Building a business-like university?

August 15, 2012

Nancy Welch joined the University of Vermont English department in 1995 and helped to launch the successful drive to unionize faculty in 2001. Here, she analyzes the push to hike tuition and impose other neoliberal "reforms" in the wake of several scandals at UVM.

WHEN VERMONT Gov. Peter Shumlin convened an advisory committee last fall to examine the state's relationship to the University of Vermont (UVM), the campus was reeling from the latest in a series of scandals.

From the discovery of $10 million in overpayments to a consulting group, to revelations of secret bonuses, plus tabloid tales regarding the romantic misadventures of a vice president and the president's spouse, such scandals had resulted in the flight of nearly a dozen top administrators--some borne away by golden parachutes in excess of a half-million dollars.

Behind the lurid headlines lay much deeper systemic problems. Facing bills of more than $25,000 annually to attend UVM and live in its dorms, Vermont residents now make up less than 24 percent of the student body (down from 50 percent at the start of the 1990s).

Spending on academics is also in decline--dropping to just 45 percent of last year's operating budget--as a larger administration and the debt incurred with a trustee-approved building spree claim greater budget shares.

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin
Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin

Then there is the make-up of UVM's governing board, one that makes the University of Virginia's (UVa) Board of Visitors, which recently came under fire for allowing a wealthy few to orchestrate a president's ouster, appear as a model of democratic accountability. At the University of Vermont, nine of twenty-three trustees are "private"; when one steps down, he or she selects a successor.

At least twice in UVM's history as a public university, these "self-perpetuating" trustees have come under public scrutiny for decisions that seemed to serve their own interests above the good of the university. For example, in 2005, the board's chair, who had just given the green light to half a billion dollars in campus construction that his own construction company would have a share in, resigned his seat amid questions about conflicts of interest. He also picked his successor.

IMAGINE, THEN, the recommendations that the governor's committee, in a report released just as the dust had settled on UVa's governance debacle, might have made.

An obvious reform would be a greater cap on in-state tuition to keep Vermonters from being priced out of the state's sole public university. Another would be increased public representation on the governing board, even opening up a seat or two for trustees elected from the faculty and staff to keep the board attentive to the academic mission and mindful of campus needs.

Since accountability is a two-way street, the governor's committee might also have recommended a reversal of the steep decline in state financial support. Is it any surprise that the University of Vermont has been less than accessible and answerable to the public given that state funding now accounts for a mere 7 percent of its operating budget?

None of these reforms, however, were part of the committee's report, "New Ideas for Changing Times: Strengthening the Partnership between the State of Vermont and the University of Vermont." In fact, when Gov. Shumlin held a press conference to applaud the report's highlights, it became quickly apparent that these were recommendations not for strengthening but severing the state's relationship to Vermont's only university.

Topping the list are calls to reduce the number of public trustees serving on the university's governing board and increase the number of private trustees, and eliminate the cap set by the state legislature that prevents in-state tuition from rising above 40 percent of out-of-state tuition.

In making these recommendations, the eight-member committee was not in ignorant of UVM's long-standing problems. Their 31-page report emphasizes the problems of funding and access--and offers further privatization as the remedy. The solution for scant state funding is increased corporate investment, encouraged by further opening UVM's board to private interests.

As for the affordability problem that's sure to be exacerbated if in-state tuition subsidies are ended, the committee counsels voluntarism, suggesting that area businesses support a loan-forgiveness program for graduates who agree (under what terms and conditions?) to go to work for them.

This free-market orientation isn't surprising, given the committee members' credentials. Chairing the group, for instance, is a senior fellow with the Ewing Marion Kaufman Foundation, devoted to "helping universities become more entrepreneurial--not only in what they teach and how they teach it, but in how they operate."

Among the report's several proposals for a more entrepreneurial UVM is a Vermont version of the Aspen Institute, where economic and political elites gather at $8,500 a head for week-long seminars on national and global policy issues.

Still, the report stops just shy of proposing that UVM's public status be dropped altogether. The committee provides one reason for their restraint: While full privatization "may make financial sense," they reason, it would also mark Vermont as "the only state in the USA without a public university." For all the report's rhetoric about UVM joining the "race" and becoming more "competitive," this first-to-abandon-public-higher-ed is apparently one accolade they aren't seeking.

But another, perhaps bigger reason can be found in the report's emphasis on the active role the state can play in shaping a business-friendly university.

To give just one example, the committee, with Gov. Shumlin's enthusiastic support, advises redirecting state appropriations away from the general fund, where they would support a curriculum developed and directed by faculty, and toward "high priority state interests" especially in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields.

IN THE end, "New Ideas for Changing Times" does not offer anything new. It instead follows a now-familiar neoliberal path: Manufacture or seize upon a crisis, gather unelected and unaccountable "experts" to counsel market solutions, and use the authority and resources of the state to assist in the delivery of public assets and institutions into private hands.

It seems likely that a Republican governor championing this course would have been answered with vehement objections. (For the record, Vermont's last governor was a Republican who sought, without success, a 20 percent increase in state higher education funding--though he did so while also seeking, with much success, to ax state employee wages and jobs.) Yet the announcement of Gov. Shumlin, a Democrat, has been greeted by a vast quiet.

Only one Vermont independent news blog has covered the report in any depth, the state's largest daily newspaper has yet to run a story, and with the exception of Philip Baruth, a state senator and UVM English professor, the state's (majority Democratic) legislators have been mum about whether they'll put their efforts into making the governor's recommendations a reality in the next legislative session.

Of course, Shumlin's release of the report just ahead of the Fourth of July holiday seems well-timed to go unnoticed. More, because he has also taken the very popular position among many liberals and progressives of championing single-payer health care, he also seems to be enjoying a pass on other issues, such as his support for basing the Air Force's controversial F-35 bombers in Vermont and arming police with Tasers.

For anyone concerned about the future of public higher education, this episode in Vermont offers two important reminders. First, the push to defund and corporatize state university and college systems comes whether a Democratic or a Republican sits in the governor's office.

Second, whether a president is pushed from office, as at the University of Vermont, or restored to office, as at the University of Virginia, it is the agendas of our universities' governing boards--and powerful entities like the newly incorporated and fully private UVM Foundation--with which we must contend.

Still, the governor may want to heed the roar that's on the other side of Vermont's possibly temporary summertime silence. To the south, the University of Virginia has shown a faculty's power to overturn a misguided decision from their governing board. To the north, tens of thousands of Québec students, joined by casserole-clanging residents, have turned their cities into a "sea of red" against the proposed tuition hikes and austerity aims of their provincial head of state.

What's especially remarkable about the Québec protests is that the student coalition, CLASSE, has attracted and invigorated thousands by advancing a bold program--not only for staving off the liberal government's tuition increase, but seeking the abolition of tuition altogether.

Fully funded higher education, free from debt and indentured servitude: Now there's a genuinely new--or new to the neoliberal era--idea for changing times.

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