confidence results from many converging forces--some historical and political, many financial and economic, others philosophical. We could address the question from any of these perspectives. As a social scientist, I do not share the physicist's faith in Grand Unification Theories. I was taught as a graduate student that the first thing a social scientist must learn is modesty. I do not pretend, therefore, that there is any one answer to a policy question or any single form of inquiry that supersedes all others (although I will confess to a strong logical-positivist streak). I do, however, think that our understanding of higher education's present condition can be informed through the use of some simple concepts from economics. My approach is an admittedly dangerous one, given the real economists in the audience, not the least of whom is my boss's boss. Nonetheless, as I have often said, economics is far too important to be left in the hands of economists.

So let us begin with a brief lesson in public economic theory. The first of these is the distinction between private goods and public goods. Private goods are those goods and services that we commonly think about when we discuss economics and marketplace activities. They are products that can be divided into discrete pieces and sold through the market place to individuals for private consumption. Automobiles, hamburgers, and accounting services are good examples. If I desire to purchase any of these private goods, I go to the market place, collect information about the available choices, make my purchase, and consume the goods without sharing with others, unless I choose to do so.

Public goods, on the other hand, are goods and services that cannot be easily divided into discrete units and sold for individual consumption. In fact, it is very hard to exclude those who choose not to pay from consuming a public good. My favorite example of a public good is a lightship. Having been raised near the shores of Puget Sound and having spent as much time in a boat with my family as possible, lighthouses and lightships are special to me. I gain great pleasure from watching them and locating my position on a chart by counting their flashes. Some even have romantic names: Swiftsure and Tatoosh Light are my favorites. But I have no memory of ever shopping, let alone paying, for a lightship. The reason is simple. 1 don't have to. By virtue of being in a boat on navigable waters, I gain the benefit of the lightship without directly paying for it. Moreover, it is virtually impossible for the Coast Guard to meter out the services of the lightship to only those who might pay a fee. There is no simple technology available (as there is with some satellite television) for controlling the frequency of light so that it can be seen only by those willing to pay a price. It is instead available to the public for their general use. It is a public good. Other examples of public goods abound. Clean air, resulting from emission control devices on cars and factories, is a quintessential public good. Unlike Melville's Bartleby, we cannot simply say, "I'd prefer not to" and decline to breathe the air. We live in Montana, so we get clean air (unless you are in Missoula, of course). National defense is also an excellent example, because, as an American, one cannot opt out of national defense, Thoreau's position on the matter notwithstanding. Should we ever be invaded by a foreign power, the military cannot easily say, "Take Jim Isch; he didn't pay all his taxes." Perhaps closer to home, public TV is a public good. If you live within range of KUSM and KEMC, you get it, whether you pay for it or not.

I believe that much of what we see today in higher education stems from confusion about public and private goods. Although it may not be described in these terms, the present debate revolves around the status of higher education as simultaneously both a private and a public good. Let me provide some examples.

Frequently these days one hears admissions officers and provosts talking about the many virtues of a university education when they are trying to impress parents and prospective students. The sales pitch is largely the same across the country: "Do you realize that the average college graduate with a BA makes $13,504 more per year than someone without a college degree? That's more than one-half million dollars over a career. Isn't that worth a $500 tuition increase?" And, in fact, it is. There is arguably no better legal investment for an individual than the price of a BA, even at the most expensive college in the land. Setting aside all the non-economic advantages of a college education and assuming you have to borrow every penny to attend, a bachelor's degree is an exceptional bargain for the individual student.

When we make these arguments to students and parents, we are, in effect, selling higher education as a private good, a product that is highly desirable to the individual consumer and the benefits of which can be enjoyed privately, not unlike a car or a hamburger. We are also quite inadvertently making the case for reducing tax support for colleges and universities. If a college education is such an extraordinary value, why should it be subsidized with tax dollars: Should not the government reduce its intrusion into this academic market-place and allow the invisible hand of market forces to work its wonders?

And that, of course, is what is happening around the nation. State tax support is declining, while tuition is rising. Even in well-heeled states, the share of tax dollars invested in higher education is declining markedly. In my home state of Washington, for example, in the 20 years between 1973 and 1993, higher education's share of general fund expenditures has fallen over 40% , from 15.2% down to 8.8% . Meanwhile, K-12 education grew from 44 % to 48% and human resources climbed from 26% to 30% . Interestingly, the usual winners in the competition for state tax dollars, human services, K-12 education, and prisons are all seen unequivocally as public, not private goods.

If higher education is at least as much a private as a public good, should we not simply move to the privatization of public universities and leave the rest to the marketplace? Perhaps. But only if we as a society are ready to give up on all the public goods provided by colleges and universities along with the private goods. And interestingly, for over two hundred years, the growth and development of universities has been driven by concern over the public, not private concerns. This history is marked by a clear progression from a producer of private goods to a provider of public goods. When in 1778, Thomas Jefferson introduced his landmark legislation to the Virginia assembly with the elegant title "Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge," he was not thinking of the private value of higher education for individuals (though my friends in Colonial Williamsburg swear that Jefferson introduced the bill because he couldn't get his kids into William and Mary). Jefferson was calling on higher education to serve the nation's public interests with a law intended to expand access to college so that more Virginians could "guard . . . the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens . . . without regard to wealth, birth or other accidental condition or circumstance." Two hundred years ago Jefferson saw clearly the public goods a university could deliver to the citizens.

This philosophical, as well as practical, orientation is reflected again and again in the parade of federal and state laws including (as I've mentioned) the Morrill Act, the GI Bill, the creation of the National Science Foundation, the National Defense Education Act, and the Higher Education Act. All of these changes were first and foremost expansions of the role of higher education as a provider of public goods. Teaching, research, and service were for the good of society as a whole, not for consumption by private individuals.

As I thought how to convey effectively the importance of the public goods produced by universities, an interesting notion came to me a month ago while talking with colleagues at a retreat organized by Commissioner Baker. I thought it would be useful to sort out public goods from private goods by conducting a virtual experiment, to use our imaginations to consider what would happen if we could extract the public goods from the private. We can do this, I believe, by asking ourselves, "What would be lost, if the State of Montana contracted out for the private goods, say, for undergraduate education?" Out-sourcing is popular in industry; why doesn't Montana out-source undergraduate education to the states that surround it. We could provide students with the same level of financial support, convince the Dakotas, Idaho, and Wyoming to educate them for the price of this state support, plus a fair tuition level. The students would be educated (thereby preparing them for the financial rewards of a Bachelor's degree), the State would not have the headache of running a higher education system, and it would not spend any more tax dollars than today. In essence, we would have contracted out for these private goods, not unlike a city contracting for trash collection.

But what about the public good? What do we lose if we strip them away from the higher education process? To continue our virtual experiment, let's use MSU-Bozeman as an example. Perhaps the most obvious public good we would eliminate is one of the most attractive economic machines in the State. Excluding tax dollars, MSU-Bozeman is a $90 million-dollar-a-year enterprise which includes $33 million in residence halls and services, $30 million for research and public service, and $20 million in tuition dollars . Our virtual experiment would have us throw away a $90 million industry that does not pollute (unless you are offended by poorly dressed professors), an industry that employs over 2,000 Montanans, plus over 2,000 student workers, with all 4,000 workers paying taxes. Moreover, this industry imports over half these $90 million from sources outside Montana.

But beyond the direct economic impact, our experiment would have to eliminate all the industries that gather around the University to take advantage of the technology and labor housed here. We would remove all the students and employees from the restaurants, clothing stores, movie theaters, and even late night bars. We would take 2,000 employees and their families and 11,000 students out of the real estate market (and Isch thinks his house is hard to sell now!) And we would eliminate $40 to $50 million in construction contracts over the next five years. In short, our experiment, if applied to all the campuses of the Montana University System, would change in the most fundamental way the economy of the State and the job opportunities for our citizens.

Perhaps as important, if we were to out-source higher education, we would eliminate public goods and services that many of us consider the soul of our communities. To strip away the public goods of MSU-Bozeman would reduce in nearly countless ways the quality of life here in Montana. Just for starters, it means no more Museum of the Rockies, no Bozeman Symphony, no Shakespeare in the Parks touring the State, no 4-H program for Montana's youth, no Bobcats to cheer for or Grizzlies to boo at, no Experiment Stations for ag producers, no Local Government Center for county commissioners, no public television station, no county agents to call with all manner of questions, no Montana Entrepreneurial Center or Technical Assistance Programs for small businesses, no administrators for politicians to rail against, no forum for public debate of ideas from the profound to the ridiculous, no student high-jinx for newspapers to write about, and no place for over 50,000 graduates to call their alma mater. Our virtual experiment would leave us with a Montana that is much poorer spiritually and culturally, as well as financially

The history of higher education as a producer of public goods is long and noble. Montana State University-Bozeman is a wonderful example of that heritage. The current funding trend, however, is a movement backward. And perhaps some of that is in order. We no doubt need to reconsider what the appropriate share of the cost of higher education is for the consumer of education as a private good (the student) versus the cost for consumers of all the public goods (the citizenry at-large). The current issue of Newsweek points out that the cost of attending a public institution as a percentage of family income has risen only slightly in 30 years, consuming 14.7% of a family's resources in 1960, and 15.8% in 1994. Higher education is still a great bargain for students. When this fact is combined with the enormous economic return gained for this investment, some restructuring is no doubt in order. If tuition increases are matched with increases in need-based financial aid, the price of a college degree can no doubt be moved closer to a Pareto efficient distribution for this quasi-private good. (Just checking to see if the real economists out there are still with me.) The interest in increasing the cost of education has caught hold throughout the land. Rather than call for outright privatization, most observers now call for simply increasing the costs to consumers (people we used to call students), improving services (what we used to call teaching) and reducing governmental intrusion. This is doubtless the formula for the rest of the nineties.

In this process of re-privatizing higher education, however, we must exercise great care that we do not retreat too far from commitment to higher education as a public good. We run the risk of dismantling 200 years of hard work and dedication. It is, in fact, a much easier "sell" for me as a Provost to promote the private value of a college education. It makes sense to citizens. It has some tangible appeal. To sell private goods we rely on marketing and advertising, as well as on competitive pricing and good quality products. In higher education, the language of private enterprise is now heard daily.

Selling public goods is another matter altogether. We rarely promote our role as producers of public goods. Indeed, I am sure that some here tonight did not know that public TV, the 4-H, the Museum of the Rockies, or country extension agents owe their existence to MSU-Bozeman. (We all know, on the other hand, that the Grizzlies would be nothing without the Bobcats.) Public goods, by their very nature, are often seen as a part of the local landscape, naturally occurring phenomena that nobody pays for or needs to take care of. So when we in academe howl about the university being much more than classroom teaching or ivied walls, it should not surprise us that the public wonders what the fuss is about.

Which takes us to leaders. Support for the public goods does not happen by a process like spontaneous combustion. We buy private goods to pursue our own self-interest. To support public goods requires commitment to common goals and values. That commitment always comes from the work of community leaders who can point to a vision and who can excite people about the possibilities for a town, a state, or a nation. We in higher education must work with leaders from all sectors of our communities to build a new consensus, a consensus that reflects the current needs and concerns of society. Over the decades America has turned to its universities to help address the pressing issues of the day. We must regain citizens' confidence that the academy plays an essential, even a decisive, role in solving public problems.

There can be no doubt of the power of leadership "to sell" the public goods of education when we read the correspondence of Jefferson as he founded the University of Virginia, or the speeches of Vannevar Bush when he argued for the creation of the National Science Foundation, or the legislation creating the Higher Education Act in 1964. The real crisis in higher education today is that too many voices like these have fallen silent. We have a profound need for leaders to stop apologizing for higher education and to point to a new vision of universities in partnership with society.

To prepare higher education for the twenty-first century, those of us within universities need to embrace change with our community and national leaders, as we have done in the past. We need to show proudly what universities do today for all our citizens, not just for our alums and students, and what they can do in the future. We must promote, with pride not hesitation, higher education's role as a provider of both public and private goods. We must again create a coalition that sees higher education as a willing and valuable partner in solving today's problems and others well into the future.

[At the time he gave the above lecture, Mark Emmert was Provost and Vice President for Acadimic Affairs at MSU-Bozeman. Currently, he is Chancellor at the University of Conneticut.]

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