Monday, July 30, 2007

The neoliberal university and differential tuition for different majors

A New York Times article this past weekend (Jonathan D. Glater, "Certain degrees now cost more at public universities") alerted me to something I'm ashamed to say I hadn't realized about my own University of Wisconsin — specifically, about the undergraduate degree in our School of Business:

Starting this fall, juniors and seniors pursuing an undergraduate major in the business school at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, will pay $500 more each semester than classmates.


Officials at universities that have recently implemented higher tuition for specific majors say students have supported the move.

Students in the business school at the University of Wisconsin, for example, got behind the program because they believed that it would support things like a top-notch faculty.

With the tuition and fees for an in-state undergraduate at UW-Madison estimated to be $6,730 for the 2006-07 academic year, a $500 surcharge amounts to nearly 10% of a student's tuition bill.

The political-economic conditions that have inspired this new funding structure include two decades of growing neoliberal governance strategies at both the state and national level. By "neoliberal governance" I mean the philosophy that the workings of capitalist markets can effectively substitute for democratic decisions of cultural value and social justice in every aspect of human life. (For more on this concept, see David Harvey's 2006 book, A brief history of neoliberalism.) In the case of Wisconsin, this policy is evident in the fact that the state has reduced its level of taxpayer-funded support to less than 20% of the total budget of the university. We are to be run "more like a business" according to the refrain at conservative political rallies. Any notion that the public research university is an investment in economic growth, cultural understanding, and basic knowledge production as a resource commons for all is swept aside; the university must become "entrepreneurial," not in the broad sense of fostering learning and innovation in scientific, artistic, and intellectual pursuits, but in the narrow sense of attracting private capital for its operating expenses. The underlying assumption in all this is stark: any operating expenses unable to attract such private capital are by definition not of value in the university, and deserving of cuts rather than subsidy.

The rationale behind our business school adopting this neoliberal model of differential tuition seems to rely on two core beliefs: (1) that business school faculty both require and are deserving of higher salaries than faculty in other units in order to maintain the value of the business school (based on what the market is willing to pay to hire away these faculty both inside and outside of academia); and (2) that business school students are both able and eager to pay a higher tuition in order to maintain the value of their degree (based on what the market is willing to pay to initially hire these graduates). In both of these arguments, "value" is understood narrowly as market value — the price of a salary. Any other definitions of value — say, how to "value" a multidisciplinary and eclectic department of scholars who don't all do the same kind of research on the same kind of topics and who, inevitably, don't all command the same salary in the idealized open market of corporate consulting; or, perhaps, how to "value" a broad and diverse undergraduate education which includes courses taken outside of a single school or department or specialty — are silenced from discussion.

Postgraduate students working toward a Master's Degree or Doctorate, of course, already pay differential tuition in many cases, depending on the professions that they are engaged in. In Spring 2007, for example, a generic full-time resident graduate student paid $4,592 per semester, but a full-time resident law student paid $6,326 and a full-time resident medical student paid $11,132. By comparison, a full-time business masters student paid $5,320. In the business school, there was even a slightly discounted rate for evening MBA students, who only paid $5,103 per semester.

But this new structure in the business school differentiates students not on the basis of their professional specializations after achieving an undergraduate degree; instead, it redefines the meaning of the undergraduate degree itself as a professional degree worth paying a legitimate premium for. I can't offer any insight into whether that $500 undergraduate business school premium is worth the money; however, I would like to question whether it is a legitimate charge, in considering the meaning of the university itself.

But first, a thought experiment. If charging differential tuition based on an undergraduate department is a smart, "entrepreneurial" idea, then why stop at the departmental scale of action? Why not extend the practice to the scale of the individual professor? After all, clearly some professors are valued more highly in the market than others (as seen by the outside offers they get from other universities or firms in private industry). And aren't these the very faculty members (and the ideas they produce and promote) which really make the business school competitive? Instead of charging an extra $500 to all business school majors, the school could simply charge an extra $100 each time an undergraduate takes a class with one of these premium professors — investing the money back into their salaries alone, of course. Such a scheme would be a real incentive to the rest of the business school faculty to innovate!

But then again, why stop at the scale of the individual? I mean, even the most valuable professors sometimes teach courses which aren't as useful to the bottom line of getting a good job once a student graduates (I'm thinking of pesky "history" and "ethics" courses here, but undoubtedly there are others). And within those courses, certainly not all of the material covered in the syllabus ends up on the final exam. Hmmm ... how about having students pay by the day instead of by the course? Faculty could determine which days of lecture are the most valuable — based on the instrumental goals of resume padding and test preparation — and students could pay a $10 premium each time they attended one of those days. (This would have the happy effect of allowing some of those "less valued" professors to at least teach a few days of useful material in their otherwise valueless courses, too.) Students who decided not to attend those days of class wouldn't have to pay the extra premium. Power to allocate the original $500 premium designated to the department would instead go in "micropayments" to those exact portions of valuable courses, taught by those exact professors of value, which make the business school (and the undergraduate degree it confers) competitive. Market logic triumphant!

If those proposals sounded misguided and extreme, then consider this. Instead of demanding that particular groups of undergraduates pay a $500 premium to particular groups of professors in particular departments under the assumption that the knowledge gains produced by one field — or the career outcomes of one student constituency — are more valuable than another, what if all undergraduates were asked to pay an extra $100 and that money was allocated democratically through faculty debate over a combination of factors — which departments serve more undergraduate majors, which departments have the potential to earn revenue from (still-higher-paying) professional graduate students, which deparments represent "market failures" (private industry declining to support the Havens Center for Social Justice, for example) nevertheless deserving of university subsidy, and, most crucially, rational deliberation about what kind of university experience our students (and our society) deserve as a whole?

I'm worried about the new structure that our business school — and our univeristy — have instituted. I work in two similar departments which see themselves as "Schools" (both within the College of Arts and Sciences) to which the lures of differential undergraduate tuition would also be attractive. One is a School of Journalism and Mass Communication; the other is a School of Library and Information Studies. Both could make similar arguments for charging differential tuition to undergraduates. But I also do the kind of intellectual work that puts me on the fringes of the mainstream in both of those Schools. When one department decides it can charge more for its services than another department, it is using the "natural" logic of the market, whether it admits to this or not, to make a value claim about its own knowledge production — and in a university, this amounts to a value claim about the benefit of its work not only to an undergraduate job seeker, but to the culture as a whole. I am not prepared to endorse such a claim, even for my own fields.

On its web site, our School of Business touts that it offers its undergraduates "The resources of a world-class public university with the personal contact of a comparatively small business school." But if that school — or any other — is willing to value its faculty and its knowledge above and beyond that of the rest of the university through differential tuition, then it is cooperating in the same neoliberal agenda that uses stark and simple market logic to decide which "resources of a world-class public univeristy" deserve funding in the first place. In effect, the very definition of the public university is changing before our eyes. Let's not simply look the other way.

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