volume 44, number 4
Temple UniversityFaculty Herald

Editorials

 

Temple as a Public Good?
By Steve Newman, Editor

 

During President Theobald’s inauguration, banners were unfurled and advertisements were splashed on buses that read “Temple: Philadelphia’s Public University.” It did my heart good to see that message, because I think that it encapsulates Temple’s aspirations better than any other slogan I’ve encountered. I know I’m not alone. Every colleague I’ve talked with prefers “Philadelphia’s Public University” to “Temple Made,” with its overweening “Self Made” and images of face-painted students, faculty, and administrators looking not entirely in their right minds. Without apology, “Philadelphia’s Public University” locates Temple in Philadelphia, which nourishes us with its intellectual, economic, and cultural energy and poses challenges that we need to address in concert with our fellow Philadelphians, including our neighbors. The slogan also has the virtue of identifying us as a university—that is, as a place that exists to create knowledge and teach it, both within our disciplines and among them. You might think that it should go without saying that Temple is a university. Yet these days we have to fight to make sure that Temple is not turned into a glorified summer camp as we spend on the amenities necessary to attract and retain students.

   But I want to focus here on the slogan’s middle word, “public.” This is more than a savvy way of differentiating us from our wealthier private neighbor hulking on the other side of the Schuylkill. For it is the public that to a significant degree validates our research, teaching, and service. And “public” also names what is most under threat right now, at Temple and at public colleges and universities across the U. S. The data is probably depressingly familiar. There has been a massive disinvestment in public higher education in this country over the past few decades. For the state-by-state drop from 2006-11, see this chart; you’ll notice that Pennsylvania is at twice the U. S. average of -12.5%; and here’s a graph of the decline across the U. S. since 1990-91. If we look back further, the past may seem utopic; this issue’s Wayback Machine from April of 1995 fumes on the front page over the state’s parsimonious appropriation, and the author had good cause to do so. And yet we find out in that same issue that the appropriation that year was $144 million. Our appropriation for fiscal year 2014, according to Temple’s Budget Office, was $146.4 million; Governor Corbett has with characteristic generosity and foresight proposed an identical number for this year, just as he did for the two years prior to 2014, and this after a 20% cut that fell far short of the 50% he sought. Lest you think that this $146 million represents an increase over 1995’s $144 million, albeit a minimal one, we have to remember to adjust for inflation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ inflation calculator, $144 million in 1995 would be equivalent to $223 million now. It is no surprise, then, that state support has dwindled to 12% of our operating budget; the percentage for Penn State is half that, which raises the question at what point state universities cease to be public universities, at least in terms of fiscal support.  

   Of course, funding reflects values, and the turn away from seeing education as a public good is part of a larger skepticism toward the public as such afflicting our elected leaders and a large swath of the electorate, from public education on the primary and secondary levels to public assistance to the poor to public lands that have been reduced to mineral rights and natural gas reservoirs to be sold on the cheap. Or, as the late Maggie Thatcher famously put it, “There is no such thing as society.” Calculated hyperbole, perhaps. But nonetheless revealing of a corrosive worldview that devalues the civic-mindedness responsible for, among other accomplishments, the founding of public universities that are the equal of the best private ones but more accessible. For even if Harvard, Stanford, et. al. are committed to making it possible for all their admits to afford their brutal price tag, they simply don’t have enough seats to educate the tide of students who seek and deserve a great university.

   But if we faculty are to persuade others that colleges and universities, including Philadelphia’s Public University, deserve public support, we need to remind the public of why we’re valuable. We need to point out that among the people that are Temple Made are thousands of doctors, lawyers, teachers, and other professionals who are the lifeblood of the region (a line I shamelessly steal from Chip Jungreis, Vice President-elect of the Faculty Senate). We need to highlight the public benefits that accrue from our research and teaching, not only new cancer drugs but also literacy programs, better urban planning, and public artworks. We must also work on making a trickier argument, which is that there is often no telling where our research and teaching may lead, that facile input/output equations risk squeezing out an irreplaceable element of what makes universities valuable. I wonder if we might not adapt Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand to argue that in getting paid for pursuing our intellectual passions and in giving students the freedom to the same, we may well produce public benefits. And for those who might object that Smith argued against government intervention in the economy, I would urge them to not stop reading The Wealth of Nations before Book V. There, Smith argues for the necessity of the state to fund schools. Lacking this, those subject to the repetitive and narrow occupations that accompany the division of labor that makes possible the wealth of nations will be rendered unfit to be citizens. And he would have extended his argument to include universities had he lived to see the importance of post-secondary education to a modern economy and state.

   Finally, we need to acknowledge that a large portion of the public and thus of our potential students, is being crushed by student debt, made worse by an exploitative loan industry (including the quasi-federal Sallie Mae) that has occupied the vacuum left by public disinvestment. This has led to some fundamental doubts about the value of a college education and pressured legislators and others to find easy solutions to a complex problem; see the fondness by governors in Texas, Florida, and Wisconsin for the $10,000 B. A. (hey presto!). President Theobald has rightly announced limiting student debt as a key priority, though I can foresee potential conflicts as the imperative to keep costs low may conflict with our rightful demand to be properly compensated. But we might also avoid such conflicts by promulgating and supporting plans that direct more resources or re-direct existing resources more efficiently to public universities. One of them, just released by Profs. Sara Goldrick-Rab and Nancy Kendall (Wisconsin-Madison), offers a blueprint for making the first two years of public post-secondary education free with no increase in the amount currently spent. We might also draw on feisty defenses of the public university and exposés of attempts to undermine it—for instance, Christopher Newfield’s and Michael Meranze’s website, Remaking the Public University. These are some of the resources we might bring to this crucial discussion. If “Philadelphia’s Public University” is to be more than a slogan, we must secure the support of the public we serve.