Wednesday, December 13, 2006

A Utopian Flight: Finish Privatizing the University!

As you can see from this news report, the new chair of the University of Wisconsin's senatorial oversight committee is Steve Nass. This is the guy who last summer heard a professor saying things he disagreed with on a talk radio show and tried to get the university to fire him. (You can get my take on that incident here.) He doesn't seem to get the whole academic freedom thing. If I were to tell him that I think one of the most important functions of a university is to promote critical thinking about society and the state, he would probably say it doesn't sound like a good idea. And now he is our principal overseer. Is there anything we can do about this?

Here is a more fundamental question: Why does his committee exist at all? There is no senate committee overseeing the Oscar Mayer bacon factory out by the airport, or the Wisconsin chapters of the Rotary Club. Why us?

The immediately obvious answer to this question is of course that these other institutions are not part of the state government, but we are. What does this mean? That the state pays our expenses, and that money should be followed by control? This argument would have a certain force to it, but its major premise in not exactly true. As you can see from the pie chart on this page, the state of Wisconsin is responsible for less than one fifth of UW-Madison's funds. We get less money from these people than from either the Feds or from students (if you combine current students with alumni). And yet every time someone tries to tell us what to do it is -- guess who? The state. Morally, there are several other sources of funds who, if contribution is what matters, have more right to do so, but who let us do what we want.

I have taught at virtually every kind of university or college in the known universe, including including private religiously-affiliated college (Le Moyne, in Syracuse) and private secular university (The Johns Hopkins and Carnegie-Mellon), and semi-private, semi public hybrid (University of Pittsburgh). I can tell you, from my own experience, that life in these other institutions is not a constant fight for the very idea of a university, against people who really don't get it. To many of my fellow-inmates in the "public" education gulag, that is very hard to believe but, trust me, it is true. The reason it is true is that these other institutions are financed by people who are giving them their own money. Imagine that! Voluntarily! They are doing so because they understand what a university is and believe in it. This is what it is like to be supported by voluntary contributions.

On the other hand, state universities are supported by all the taxpayers, who are forced to do so. Many of them don't understand universities, don't give a damn about them, and in some cases would be hostile to the very idea, if it were correctly explained to them. Of course, they have every right to not get it or give a damn. Why should they? The trouble is, once they are connected to the university by means of their coercively extracted dollars, their lack of understanding of or sympathy for what we are doing immediately impinges on us in a potentially destructive way. We must constantly explain to them and their representatives (eg., Nass) why they should allow us to do what we do.

Once upon a time, attending this university was virtually "free" -- ie., paid for by the taxpayers. Rightly or wrongly, the state has retreated from this position. Why don't we consider completing this revolutionary change, and say: You have more or less cut us adrift as far as money is concerned. Fine, now do the same with control. There should be no senate oversight committee. The university should not be governed by a board of regents appointed by the state. State support is gradually being withdrawn, leaving its empty trappings behind. Why not just get rid of the trappings at last?

I realize that in saying all this I am in a way indulging in a flight into utopia: We won't get rid of the trappings at all. We won't because we are not at all inclined to. That is of course because we fear that getting rid of state control would mean losing even more state money than we have already lost. But in another way I am being hyper-realistic. Rather than whine about our problem, we should understand where it comes from. We have Nass because we have earned him, and will continue to do so many times over. The problem will never really go away until the source is removed: the contamination that always comes from an affiliation with the state.

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