The Seattle Times was gracious to publish my op-ed submission below on March 4, 2015.
As a vice president at Washington State University with a background in business and academia, and whose portfolio includes public-private partnerships, I am frequently asked why our state’s higher-education institutions do not simply become private schools? State budgets are stretched — isn’t higher education today more of a private than public good anyway?
No, it is not.
It is true that the rewards of college go to the degree-holder, including successful careers, higher incomes and more stable lives. Not to be overlooked, however, is the greater public good generated by college graduates who tend to be civically engaged, philanthropic and entrepreneurial, creating opportunities and jobs. They give back to their communities and their schools. Washington State University and the University of Washington are among more than 40 universities nationwide that have successfully waged billion-dollar fundraising campaigns.
Private support has an impact, and has done much good in public higher education. But privatization through student-assessed fees for campus amenities, outsourcing of bookstore, food and other campus services, as well as the revenue that has come from TV and distribution rights to college athletics have caught the attention of many. Coupled with the broader national trend of privatization of everything from roads to the Postal Service, it’s not much of a leap to ask state universities to think of living off private support.
Such talk of privatization of public higher education could not come at a worse time. Wage and education gaps in this country are at historic proportions. Do we not feel a collective responsibility for keeping our state universities accessible and affordable for the next generation?
Public higher education has seen tough times before. Adversity was its parent during 1862 when Abraham Lincoln and the federal government created a new kind of public research university through the Morrill Act. Using the only asset they had, Congress granted land to the states to finance this very public experiment to provide economic support and ultimately opportunity for their citizens.
Looking back, the establishment of these universities literally changed the world. These new engines of research and scholarship produced the people and ideas that powered our economy through progress in agriculture, manufacturing, transportation, health and technology. Broad accessibility and public accountability were key to this success.
Today, there is not a U.S. hub of innovation and development that is not anchored by a public research university. Consider the Bay Area of California, Boston, Austin and, yes, Seattle. This is not to take away from notable private research universities — investment in both public and private institutions can occur in such hubs.
And, the best partnership has private and public support aligned. The growing amount of private support I see at Washington State University, as an example, seems more of an endorsement of its very explicit public mission. These are grateful supporters who are voting with their checkbooks to leverage and serve the whole state — its people, communities, businesses and challenges.
Private support is able to take programmatic risks, support targeted students and add a level of quality that we should not expect from the public. But it cannot replace the dollars from public funding or the powerful voice of collective ownership public dollars convey. WSU and Washington’s five other public universities are this state’s promise to educating the next generation for the common good.
The Pacific Northwest has maintained its innovative frontier spirit, and celebrates sons and daughters who have done well. In turn, these natives have demonstrated their gratitude and shown the world how to give back, providing private support for very public problems. As unfashionable as it may seem, rather then seeing state support and politics as problems, I see them a necessary part of keeping the public’s stake in public higher education. Let’s help define and expect the public purpose of our public universities — private and public support will follow.