Do We Want "Democratic Control" Over Universities?

A blog about business and economics.
March 16 2012 1:45 PM

Do We Want "Democratic Control" Over Universities?

I'm a big fan of Mike Konczal but have some serious disagreements with him about higher education policy, which I think has become a kind of odd blindspot of a lot of progressive thinking. His latest writing on the subject for a Dissent magazine forum ends with a clarion call for American state governments to recommit themselves to a "social democratic" vision of nearly-free college:

What vision should we advance in response? Rebuilding what used to exist—something we should call the social democratic vision. This is the vision in the California Master Plan for Higher Education: one where college is free and grants and loans cover supplemental expenses for the poor. Higher ed would be broadly accessible, with a variety of options ranging from elite schools to community colleges.
Beyond ensuring equality of opportunity, another advantage of this approach is that it would help stop cost inflation. Free public universities would function like the proposed “public option” of healthcare reform. If increased demand for higher education is causing cost inflation, then spending money to reduce tuition at public universities will reduce tuition at private universities by causing them to hold down tuition to compete. This public option would reduce informational problems by creating a baseline of quality that new institutions have to compete with, allowing for a smoother transition to new competitors. And it allows for democratic control over one of the basic elements of human existence—how we gather information and share it among ourselves.
Advertisement

I have a number of disagreements with this passage, but I think the last line about "democratic control" is the best entry point into what's wrong with it. I don't think Americans in general—and certainly not the kind of left-wing Americans inclined to bemoan America's waning fiscal commitment to public universities—would want to see democratic control over the university system. Democratic control would entail an end to the teaching of politically controversial or subversive views, and it would mean increased demands for accountability. Particularly for the famous highly-selective public university campuses that are saying to the majority of their state's taxpayers "sorry your kids aren't smart enough to be worthy of our time" the pressure to demonstrate some kind of concrete public benefits that are recognized by the median voter would be intense. Public university campuses would look like high schools, and university professors would have similar occupational prestige to high school teachers.

Public universities started privatizing themselves before Medicaid and the Great Recession started squeezing state budgets precisely because they don't want to be subject to democratic control, they want to compete with private universities to recruit top faculty and move up the selectivity rankings. That means tapping all available sources of revenue—public subsidies, yes, but also donors and paying customers—in order to get the budgets necessary to have nice facilities, to prevent all your best faculty from getting poached, to keep those basketball programs going, and all the rest. Because obtaining a degree from a prestigious institution does carry private economic benefits, the tendency is for competition to push costs upwards as schools spend what it takes to be "the best" and find that students and their families are willing to pay what it takes.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
Damned Spot
Sept. 30 2014 9:00 AM Now Stare. Don’t Stop. The perfect political wife’s loving gaze in campaign ads.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
  Life
Quora
Sept. 30 2014 9:32 AM Why Are Mint Condition Comic Books So Expensive?
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal. But… What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:36 AM Almost Humane What sci-fi can teach us about our treatment of prisoners of war.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath The Methane Lakes of Titan?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.