My book Why Public Higher Education Should be Free is now available, and its central claims address many of the issues brought up at the last UC regents meeting. My main argument is that if we just used current state and federal funding for higher ed in a more rational way, we could get rid of the need for tuition, student aid, and student loans. I also argue that anything short of this holistic solution will fail to solve any of the basic issues. Of course, we now live in a time of diminished political expectations, and so it is hard for most people to even imagine any large new governmental solution. In short, after forty years of anti-government government, even our leaders can only think about short-term solutions and half-measures.
President Yudof’s farewell speech at the regents meeting was a great example of leaderless leadership. Form his perspective, all that we can do is manage each crisis and try to find a way to maintain the status quo. While he still holds out some hope that online education will be a real game-changer for higher ed, he is now even doubting the effectiveness of this possible solution. In fact, during the regents’ discussion (minute 28) of the new new UC online program, Yudof brought up the recent problems with Udacity and San Jose State University. He even stated that distance education might not work, and we need to ask the students and faculty on the campuses if they even want online courses.
Yudof’s doubts were ignored by a series of regents who pontificated about the need to do this online thing faster and to use the money provided by the governor to ramp up the provision of online courses for UC students. Of course, the governor never really provided additional funds for online education; instead he simply earmarked $10 million from money that was already going to the UC. Next, the governor vetoed his own earmark, but the regents have seemed to have forgotten this fact. Worst off all, Lt. Governor Newsome continued his promotion of all things digital by urging the UC to stop moving at a glacial pace. In other words, he wants the UC faculty to give up its shared governance in order to quickly move to a system of education that is unproven and could result in both significant cost increases and reduced quality.
As I argue in my book, all of the problems in higher ed start with the failure to make high-quality education and research the major priority of these institutions. My central point is that if you do not dedicate most of the funding to these core missions, you end up spending most of the money on expensive side projects like athletics, sponsored research, administration, and amenities. Moreover, this lack of attention to the core mission results in non-educators running the show, and in the UC case, this can be witnessed by the regents’, the new president’s, and the state politicians’ lack of higher education experience and knowledge.
Without a focus on improving the state of actual education, we end up with huge classes, reductive multiple-choice exams, and disengaged students and faculty. In turn, this poor instructional quality opens the door for massive online courses and the call to move more students through the system in a faster and cheaper way. Yet, on a positive side, the whole debate over MOOCs is helping to create a public conversation about how we define quality teaching and learning, and so it is possible that we may be able to rededicate our institutions of higher education to high-quality instruction and research.
While some will interpret my book as another attack on useless academic research, I try to make it clear that I also want to defend the importance of academic research, but I want to distinguish between corrupted sponsored research and the academic pursuit of knowledge and truth. Just as our political system has been corrupted by the way we fund campaigns, our academic system has been distorted by the way we fund research.Study after study has shown that many research experiments in the sciences cannot be replicated, and one reason for the failure of science to be scientific is that researchers are beholden to the people paying for their research. In order to correct this system, we need a commitment by the states and the federal government to provide funding for pure research; we also have to stop the hidden process of subsidizing expensive research programs by siphoning money out of undergraduate instruction.
None of these problems will be fixed if we continue to be led by leaders with no commitment to basic research and instruction.