Treating universities like businesses

I saw a link in Steve Benin’s Political Animal blog saying that Texas Governor Rick Perry wants to treat universities like a business, but that he has no idea what he’s talking about.

Reading the article, they’re right. He has no idea what he’s talking about, but that’s not the point I took. The article mentioned that Perry had a policy agenda that “treats universities as businesses whose customers are students”.

I’ve heard this before, most recently at KU, where I spent the majority of my professional career. It’s ridiculous. First off, many universities have multiple missions other than educating students. The main one for many universities is doing research. Research coming out of universities is very important and is only tangentially related to educating students. Not every university is a research university, but for those who are, it’s a very important part of their mission.

It is, of course, up to states to decide how they want to fund their state-run universities, but they should be aware that there are consequences to not funding research. For one thing it makes the university less attractive to the brighter students, and for another it makes the state less attractive to industry.

Ultimately, though, research and education are public goods, and putting a monetary value on such things is not something that we’re good at. Some large corporations, of course, also fund research, mostly in line with their main business product, e.g. the oil companies funding certain types of geological research, communications companies funding various kinds of computing and electronics research, etc. They are able to put a monetary value on the research because of the engineering products that come from it, and the kudos that results from published papers is good PR, and worth a certain amount for that.

But universities do research in every area, and we need that. It can’t really be valued in terms of money, though any university only has so much money and must make decisions as to how best to allocate it. But to act as though a university is just a sort of advanced technical school turning out educated workers is a profound misunderstanding of a university’s role, and a profound short-changing of the future.


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