When Does the University Stop Being Public?

The role and function of universities is increasingly a topic of discussion, and there is plenty to discuss. College costs have soared, student loan debt is at an all-time and dangerous high, and people are asking–reasonably–whether the product is worth the cost. The standards for making that determination are frequently misplaced; I’ve posted before my own frustration with those who see no difference between education and job training.

Meanwhile, state legislators routinely issue critiques and mandates. (This shouldn’t surprise those of us in higher education, since the General Assembly evidently considers itself a 150-person school board for K-12. This year it’s thou shalt teach cursive. A few years ago it was phonics.) Some of those legislative critiques are justified; most state universities could do with a leaner, meaner administrative structure. Many others betray an appalling lack of understanding of what a university is about.

One question that doesn’t seem to occur to these legislative overlords is: why should they have the ability to dictate university policies at all?

The assumed response to such a question is “because those institutions are supported by the state. It’s the Golden Rule: he who has the gold, rules.” But that assumption is getting thin indeed. State support is currently 11% of the budget at my university, and we are no anomaly. The vast majority of our funding comes from other sources: primarily tuition and fees, research grants, and fundraising.

This situation raises an interesting question: when do state universities cease being public? At what point does it make more sense for an institution of higher education to assess the considerable costs imposed by legislative mandates, compare those costs to the dwindling benefits of state financial support–and declare themselves private?

When children become self-supporting, they can declare themselves emancipated.


  1. Right on, Sheila! The state no longer provides the bulk of the gold; why are they still dictating university policies?

  2. How does financial aid fit into this picture? If we take your suggestion couldn’t the state just tell students that your institution is no longer eligible to be used for financial aid? Then what do you do?

  3. Student aid is a federal program, and it can be used in public or private institutions. (I agree with Obama that it should not be used in most for-profit colleges, but it has even be used in those.)

  4. Sheila, refresh my memory on university construction and state bonding authority. How essential is that link between the two?
    Also, in terms of university mission, when will folks ask if big-time athletics truly fit the mission, and even if they do, what costs are entailed and who pays for them and how.

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