Birgineau’s Farewell Blow

In the news: another departing university authority, this time the University of California Berkeley’s Chancellor Robert Birgineau, delivers a blow as he swings out the door. The Times Higher Education Supplement reports him as saying:

“Until relatively recently, public opinion has been that higher education was primarily a public good. But polling states that . . . [the people] see it as a private good, that the person being educated profits most,” he said. “In my view, politicians are responding to that.”

Gee, golly, whiz! “Polling states”! (Would any of our social scientists care to comment?) Who is this Polling, and why is he such an authority? What questions did Polling ask, one wonders, to get these results? And where are they to be found? And how is it exactly that “the people” have come to see things in this way, or politicians come to desire to “respond” (presumably by seizing upon Polling’s findings to decrease government expenditures on higher education)? What forces have brought about this alleged shift in “public opinion”?

Times Higher Education also quotes Birgineau as saying “If you do any economic analysis, if education is free it simply represents a transfer of income from poor to rich . . . . I think that’s a social injustice,” he added.

Hang on! How on earth does the principle that higher education ought to be free bring about a transfer of income from the poor to the rich? What could Birgineau have possibly said in that ellipsis to justify such a claim? 

Birgineau ought to ask the Times Higher Education to provide his remarks in full. For the remark as it stands is perplexing coming from the Chancellor of a public university — indeed, the university that used to be regarded without question as the finest public university in the world. Under the Province of Alberta’s Post-Secondary Learning Act, for example, the University of Alberta’s Chancellor is charged with representing the public interest in the university. It’s not clear whether the “trends” that he is commenting on are trends he approves of, or trends he wants everyone to resist.

Birgineau had the opportunity to serve as Chancellor at Berkeley after serving for four years as the President of the University of Toronto. The current president of the University of Toronto David Naylor characterizes Toronto as “publicly assisted” rather than “publicly funded.” Some would argue that he is simply conceding to the reality, a reality that he (mostly) inherited: over the last thirty-five years, public funding of the University of Toronto has dropped so drastically, from a high in the 1970s of 84%, that the majority of its funding is now private. Birgineau claims that California’s decrease since 2005 (he joined Berkeley in 2004) is a result of changes in the “public mood.” Since 2005, as the THE reports, funding from California’s taxpayers has dropped from 30% to a mere 10%.

Birgineau’s claim and the University of Toronto’s trajectory suggest that Presidents and Chancellors elsewhere need to hold the line if they wish to distinguish their universities as public institutions; for it seems that once a university administration yields to logic such as Birgineau’s the trajectory of the funding is clear: the public funding drops away, and no matter how “public” the institution is supposed to be it comes to depend on “private” money. This may happen in part because those administrations stop fighting for the public funding of their institutions. And don’t be surprised if we hear that “the public” thinks that universities are a private good and has no wish to pay for them.

Reports are clear, though: where this logic holds, it is — in a terrible irony! — the humanities that become the truly elite university “good.” Only the wealthy can afford to choose the humanities as an option, as the Guardian reported earlier this year, as do those who (when they were still students) wished to join their ranks: “The study [Choose Humanities] reviewed leaders across a broad range of fields in the UK, including FTSE 100 CEOs, MPs, vice chancellors of Russell Group universities, Magic Circle law firms, managers of creative businesses and so on. Dividing subject areas between STEM, humanities, arts, social sciences and vocational, leaders with degrees from the core humanities were the largest group. Even among FTSE 100 companies there are 34 CEOs with a humanities degree against 31 with a STEM degree.”

Now, wouldn’t it be something if some of these beneficiaries of a humanities education turned around and started making their own case for post-secondary education as a public good? Some of them are probably in a position to furnish the “polls” and “analysis” that would directly contradict the story with which Birgineau would leave us. If they don’t help make the case the gap between the wealthy, who can secure the kind of education they wish, and the public, where it does not fund its universities to keep post-secondary education accessible, will yawn.

 

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