A Higher Ed Maelstrom
A DISCUSSION OFPublic Universities
Kumble R. Subbaswamy has provided a useful guided tour of American public universities in the wake of the pandemic wreckage. His narrative, not surprisingly titled “Public Universities,” part of the postpandemic special section (Issues, Winter 2021), reminds me of Edgar Allen Poe’s classic 1841 short story, “Descent in the Maelstrom.” For Poe’s narrator, the only way to survive a furious ocean hurricane and sinking ship was to tread water, keep calm, and thoughtfully observe one’s own predicament. It’s a fitting metaphor for university presidents whose academic ships have been battered since the pandemic’s beginning last March. All constituents in American higher education would do well to read and to heed this remarkable profile of what public universities are facing.
Subbaswamy’s account is enduring because he avoids polemics, opting instead to provide thoughtful analysis about the endangered residential campus model for public higher education. Even before the COVID-19 crisis exposed and increased the liabilities of the traditional residential campus, we have had new models for innovative higher education. For example, I have been intrigued by the Universities at Shady Grove, launched in 2000. Located in Rockville, Maryland, near Washington, DC, the University of Maryland system has brought together nine of the state’s public universities to cooperate in offering upper-division and graduate-level degree programs, most of which are attuned to the changing national economy and demand for educated professionals. It provides an alternative to the model of the rural state land grant university campus that started to flourish in the early 1900s.
Elsewhere there are comparable signs of innovation. But what happens to public universities that are mortgaged into a traditional residential campus? The problem is pronounced because a decade ago numerous presidents, boards, and donors pursued massive building campaigns, often marked by grand structures. The price tag often was construction debt between $1 billion and $2 billion, much of which will be paid by future generations of students who are charged mandatory fees. By 2015 some ambitious universities’ expansion projects were featured in national media, a publicity meteor that was difficult to sustain—and now is difficult to afford. The high-stakes gamble by some aspiring public university presidents was that this was a way to transform a provincial institution into a prestigious architectural showcase. Less evident is whether these provided the right infrastructure for the science research. So, even though the traditional grand campus may no longer be necessary or effective, the nation is stuck with these monuments that perpetuate American higher education’s “edifice complex.”
Furthermore, in communities ranging from small towns to major cities, a college or university often is the largest landowner and employer. That powerful presence brings responsibility to institutional leaders in renegotiating “town and gown” relations. If all that campus real estate and new magnificent buildings are no longer necessary, how ought these be reconfigured to appropriate new uses? What do we now identify as the essentials of a college education and degree? Thanks to Chancellor Subbaswamy’s thoughtful essay, we have an invitation to a great conversation that can generate light as well as heat in revitalizing public universities in the postpandemic era.
John R. Thelin
University Research Professor
University of Kentucky