Public Good or Private Benefit?

In the broader world of higher education policy, finance, and decision-making, perhaps the hottest issue at the moment is whether state-supported higher education is a public good or a private benefit. As a public good, it's primarily seen as benefiting all of society, with everything from indirect spinoffs from having a highly-educated populace to the results of research conducted at public institutions, public funds. Those who view it as a private benefit point to the fact that access is still quite restricted to students who come from more affluent families. They also note that the individual students who get degrees derive substantial personal lifetime benefits from their education.

D'es this matter to IT professionals on campus? Maybe it really matters. Maybe it matters only a little. Even if it d'esn't really directly matter all that much, it is still useful to understand the terms of the debate going on near the top of the ivory towers, among the folks whose policies determine our institutions' strategic aims. I think it matters. I think the "public good" perspective is part of what has created such a unique IT culture in higher education institutions, even private ones. It's something I've given some thought to recently. I'd love to have more thoughts stimulated, please share your thoughts with me - terry.calhoun@scup.org!

First, let me share with you that I am one of those who sees higher education first and foremost as a public good. I'm a big fan of that bumper sticker which reads: "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance!" Don't get me wrong. I understand first-hand the private benefits of higher education: It's been more than 20 years since I have been inside the offices of a law firm other than as a client, but the Juris Doctor I earned from the University of Michigan Law School in 1980 is a credential that has opened many doors for me.

But the "private good" folks have been making headway in recent years. One indicator of that is that today's undergraduates are relying far more on loans (which they personally have to pay back) than in previous years, where outright grants were a more significant part of an undergraduate's tuition and fees portfolio. Another indicator is waning state funding for public colleges and universities. The University of Michigan, for example, now receives less than 10 percent of its funding from the state. Quite a few institutions are looking to make the move from public schools to private schools, perhaps led at the moment by the College of William & Mary and other Virginia schools.

For some good background on the ways public institutions are looking at new ways of doing business, including moving from state-supported, to state-assisted, to maybe even becoming private schools, check out this prophetic 24-page white paper New Forces and Realities: Making the Adjustment (PDF). The paragraph quoted below, in particular, made me think of a number of IT initiatives on various campuses and, in fact, in reading the monograph you will see that IT folks are a bit ahead of the curve in reacting to some of the "new forces and realities" that it refers to.

Universities are not often thought of as entrepreneurial, but, looked at in a particular way, they are. For example, a grant is fundamentally a business venture, but with different language to fit the culture. Client is a "granting agency," money is "funds," manager if "principal investigator," and payment is "honorarium. *** Looked at in this way, the issue becomes one of how to expand the creative, capitalistic thinking that already exists. (Rinella, 2002)

Why and how the public good/private benefit debate might directly affect IT folks sprouted once again my head recently while having lunch with Kat Hagedorn, of the OAIster Project. If you've looked at the The Chronicle of Higher Education Web site recently, you have seen her photo illustrating the lead to the current story, Libraries Aim to Widen Google's Eyes: Search engines want to make scholarly work more visible on the Web. (Note: We wrote about some of the moves by search engines to tape into the "hidden" or "deep" Web on X//X//X.) OAIster has created a wonderful resource, one that until a recent agreement with Yahoo! was underutilized. I don't think OAIster would exist in a world dominated by the "private benefit" perspective, and that would be regrettable.

Can anyone doubt that a small, IT-related project that provides a searchable database of more than 3,000,000 meta-tagged, academic digital resources and can be used by anyone for no cost at all is a public good? Of course, it is also a private benefit - to Kat, because it's her job, and to thousands of users who use it in their vocations and avocations as well. But would it have ever been developed as a "private benefit," given that most of the users are probably academics? I doubt it. The folks at the extreme end of the "private benefit" arguments are all about making money, and making money from those kinds of resources is a risky business, witness the recent IT staff layoffs at Proquest.

Universities and colleges have a lot more IT staff than a similar-sized commercial venture would have, partly because the "work" of an institution is information. But also because in addition to supporting education as a "public good" concept - even in many private schools - a lot of salaries, like those at OAIster, are paid at least partly by funding that comes from the public.

To me, that means that the bottom line on this issue for campus IT staff is that without a "public good" perspective on higher education, an awful lot of campus IT jobs could be on the line, including the campus-based jobs at places like OAIster, Internet2, and a whole host of other projects on your campus that I am sure you can think of. So, the debate about "private benefit" versus "public good," taking place mostly in the top rooms of the ivory tower (and in state legislatures) is one that matters to us, too. That's something worth thinking about, especially in a presidential election year. Be sure to ask any candidates that you happen to get a chance to talk with how they feel about this issue.

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