by Bruce Dunlavy       (My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)

The election of Donald Trump to be the 45th president of the United States is the culmination of four decades in which Americans have been taught to worship the Business Model of Efficiency.  The idea that government (and, by extension, other public operations) can be run like a business achieved prominence early in the Reagan administration, and it has never gone away.

Never mind that the only two presidents before Trump who attained the office by touting their business credentials were Herbert Hoover and George Bush the Younger, both of whom presided over economic disasters.  Jimmy Carter was a businessman, though he did not brag about it.  Carter’s presidency is a subject of ridicule – presumably because he did not apply the right business principles.

After all those years of hearing “Run it like a business!” applied to any and every public operation from grade-school PTAs to highway systems, Americans seem to have accepted it as gospel, and continually respond favorably to calls to make government “leaner and meaner,” working “harder and smarter,” so that it can “do more with less.”  In 1978, I was advised by a Californian that the State’s just-passed Proposition 13, which drastically reduced tax flow to government, would work automatically.  “When you give government less money,” he told me, “it becomes more efficient.  It has to.”

As a veteran of a government career, I can assure you that is not what happens.  You don’t do more with less.  You do less with less.

Outline photo of Dr. Thomas H. Kreneck

The application of business principles to government has left us with decreased services, increased needs, set-asides for corporate profit, and financial time-bombs created by arcane budget and accounting trickery.  One need only look to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, or the myriad problems of the State of Kansas to see this borne out.

The reason you cannot successfully run government like a business is that government is not a business.  It is a service.  The survival of a business depends on making a profit and government cannot make a profit.  If money can be made doing something, government will not be allowed to do it.  It will be done by private corporations.

Thus government is left to provide us with those things that are socially useful, but not profitable.  If a way is found to make a profit, government will be relieved of the activity.  One example is the privatization of public education, in which tax dollars are diverted from public schools to money-making private “charter” schools.  (Yes, I know that many if not most charter schools are “non-profit,” but that doesn’t mean they don’t make money. It just means they get to keep it instead of having to pass it out to shareholders.)

The Business Model of Efficiency has also invaded higher education, much to the detriment of students (now defined as “customers”) and taxpayers.  The goal of public higher education was beautifully expressed in the Wisconsin Idea,  developed in 1904 and elaborated by Charles McCarthy in his 1912 book of the same name. The purpose of State universities was expressed as public service, the search for truth, and improving the human condition.  “The boundaries of the university,” it read, “are the boundaries of the state.”

In 2015, Wisconsin’s governor Scott Walker attempted to surreptitiously remove the Wisconsin Idea from the State’s higher education mission.  He proposed instead to make the Mission Statement of the State university system “to meet the state’s workforce needs.”  Sharp-eyed reporters found and exposed this outrageous and cynical move, and a judge’s ruling  forced Walker to reveal his trickery.  He ultimately backed down under pressure.

Nevertheless, the attempt to drive public higher education into the Business Model is isolated neither to Wisconsin nor to Mission Statements. Across the country, State universities are being transformed from institutions of learning into trade schools.  The aim of college is now too often viewed as the attainment of a diploma which entitles the bearer to compete for specific jobs requiring specific skills.  The student is not to be educated, but trained.

Another severe blow to the principles and purpose of higher education is the devaluation of faculty.  Once universities took pride in the abilities and accomplishments of their professoriate.  Now they are looked at merely as employees, and their contributions are measured on the bottom line.  As the goal of a university education has been defined as the acquisition of a degree, how that degree is obtained has become concomitantly less important.  If the number and nature of courses have been checked off the student’s list, that is all that matters.

The Business Model has also warped universities by placing the emphasis on management.  The president is the CEO, and is paid as such.  He or she is supported by an ever-growing bureaucracy of top-level and mid-managers, and the faculty are valued on how little they cost and how easy they are to replace.  The exploding use of “adjunct” faculty – poorly paid, with few or no benefits – has been decried ad nauseam to little effect.

Adjuncts are not the only non-tenure-track faculty at public universities.  A colleague and classmate of mine from our graduate-school days, Thomas H. Kreneck, Ph.D. (pictured above), has exposed another way university administrations have turned academia on its head by placing two-thirds of faculty members nationwide in non-tenure-track positions.  Kreneck’s op-ed piece in the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman focuses attention on the cheap, harmful, and demoralizing practice of hiring “professional assistant professors.” Known by the ironically accurate acronym “PAP,” these are ostensibly permanent faculty who are in fact at-will employees.  They are subject to termination without cause, and thus are vulnerable to intimidation and the subjugation of academic freedom as well as budget-cutting.

The benefits to the universities’ management extend beyond the financial.  In the buyer’s market of public universities today, control over what is taught is seen as a necessary part of making a school attractive to prospective students and their parents.  No free thinking need rear its ugly head when the “trade-school” mentality is in charge.

Kreneck rightly points out that “A college or university …. produces minds, not widgets. Its free-thinking professors hone free-thinking people, not assembly-line products.”   He cautions that independent thought is limited under conditions “where teachers are vulnerable to the managerial convenience of administration or to the whims of the politically powerful.”

By spotlighting another manifestation of a dangerous trend, my old friend has fired a flare that should illuminate the field for anyone concerned about the future of public higher education in America.  I emphatically urge everyone to read his cogent commentary (just click here).  The America envisioned by the well-educated people who founded it depends on our willingness to stand up and demand that public universities be places of inquiry, not halls of business-like indoctrination.