Columns » Warwick Sabin

Anything for a buck

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Last week’s revelation that the UALR provost was trying to extort financial contributions from professors is just the latest indication of the rising stakes in academia. The pressure never used to be this intense, especially at public universities. There was always the occasional wealthy alum who donated a building or boosted the football team, but those gifts were not crucial to the survival of the campus. They supplemented a taxpayer-financed budget that covered the essentials. Today, our state doesn’t give its higher education institutions enough money to stay competitive. Perhaps that is because we have too many. The result is that Arkansas colleges and universities have to battle each other — and their counterparts around the nation — for the private donations that make the difference between progress and stagnation. The volunteer fundraiser has been replaced by teams of development officers who systematically extract money from every possible source. This new paradigm is epitomized by the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, which recently reached its $1 billion goal. If raising money seems to be the first priority of university administrators, you can barely fault them. Students need to be prepared for the global marketplace, and advanced classrooms and laboratories are expensive. Salaries for the best professors continue to rise as colleges compete for them. In fact, the UALR provost, David Belcher, only minimally apologized for his action, and UALR Chancellor Joel Anderson basically defended him. “The underlying concern his message reflected was valid,” Anderson said in a statement. “Internal participation, particularly of those in leadership positions, is important as we work to achieve increased private support for the university.” Some people might make the case that this kind of pressure is good for our public colleges and universities. It’s the survival of the fittest, and those who can convince the big donors to pony up will get ahead while the losers fall by the wayside. There is validity to that argument, and that kind of competition has always been productive in academia. But things seem to be getting more extreme, and the sense of manic desperation in Belcher’s message to the professors foretells something ominous. Dependent upon private donations for their very existence, will UALR and other colleges do anything to secure them? Belcher said UALR would “never again hire a chair or dean who will not agree as they enter the institution to contribute [$1,000]” and “those not wishing to demonstrate their commitment to the institution should in no way expect any assistance in raising external funds for their units. None, nada, zilch.” If UALR is so determined to get a handful of $1,000 donations, what would it do for more sizable amounts? For one idea, look back to Fayetteville. A Department of Education Reform was established there this year, and as Doug Smith wrote in a recent Arkansas Times cover story, cynical observers suggested it “might be a form of payback to the Waltons for the fabulous $300 million gift they made to the UA a couple of years ago, perhaps even a requirement of the gift.” He went on to say that these observers think “the department’s research and recommendations would unfailingly advance the educational interests of the Waltons, particularly the use of public money for vouchers to help children attend private schools.” Whether or not that is true, the supposedly objective work at a public university is being called into question before it even begins. There is at least the appearance of a quid pro quo. And this is only one example. When the big donors hold all of the cards (and they know it), the institution begins to reflect their priorities. This becomes a concern when the institution is public, because a donor’s priorities don’t necessarily coincide with the general public’s. Then the question becomes: Whose interests does the university serve? By no means should public higher education institutions stop raising money. Private support for scholarships and facilities helps give colleges a competitive edge. However, as a state we need to ensure that our colleges and universities have a basic level of funding through which they can still achieve excellence. A public university that can only survive through private donations isn’t really public anymore. It has lost its soul because it is no longer independent. And like a man who will say or do anything for a buck, that’s a sorry sight.

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