Do We Want “Democratic Control” Over Universities?

I’m a big fan of Mike Konczal but have some serious disagreements with him about higher education policy, which I think has become a kind of odd blindspot of a lot of progressive thinking. His latest writing on the subject for a Dissent magazine forum ends with a clarion call for American state governments to recommit themselves to a “social democratic” vision of nearly-free college:

What vision should we advance in response? Rebuilding what used to exist—something we should call the social democratic vision. This is the vision in the California Master Plan for Higher Education: one where college is free and grants and loans cover supplemental expenses for the poor. Higher ed would be broadly accessible, with a variety of options ranging from elite schools to community colleges.

Beyond ensuring equality of opportunity, another advantage of this approach is that it would help stop cost inflation. Free public universities would function like the proposed “public option” of healthcare reform. If increased demand for higher education is causing cost inflation, then spending money to reduce tuition at public universities will reduce tuition at private universities by causing them to hold down tuition to compete. This public option would reduce informational problems by creating a baseline of quality that new institutions have to compete with, allowing for a smoother transition to new competitors. And it allows for democratic control over one of the basic elements of human existence—how we gather information and share it among ourselves.

I have a number of disagreements with this passage, but I think the last line about “democratic control” is the best entry point into what’s wrong with it. I don’t think Americans in general—and certainly not the kind of left-wing Americans inclined to bemoan America’s waning fiscal commitment to public universities—would want to see democratic control over the university system. Democratic control would entail an end to the teaching of politically controversial or subversive views, and it would mean increased demands for accountability. Particularly for the famous highly-selective public university campuses that are saying to the majority of their state’s taxpayers “sorry your kids aren’t smart enough to be worthy of our time” the pressure to demonstrate some kind of concrete public benefits that are recognized by the median voter would be intense. Public university campuses would look like high schools, and university professors would have similar occupational prestige to high school teachers.

Public universities started privatizing themselves before Medicaid and the Great Recession started squeezing state budgets precisely because they don’t want to be subject to democratic control, they want to compete with private universities to recruit top faculty and move up the selectivity rankings. That means tapping all available sources of revenue—public subsidies, yes, but also donors and paying customers—in order to get the budgets necessary to have nice facilities, to prevent all your best faculty from getting poached, to keep those basketball programs going, and all the rest. Because obtaining a degree from a prestigious institution does carry private economic benefits, the tendency is for competition to push costs upwards as schools spend what it takes to be “the best” and find that students and their families are willing to pay what it takes.