Presidential Perspective: Publics, Privates, Budgets and Culture
- By Carol T. Christ
- July 1st, 2004
A little over two years ago, I moved from the University of California at Berkeley, where I had served in the administration for over a dozen years, to Smith College. The experience of working in such different institutions has given me an unusual perspective on American higher education. The contrasts are striking: west coast and east coast, a co-ed school and a women's school, a research university and a liberal arts college, public and private. These kinds of institutions don't talk to each other very often. Each has its own higher education associations, its own meetings and conferences. Indeed, each uses the other to define its own virtues and values. Public research universities talk about the values to undergraduates of the graduate and research culture that shapes their programs. They contrast themselves to private colleges in the access, affordability, and diversity they offer students. In an even more pronounced way, private colleges define their virtues by contrast to research universities. Here, they argue, faculty focus on teaching, never research at the expense of teaching; here, faculty focus on undergraduates, not graduate students.
Because faculty and administrators don't often move between these kinds of institutions, people don't often question these assumptions and they rarely ask whether these kinds of institutions can learn from each other. Since I arrived at Smith, I have been fascinated by the question of what privates and publics have to teach each other.
As I first got to know Smith College, I was impressed by the shared sense of institutional mission across its major constituencies. Faculty, staff, students, alumnae and the Board of Trustees have similar ideas about the goals and purpose of the college. This may seem like an unremarkable fact, but anyone who has spent time in the public sector knows that the major constituencies who have a stake in our public research universities often have different ideas about institutional mission and priorities. If you ask faculty, students, staff, Boards of Regents, legislators and the general public what is the institutional mission of the University of California, or the University of Arizona, or the University of Colorado, you will get strikingly different answers. In part such differences result from the greater complexity of the institutions them-selves, but in part they result from conflicting ideas about the institutions. Is their guiding purpose to provide affordable college education for all qualified students from the state? To expand educational access to disadvantaged populations? To develop top-ranked graduate programs? To provide the best possible environment for faculty research? To stimulate high tech economic development in their area or state? To serve the public? Many would answer all of the above. The resulting conversation has often reminded me of an old Saturday Night Live skit about a TV advertisement in which Steve Martin asks about a product, Shimmer, "Is it a floor polisher or a dessert topping?" The answer: it's a floor polisher and a dessert topping.
There is a cost, I think, to the cacophony of this conversation, most evident in problems of governance. Many observers of higher education are concerned with the poor quality of public boards. During the search process for the presidency of Smith, I asked a trustee member of the search committee how she saw the function of the Board. She replied, "To help the President succeed." I don't think that this would be the answer one would get from a member of the California Board of Regents. Publics can learn important lessons about board governance from privates - greater consensus about institutional mission and greater commitment to the Board's role in helping the institution succeed.
The consensus about mission in private liberal arts colleges leads to a shared institutional culture that is one of the great strengths of these institutions. I have been impressed on a daily basis at Smith with faculty's engagement with the whole life of the institution. The shorthand for this is the commitment of faculty in a liberal arts college to under-graduate teaching. In the past year, I've often found myself uneasy with this characterization, not because of what it asserts - faculty in a liberal arts college are indeed very dedicated to their teaching - but because of the contrast it implies. In my three decades at Berkeley, I knew faculty to be conscientiously and energetically committed to undergraduate teaching. The contrast between a liberal arts college and a research university lies less in commitment to undergraduate teaching than in engagement with the entire life of the institution. I've been impressed at Smith by how generously faculty give their time - to alumnae events, to student recruiting, to college symposia, to college governance. I always see faculty from many departments at college events - poetry readings, student plays and lectures. In part this contrast is a function of size and location. But it also expresses a different kind of engagement in the whole life of the college that builds a sense of common mission and shared community.
The more urban culture of the research university, however, also has important strengths and benefits. I believe that our public universities have generally been more successful in achieving racial and ethnic diversity and in building it into the identity of their institutions. In part their success stems from the access and affordability that larger size and lower price afford. In addition, public colleges and universities naturally embrace a mission of extending access to all of a state's populations. In my experience, however, public universities are not only more successful at enrolling a diverse student body, but in integrating diversity with their institutional identity. I've been surprised at how contested issues of race are at even a progressive liberal arts college like Smith. In part this reflects the difference between east and west. California is ahead of the rest of the country in its experience and understanding of diversity. But in part it reflects the very different way in which private colleges and public universities try to build student identification with the institution. From the day a student walks in the door as a freshman (or first year, as we call them), she is told she is a Smithie for life. Private colleges begin building alumni loyalty from the time that students begin their college education. Publics could learn from this practice; it is the root from which future fund raising grows. For all of us in the private college world, however, the image of identity we seek to promote does not come unfreighted with baggage - ideas of what it means to be a Smithie or Yalie. Furthermore, we frequently use metaphors of family and community, metaphors that suggest relatedness and similarity. I tell people at Smith that I would like to develop a more urban sense of diversity at the college. By that, I mean a sense of community that does not homogenize difference and expects it as part of the texture of life. Students at public colleges have a simpler and more democratic sense of their membership in the college community: I go to Cal because I graduated high school in California, like 20,000 other students here, of different races, backgrounds, experiences and ambitions. We spend a day of orientation at Smith on what it means to be a member of the Smith community. The very attention we give to issues of community and college identity can make integrating diverse groups more difficult.
Private vs. Public Space
Since I have come to Smith, I have given a great deal of thought to private and public space. The history of political protest at Berkeley has made it almost synonymous with the public staging of issues. The campus has a flamboyant, often theatrical tradition of public debate. The space that symbolizes the campus and appears on the campus Web page is Sproul Plaza, the great open plaza on which the free speech movement took shape. That event in the campus's history defines an important element of its culture. Issues get debated, vigorously, in public space. The private lives of students are almost invisible. Although Berkeley might occupy an extreme on the political spectrum, its tradition of public debate is very much part of the culture of our public institutions.
Smith (and I suspect many private colleges) is very different. In the world of Smith, the private predominates. The spaces that define the college for many alumnae are the houses, designed to look like family houses, in which the students live. I am frequently asked what has most surprised me about Smith. I think the thing that has most surprised me is the speed and ease with which personal interactions that no administrator at Berkeley would even have reason or opportunity to know about catalyze campus issues. The intensity of private communities at Smith and their centrality to institutional identity make it difficult to create public space for robust debate. Such public space, I believe, is important in building a healthy and rich sense of diversity, by which I mean not only racial and economic diversity, but diversity in political opinion, in religious belief, in sexual orientation, in economic and cultural background. I believe that privates could take some lessons from publics not only in recruiting a socially and ethnically diverse student body, but in developing a sense of public space where the campus community can debate issues in an unpersonalized way. The desire on the part of private colleges to build institutional loyalty leads them to emphasize the sense of belonging. The sense of belonging is not always the best starting point in understanding and embracing diversity as part of the college's mission. The metaphors of family and community that we so readily use can become obstacles. A more robust sense of public space that privates could learn from publics may take us further.
Attitude Toward Students
I think that privates and publics could also learn from each other in the attitudes that they hold toward their students. Publics have so often been taken to task for paying less attention than they should to the whole student, to advising, and to the integration of student experience in the classroom and outside of it, that I will not belabor these points here. Privates do a wonderful job in their attention to the individual student, in instruction, in advising, in campus life, and publics can learn a great deal from them in this regard. But privates can learn from publics, too, in their commitment to educating the students who are in front of them. I have been dismayed, since moving to the world of private colleges, by the emphasis on competition for outstanding students. This is fueled in large part by the ratings game and its use of entry metrics - SAT scores and high school grade point averages - to define the quality of colleges and universities. With a kind of "grass is greener" mentality, it can lead faculty to devalue the students who are in front of them.
Cost and Budget
I have been talking so far about issues of mission and culture. I would like to turn now to a very different issue. In my move from public to private, I have found a sharp contrast in the way in which the two kinds of institutions consider cost and budget. I don't at all mean the different budgeting practices at the two kinds of institutions, but the culture surrounding and informing budget considerations. In my experience, candid conversation about budgetary matters comes harder in a private college than in a public university. I was Dean of the College of Letters and Science and later Vice Chancellor at Berkeley during the severe budgetary cut-backs of the early 1990s, and Smith, like many colleges and universities, is currently experiencing budget challenges. However, the character of the discussion in these two schools at similar moments is dramatically different. While no one welcomes budget cuts, public universities, in my experience, accommodate discussion of the trade-offs they involve more openly and constructively than privates. Perhaps it's the reward of frequent experience. Perhaps it's the higher standard of disclosure of information; publics are more public in regard to much institutional information that privates hold as confidential. Perhaps it's the habit of depending on annual legislative allocations for a significant portion of the operating budget. Perhaps it's the fact that the kinds of difficulties in the state economy that lead to budget reductions at the university are headline stories. No one has trouble believing that the problem is real or that the university has limited power to generate the revenue to fix it.
The discussion is harder at private colleges. People have more trouble believing that budget problems are real, and that raising tuition or the endowment take-out rate can't solve them. There is greater reluctance to talk publicly about budget issues, for fear of damaging a school's reputation. I do not think that this culture is healthy. It inhibits the kind of discussion about trade-offs, cost control, and operational efficiency important in analyzing and structuring a budget.
Colleges need to have more forthright discussions about cost and pricing. Can we do our business differently in fundamental ways? Can we achieve efficiencies through more extensive reliance on consortia? Can we share libraries? Services? Faculty? Smith belongs to a five-college consortium in the Pioneer Valley that shares administrative services, programs, and faculty. The institutions in the consortium are quite different; the consortium includes one public - the University of Massachusetts - and four privates, with different missions - Smith, Mount Holyoke, Hampshire and Amherst. The differences among us make us good partners. I believe that we can realize even more efficiency than we do through the five-college consortium without the program reductions that so often come from budget cuts, and I believe that consortia are the wave of the future.
The world of higher education often assumes that money provides the best indicator of quality. The weight of budgetary factors in the US News and World Report rankings reflects this assumption. In a significant number of the metrics that produce the rankings, you rank higher if you spend more. I've often been puzzled that efficiency, defined as value gained for dollar invested seems to play so negligible a role in these measurements. The emphasis on money as a measure of quality increases the pressure to ratchet up our investments in programs, personnel and facilities. The reluctance on the part of private colleges to engage in full and candid discussion of budget, cost and cost control contributes to this spiral. A culture in which we strive above all to protect our market advantage does not result in what is best for colleges collectively or singly.
Financial aid is a component in college budgeting. Private colleges have for some time depended on a policy of high cost and high aid, setting tuition sufficiently high to subsidize aid to poorer students. I am concerned that we may soon reach the limit of this strategy, as the sticker price rises beyond many families' ability or willingness to pay. We are already seeing cracks in it, as increasing numbers of private colleges use limited aid dollars to attract low- or no-need students in the attempt to ensure balanced budgets. Such strategies take aid away from the neediest and often the most deserving students while they do nothing to stop the spiral of increasing cost.
It is hard for any single college to chart a new course, but I think we need to work together to encourage fuller and more open discussions of cost, budget and price. Privates can learn from publics in this regard, and they can probably learn some ways of controlling costs, as well.
More to Learn from Each Other
The system of higher education in the U.S. is one of the country's finest achievements and its most valuable exports. Its mixture of private and public institutions of different sizes and missions composes the most diverse set of colleges and universities of any country in the world. Private colleges developed first historically, founded in order to serve the needs of a new country to educate its citizens as clergymen and as teachers. Public colleges and universities followed, most of them founded in the latter part of the nineteenth century after the passage of the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862, establishing the provisions for land grant colleges to educate an expanding and spreading population. Together, these two groups of institutions provide the richest and most various set of resources of higher education in the world.
We have not learned as much as we might from the different ways in which our colleges and universities go about their business. Conversations between public and private are particularly timely at this moment. The two kinds of institutions are growing closer together in a number of ways. Publics increasingly act like privates in their attempts to generate resources independent of state support, through higher tuition, through increasing the proportion of out-of-state students, through fund raising and through revenue-producing programs. Privates act increasingly like publics in their efforts to recruit a diverse student body and to increase access. Wherever their funding derives, both kinds of institutions think seriously about their public missions. Because they share so many aspirations, public and private can learn even more from each other than they have. They will both be the stronger for it.
Adapted from Dr. Christ's speech to The Bank of New York's 2003 Higher Education Finance & Investment Officers Forum on November 5, 2003.