Higher Education and the Bottom Line

GUEST: David L. Kirp
VTR: 10/22/2004

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And totally aside from the pleasure I have whenever I return to Columbia University’s highly regarded Teachers College, I have the opportunity to recruit guests for this program whenever I’m invited there to moderate TC’s distinguished Book Talk series.

And that’s precisely what happened when I conducted a Book Talk some months ago with David L. Kirp, Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, about his intriguing Harvard University Press volume, “Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line … The Marketing of Higher Education.”

Now my guest, I should note, has been very much around the block, academically and otherwise. A civil rights attorney early in his career, after more than three decades as a professor at Berkeley and Harvard, he also knows about higher education close up. Which is why I would ask David Kirk — whose book seems to generally show a not-so-disapproving attitude toward truly smart academic entrepreneurs – just what does disturb him about joining together Shakespeare, Einstein and “the bottom line”? What is it that gets you?

KIRP: Well, it’s a great question to begin with because, indeed, it’s that fine balance between Shakespeare and the bottom line that those who succeed in this new role of higher education, not our world, but the world of today, manage to walk, and those who fail. What troubles me is the bottom line winds up running everything. Not just the need for money, universities have always needed money. If that weren’t true, the word legacy wouldn’t have such a special meaning in higher education.

But it’s the ethic of money. The idea that money is good in itself. And what troubles me is that there are places that, in the process of pursuing money really have lost their soul, but they’ve struck the kinds of bargains that only Faust could love.

HEFFNER: David, let me ask you this question. Could it really be otherwise in this marketplace base society of ours?

KIRP: Indeed. If you look at almost any sector of this society, money is the zeitgeist. You look at the health sector, we know this from, you know, everything around us … you even look at museum … even churches are in the marketing business.

HEFFNER: I don’t know why you’re saying “even”.

KIRP: Well … right. I suppose this is true, churches have been trolling for converts for a very long time. But higher education, at least in theory, is about finding an island in which its possible to speak truth to power.

A counter-market force, if you please. And we have precious few of those in this society and it’s certainly going to be the case that great chunks of higher education are given over to those values of efficiency competition, leanness, meanness, specialization and all those kinds of things that make for narrowly defined market success.

But the hope is that there’s somebody who’s the keeper of the flame; somebody who’s not exactly the medieval monk, but somebody who’s actually worried about questions that don’t have immediate payoff, because otherwise we’re all going to be serious losers.

HEFFNER: But, of course, it is so interesting that you do show great respect for the wise, the balanced, entrepreneur in academia.

KIRP: Indeed, and I think the balance is exactly the, the task. The trick is to find that way of maneuvering the realities of the marketplace, not imagining that you’re Thoreau anymore, that you’re going to build a better mousetrap and people will come. But that you actually are able to offer something of value that people want.

And if you … to use the deliberately market language that Bill Durden who’s the entrepreneur turned president of Dickinson College, a Pennsylvania liberal arts college, who says basically you know your product. And you don’t say to the market, we’re going to give you whatever you want, it is to say, “We have something that’s really of value and we’re going to make it as available as we can, and we’re going to trumpet our strengths and we’re going to make our case to you, but at the end of the day, we’re going to listen to you, but we’re not going bend, we’re not going to do whatever it is that the market demands.”

And, and again, that’s the balance to strike. Not saying, “We’re above this” because nobody is above this and to make the claim that the market is irrelevant is to create that kind of hypocrisy that novels of manners about academe are all about.

And if you just become a servant of the market, then you might as well be a for-profit university because they do it better. And they do a fine job at what they’re about doing. But walking that line, that’s the … that’s the trick. And that’s what a lot of the story is aimed to show … those places that succeed and those places that, that don’t succeed.

HEFFNER: But I still want to ask … bottom line, can’t help but say that … bottom line, do you think that when all is said and done, those who you think, those leaders in education … higher education … and you name them … you think have arrived at that balance. You think that they’ll survive, in reality.

KIRP: I …

HEFFNER: … long run … long run … and be honest. As I know you will be.

KIRP: No. I am … if I weren’t to some extent an optimist, it would be very hard to write a book that was really an obituary for a bygone time. And, let me answer that question broadly. You always think that the zeitgeist of the moment is the zeitgeist and nothing is ever going to change.

Right? The Soviet Union was going to be forever, we were always going to live in, in, in that world. The universe was going to behave according to certain laws of economics that John Keynes lay down a long time ago. Well, maybe … maybe not. But one thing we do know is that tomorrow is going to be different from today.

And I think the answer to that question depends on the kind of public conversation that people have about higher education now because what’s really important about your question …what’s telling about your question is how fragile this present moment is. How crucial this present moment is. How essential it is that there be voices who speak up in the conversation, not just for “Support higher education because it’s productive, support higher education because it’s going to contribute to the economy. But support higher education because it’s where ideas come from.”

HEFFNER: Now, you’re saying then that … when you talk about times changing, climates of opinion, you’re saying that this, this question of the bottom line and the damage it has done in many institutions …

KIRP: MmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … not a function of the nature of human nature. You’re talking about something that passes, you talked about the Soviet Union, that’s no longer a threat. But I wonder whether those are more … aren’t more ephemeral matters than what leads to this selling of one’s soul.

KIRP: Well, again … thinking in large, Arthur Schlesinger-like terms, you go through periods of time, which we are a public regarding country. We had one of those periods in the thirties, we had one of those periods in the sixties. We had one of those periods in the 1860s, which is where a lot of these great public universities come from.

I think that that conversation now is about the direction in which we’re going to be heading. And whether or not we become the entrepreneurial society … full stop … or we become a society where there’s a place for, for the public commons. That’s a, there’s a critical juncture. We get to decide that … now.

And on the basis of that decision, the answer to your question, not just for higher education, but for a whole lot of other services in this society, is going to rise … “is everything going to be privatized?” Are we basically going to be buying … even as we do now … parents who are sending their kids to, to public high schools are buying art classes, music classes, gym, libraries … all the rest of it … “AP” classes.

HEFFNER: Well …

KIRP: … the school has been, the school has been hollowed out by these. Now, is there somebody who’s going to be able to stand up and say, “This is, this is a scandal, this is a shame. We’re losing out enormously.” Well, at the other end of the spectrum … optimistic story.

HEFFNER: Now that …

KIRP: State after … state after state is moving closer and closer to universal pre-kindergarten. Well, if I were going to invest in education, if I were going to invest in the future of children, that’s really where I would invest. And that’s what states are concluding that they’re going to do.

And what’s the state in the United States that’s done the best job in this area? Not Massachusetts, not New York, not California. It’s Oklahoma. And what state has done second best? It’s Georgia. Zell Miller in an earlier incarnation … Zell Miller the kind is the reason why you have something approximating universal pre-kindergarten in Georgia.

So I don’t think this is one of those inevitability stories. I find those just not very interesting. History is contingent; this is a contingent moment and the answer’s going to be a whole lot more complicated than “yes” or “no”.

HEFFNER: History you say is “contingent” and you quote our friend Arthur Schlesinger. What will change? What must change to enable the position you take to be … for us to say, “Yes, he was right.”

KIRP: Well, for starters, leadership needs to find its voice. If you ask anybody of a certain age, “what’s the great political speech of our time?”, they’ll point to one speech, Mario Cuomo’s 1984 Democratic Convention address … “the city on a hill” speech. It was an enormously wonderful speech. And it was, perhaps it was the wrong moment, but is there room for such a speech? Well, one hopes. Whether from a political leader, not necessarily a President. Someone in the Senate? A Governor? Or an educational leader.

We can hope right here in New York that John Sexton turns out to be that kind of voice. He has been in his relatively early years as, as President. Mark Yudof in Texas has been a great voice for public education. The hope is that those people will begin to get heard. The hope is that there are champions.

Why did early childhood education suddenly enter the agenda as a serious policy area in these unlikely places? Because there were champions, there were people who looked out and saw how important this was.

Well, higher education has a huge advantage in making this appeal. Because everybody either benefited from a good higher education, or knows somebody down the block who benefited, or who has a kid who they want to benefit. It’s not a hard sell to make, it just requires somebody … somebodies with the energy and the, the wit and the charisma to begin making that sell.

HEFFNER: Well, I think you’re right, of course, in saying that our friend John Sexton might well be that person, in the private sector. Now how do you balance these, these needs and the successes and the failures between private and public institutions?

KIRP: Well, what’s happened, not very surprisingly, is that in the past 20 years there’s been an enormous divergence in fortunes. Go back to 1980 again and all the conversation was “will the private institutions survive?” Their investments had tanked, they had no money. You know, the handful of places … the Harvards were doing fine. NYU had just emerged from something approximating bankruptcy … people forget that in 1976, if it weren’t for Muller Macaroni Company, there would not be an NYU today. And the public universities were riding high, the states were paying huge chunks of what it is that … the cost of the education there; and tuitions were low. That’s a very different universe today; tuitions go up, up, up. In the public universities they approximate the costs of private universities. The private universities benefited enormously from the run up of the stock market in the 1990s; they’re now as healthy as can be, at least the leading fifty of them are as healthy as, as can be.

And what’s going to happen? My fear is that even in a university like Berkeley perhaps the most distinguished public university in the world, I can be a little chauvinistic …

HEFFNER: You are chauvinistic.

KIRP: I am chauvinistic, but if you look at the ratings, you’ll see that I have reason to be chauvinistic across the board.

HEFFNER: My first teaching job was at Berkeley.

KIRP: Well …

HEFFNER: So there …

KIRP: We miss you. If you look at … if you look at Berkeley, one of my colleagues said, “You know, the way present trends are going, it’s going to be … its as if a neutron bomb had hit. The buildings will be standing, wonderful … the library will be there, but there will be no students because the institution can’t afford it. They’ll be bid away by other places because as tuition rises, and financial aid doesn’t, it becomes cheaper to get a Harvard or Princeton or Yale or Columbia, than it does to get a Berkeley. Imagine that. And that’s an institution that commands enormous loyalty on the part of its faculty and draws students for the name and the reputation of the institution; but name and reputation will get you to sacrifice only so many dollars.

So I’m really worried about the fate of public higher education. I don’t know … the only way, at this moment, that I can see public institutions succeeding … at this moment, is to borrow from our earlier conversation … if they start looking more like their private cousins … that is if they set their tuition rates higher; if they aggressively pursue donations; if they find ways of substantially increasing their financial aid, so they have a need based high tuition system. And are able to compete on a level playing field with the Harvards and Yales, because the state has more and more gotten out of that business.

Why? In part because of the market mentality we’ve been discussing, also because of the hugely rising costs of health care at the state level and prison care in some states. Prisons in some states.

We spend … in California, particularly, infinite numbers of dollars locking all sorts of folks up for unconscionable periods of time. That costs money. You know, we sort of … every once in a while about turning one of the state university campuses into a prison … save everybody some funds. But it’s not a joke, it’s a very sad story. When tuition at the community colleges increased just to $20 a credit unit last year … $20 a credit unit which is … from $12 a credit unit … that’s roughly $100 a semester. A 150,000 thousand fewer students than expected showed up at the door. My micro-sample of the that bully policy school at Berkeley where I teach … we surveyed the students who didn’t come … “Why didn’t you come? Why did you go to wherever you went to?”

Ninety percent of them the same answer … money. You know, “We couldn’t afford it. We couldn’t afford to be here.” So the, that crisis in public higher education is now.

HEFFNER: What impact is there, and this is a little bit off the subject, but consequential … given the struggle for meeting the bottom line, what impact does it have upon educational leadership and in … I mean I … I’m a Columbia person who remembers Nicholas Murray Butler … and the lead he took quite frequently in public policies. Overall, as you look at all of the institutions you’ve surveyed, what has happened to leadership in the Academy when you deal with public policy?

KIRP: We’re old enough to remember that in the 1960s James Reston … Scotty Reston … was the most influential columnist in The New York Times. In 1967 he wrote an OpEd column in which he urged the Democratic … to draft as its candidate a distinguished leader with a distinguished career who’d spoken out eloquently and early against the Vietnam War. The person he urged the Democrats to draft was Kingman Brewster …

HEFFNER: Yale President.

KIRP: President of Yale. Now, just wrap your mind around the concept that Maureen Dowd or Bill Safire are going to come up with the 2008 version of Kingman Brewster. It’s not going to happen. And it’s not going to happen for a very simple reason … it’s hard to speak truth to power, which risks offense … if your hand is constantly out and your … the begging bowl is pointed in the direction of power. And that’s what’s happened.

There hasn’t been a serious leader in the public sphere who’s spoken out on any issue that I can think of, other than higher education, since the days of people like Bob Grinnan and Theodore Hessberg in the 1970s. Both interestingly priests, but it’s interesting, the heads of Catholic institutions. It’s a long … that’s a long stretch and I think it really does relate very much to this issue.

You’re going to offend the alums; you’re going to offend the potential donors; you’re going to offend the … gosh help us, you’re going to offend the government, if you behave in this way. And it’s very hard for any one leader to go it alone. It’s very hard for any one person to be courageous.

HEFFNER: So that in a sense it is not just the raising of money and the bottom line, it is also the need not to rock the boat.

KIRP: Absolutely. And if you, if you want to see academic freedom … turn on the radio, don’t go to the university.

HEFFNER: Tell me what you mean by that.

KIRP: Look at the Internet; read the blogs … that’s where … I mean there are more ideas coming out of the blogs than there are in the President’s office of any public or private institution that I can think of.

You want to sort of hear interesting cutting edge … news about the world, turn on Jon Stewart, don’t listen to the talking heads on the Jim Lehrer show. He has much more interesting things to say about this set of issues. When I met with the presidents of the sixty leading research universities last spring, I said to them, “How many of you listen to … watch Jon Stewart on Comedy Central?” They looked at me and I said, “So how many of you know who Jon Stewart is?” and nobody raised his or her hand. And I said, “For shame.” I said, “There’s got to be somebody in this audience …” I said, looking at Larry Summers from Harvard, who thinks himself a kind of public figure … “there’s go to be somebody in this audience … John Sexton … who can go on Jon Stewart and shine and talk to real people in real people in ways that are going to get a message across.” But ideas … more ideas are happening, more new energy is being spun out, outside the academy I would argue … in all sorts of unconventional ways that certainly in the leadership of higher education.

HEFFNER: Then I have to ask the follow-up questions … what does this say about the significance … about the impact of the world of higher education upon our society at large?

KIRP: Well, I think it’s … I think it’s fraught and problematic and I think it’s important not to confuse what it is that our esteemed presidents and provosts and chancellors have to say, or don’t have to say. With what serious academic voices have to say. And they do exist. And there are smart people scattered across universities … big ones, small ones, who speak out at the local level as well as the national and international level … and that, it seems to me … is that … those folks are also training … we hope, a next generation of folks who are going to be tough thinkers and inquiring minds.

HEFFNER: Yes, but, but you see I, I would challenge you and I’m sure you can meet the challenge to name them because I think of Chomsky and then I draw a blank …

KIRP: Ahhh.

HEFFNER: … will you give me one …

KIRP: Well …

HEFFNER: … you talked about local …

KIRP: Let’s just … well, let’s just take your, your friendly institution to the north of which you’re so fond … Columbia … look at Todd Gitlin …

HEFFNER: Just arrived.

KIRP: Ah, from NYU, migrating … migrating up to … and where did he come from before he was at NYU, Richard? Berkeley.

HEFFNER: Oh, god. You will let that go.

KIRP: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: Sure, Todd Gitlin is an important voice …

KIRP: Right.

HEFFNER: … one voice …

KIRP: Right.

HEFFNER: Do you really think that there are many academics, primarily academics today who make an impact upon our social being. In fact, you said just the opposite. You used James Reston’s column about Kingman Brewster and who would, who would be in Kingman Brewster’s place today?

KIRP: No. I, I absolutely agree with you, there is no academic leader … no one in a position of authority in an American college or university that I can think of …

HEFFNER: But, but, but …

KIRP: … who occupies anything like that role. That isn’t to say that academics aren’t still functioning as public intellectuals.

HEFFNER: But, but … but that’s what I really want to question you about, David, because it seems to me that that’s the important point, that public intellectuals … we can see journalists more readily than academics in that position. No?

KIRP: Well … take a look at who writes for the New York Review of Books for the New Yorker. Consider as a very different example, Henry Lewis Gates who migrates for a month from Harvard …

HEFFNER: Which university to which university?

KIRP: … to, well … he migrates from Harvard to The New York Times. And writes an extraordinarily good series of OpEd pieces during his, during his stint there. The naming game is probably less interesting than the fact that there are … there’s a greater plurality of voices … The New York Review of Books, seems to me to be enjoying a renaissance … but it’s read by the same usual suspects. The New Yorker is read by a larger group of, of usual suspects. And there was a piece by Nick Lemann, journalist turned academic … another Columbia person …

HEFFNER: Harvard originally. Harvard originally I must admit.

KIRP: Right. Very fine, very fine piece on the Bush Administration that ran in the last issue. You’d be hard pressed to pick up any of the leading journals of opinion and not find smart academics saying interesting and provocative things. You’d be very hard pressed to find, on the serious talk shows …

HEFFNER: When …

KIRP: … those kinds of conversations not happening. I don’t think that’s the problem.

HEFFNER: So you don’t think that has changed?

KIRP: No. I don’t … well, what’s changed is the same thing that’s changed with the relationship between network TV, cable and the Internet. That is a handful of voices don’t enjoy the same privilege or prestige. There are more voices being heard. All right … Matt Drudge is competing with the classic political pundits in this, in this world. But we still hear … the academics …

HEFFNER: Talk about evolution from lower to higher forms.

KIRP: Larry Sabato and Matt Drudge are sort of slugging it out for the attention of different audiences. Sabato for at Virginia … Drudge at, you know, pond scum level.

HEFFNER: Your concerns about the academy then really where … where do you focus them? If you had to pick the areas in which you were most concerned, in the couple of minutes we have left …

KIRP: I’m most concerned about the education of the next generation. Because my fear is that this is a generation of students that grew up until 9/11 in a time of unparalleled prosperity. And they grew up by and large, not knowing hardship, not knowing danger, not knowing risk. And they grew up expecting that they could buy what they needed.

And they come to the university and they expect that the same kinds of, of pleasures that they have had, whether it’s the wired world of everything … the sushi bar, the rock climbing wall, the espresso bar, all that’s going to be in these institutions.

Last year universities spent and colleges spent $13 billion dollars, raised $13 billion dollars in bonds … Moody’s estimates that half of that money went for these kinds of frill activities.

So what isn’t happening? Full time faculty aren’t getting hired, adjuncts are replacing them, adjuncts with less loyalty to the institution … how could it be otherwise since the institution has no loyalty to them. Students are migrating away from liberal arts and the institutions aren’t mounting an effective argument in behalf of the liberal arts.

So I’m concerned about … about the quality of education and who’s getting educated. Because the other thing that’s happened is there’s a yawning gap opening between the education of the rich and education of everybody else. In the 100 most prestigious colleges and universities … that’s a pretty big list. Seventy five percent of the students come from the top 25% of the income bracket.

HEFFNER: Sounds like our income tax laws.

KIRP: Two percent come from the bottom quarter.

HEFFNER: David Kirp you worry me when you say that, but you don’t worry me when you’ve written such a hell of a good book … “Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line”. I appreciate you’re joining me on The Open Mind today.

KIRP: Richard, thanks so much for having me

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

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