University of Oklahoma President David Boren published a passionate and insightful op-ed last week that encapsulates perfectly the seismic decline of state government funding for public higher education in this country.
I want to first praise Boren’s commentary, and then add some of my own points.
In an aptly titled editorial, “Will public higher education disappear?,” Boren calls the funding crisis of higher education a major threat to our country. “The result of declining state support for public higher education and cost shifting to students,” Boren writes, “is threatening America's role in the world.”
As OU’s president since 1994, Boren makes his argument with good authority. He notes that state funding for OU has declined from 32 percent of its overall budget when he became president to just 15 percent now. Costs have been shifted to students, who often go into debt with loans secured by the federal government.
As a long-time professor in this state I’ve followed Boren’s comments about higher education since he became president, and I’ve read his pleas before for more state funding for higher education. I can’t recall reading a more passionate call for more state funding by Boren, and his points are succinct and convincing. We can’t ruin our public education system in this country without, essentially, ruining our country. I agree with that.
But I would like to add to Boren's comments because I believe he leaves a couple of important things out of his arguments, which need to be addressed in any discussion about funding for higher education.
(1) I couldn’t even pretend to know the influence of the “corporate model of education” on OU, but the philosophy underpinning it has been a complete disaster for more than two decades on the country’s overall public higher education system. The corporate model of education argues that students are consumers and instructors are providers, and their supposed free-market interaction will result in thriving universities. That hasn’t happened. Across the nation, universities face severe budget problems. In fact, the corporate model can be directly blamed for beginning to take the “public” out of “public education,” turning it into a consumer-driven product rather than the sustaining of deeply-needed centers of intellectualism and critical inquiry.
Those of us, like myself, who have spoken out against the corporate model of education have been ignored while powerful higher education advocates, such as Boren, more often than not simply ignore the issue. I can only guess it’s because of political expediency. Conservatives, which now control our own state government, believe in the moral viability of the free market and privatization of government. Some may well see the drop in OU’s state funding as a great victory of the free enterprise system and conservative values. Higher education leaders obviously have to be careful how they phrase their requests for more funding, but nothing can be systematically changed until the corporate model of education is exposed as one of the main culprits in what Boren calls the move to “dismantle public higher education.”
Let’s be clear: Students come to universities to learn, discover and create. They are not coming to buy a pair of shoes at the best price possible nor are universities trying to make the best profit possible by selling shoes. Conflating the academic mission with corporate ideology will result in exactly what we have now: Corporations and the rich people who control them pay less in taxes and students pay more in tuition in a system that is not even remotely sustainable. Both Boren and I will be long retired when it happens, but it’s conceivable given current trends that many of our public universities, especially in Oklahoma, could become private enterprises in the decades to come. Students will get priced out, and the country will rot in its conservative debris.
(2) My second point is that depoliticizing the call for more education funding hasn’t worked here. It’s true that both Oklahoma Republicans and Democrats have participated in creating budgets that have defunded higher education in recent years, but it’s the liberals who have stood up here consistently and argued for more education funding for universities and schools. It’s also the “movement” conservatives, or Republicans, who are most apt to argue in favor of the corporate model of education and tax cuts for the wealthiest among us, which leads to smaller or stagnant state budgets during poor economic times.
Gov. Mary Fallin and the GOP-dominated legislature are even on the verge of cutting income taxes once again under the dubious Republican argument that this will create a better economy here, but it’s probably going to mean less money for higher education down the road.
So my point is that there’s no hiding the fact that education funding issues, with some exceptions, are as politically partisan as anything else in our culture today. Nothing will get done by ignoring this obvious dilemma, as Boren, a former Democratic U.S. Senator, does in his commentary, whether the omission was intentional or not.
For years, universities have been under attack by conservatives, such as David Horowitz, for supposedly embracing liberal values across disciplines, which is a myth. I think many universities, perhaps even at OU, have been overly sensitive to this reductionist argument. The truth of the matter is that liberals actually need more space, freedom and recognition on our state’s campuses, in our culture and in our media here. If that doesn’t happen, then the funding issue for higher education won’t get seriously resolved anytime soon or ever.
It’s taken some time, but the academic side of higher education, along with an attendant philosophy of open, shared knowledge, are finally asserting themselves in digital learning at universities throughout the country.
An open, elearning system is remarkably good news for Oklahoma, with its low college graduation rate and overall underfunded educational systems, just as long as higher education leaders here recognize that MOOCs and the soon-to-be launched DPLA are opportunities, not threats to their individual turfs.
Massive Open Source Online Courses (MOOCs) and the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), which launches April 18, represent a turn away from the corporate model of education and places professors and teaching, and, of course, students, at the forefront of elearning. Corporate learning management systems, from Blackboard to Desire2Learn, have for too long dictated the terms of online intellectual engagement at universities, especially smaller, non-research colleges with limited funding. Online, for-profit colleges can never duplicate in any sustainable sense the academic rigor offered by our public and private universities, especially our leading institutions of knowledge.
Before I go further, let me give some background. MOOCs, which came into the academic scene a couple of years ago, are free online courses offered by some of the country’s premiere universities, such as Harvard and MIT. Anyone with an email address can take courses—“Epidemiology: The Basic Science of Public Health,” “Write Like Mozart: An Introduction To Classical Music Composition,” and “Greek and Roman Mythology” to name just a few-- through systems such as Coursera and edX. The courses are not currently offered for credit, but that could soon change.
The Digital Public Library of America is a project began in 2010 that aims, according to one of DPLA’s founders, Harvard professor Robert Darnton, to “make the holdings of America’s research libraries, archives, and museums available to all Americans—and eventually to everyone in the world—online and free of charge.” It will launch April 18 in an initial, limited form. The plan is to build the DPLA into what would be the largest bank of accessible knowledge ever in the history of mankind. The scope of the project simply can’t be understated.
Can you imagine having every written artifact in history and much more available to you in a matter of seconds? It will revolutionize information science, and could help universities save millions of dollars (maybe even more) through centralization.
At the philosophical core of MOOCs and the DPLA is the idea that knowledge and learning should be a shared, global experience, which will create better societies and advance mankind even further in the sciences and the arts. It’s the culmination, really, of the so-called Information Age in which we live. We’re not there yet, of course, but the trajectory is clear. It’s difficult to not look at all this in utopian terms, but there’s also a pragmatic side. In discussing the DPLA, Darnton writes:
What could be more utopian than a project to make the cultural heritage of humanity available to all humans? What could be more pragmatic than the designing of a system to link up millions of megabytes and deliver them to readers in the form of easily accessible texts?
The dilemma, of course, is the question over how are we going to pay for all this, and the answer is that we can’t afford to NOT go forward. Again, it’s difficult not to place it in sweeping terms. Our very existence on this planet may well depend on the main philosophy driving MOOCs and the DPLA. That doesn’t pay a professor’s salary, of course, but just as media outlets have had to adjust to the reality of the Internet so, too, must universities. I may risk ridicule here, but the money issue seems trivial when compared to the overall conception of what MOOCs and the DPLA offer mankind.
In practical terms, MOOCs could be offered for credit in the days ahead and a combination of taxpayer and institutional money could be used to subsidize online education to underserved populations throughout the world. The DPLA, funded now by foundations, has many different partners and stakeholders, and could conceivably survive financially under its current, fiscal model.
As I stated before, what I find so encouraging about MOOCs and the DPLA is the new surge of academic energy in online learning. I’ve taught online courses for some ten years now, and I’ve seen how corporate learning management systems have influenced pedagogy and class structure with mixed results. MOOCs are built around the professor; it’s not the professor building a course within a for-profit platform that will always increase in cost and will always have built-it obstacles to limit sharing or changing systems. MOOCs reassert the simple premise that it’s the instructor that determines course quality, not the technology itself, not a mid-level university administrator often without academic experience. It’s the instructor’s expertise, her credentials, her commitment that matters, not the underlying computer code, which in the case of MOOCs is open source and available to everyone. This is not to say that corporations don’t or can’t have a role in both MOOCs and the DPLA, but openness and sharing, their driving force, are the antithesis of monopoly and control.
What does all this mean for our state? The concepts of MOOC’s and the DPLA represent a huge opportunity for Oklahoma. It’s been my experience that online learning here overall has been somewhat slow to develop and hindered by limited funding, institutional bias and lack of foresight. For example, the former provost at Oklahoma State University, Robert Sternberg, now the president of the University of Wyoming, recently made it a point to argue that online learning had limitations. But these new trends in online learning could open the door for thousands of Oklahomans, who want a college degree but face life obstacles in attending a college as traditional students. The state has chronically lagged behind the national average in the number of its college graduates. MOOCs and the DPLA also have the capability, if managed appropriately, to help make a dent in the nation’s student-debt problem if courses remain free or reasonably priced while allowing students to take courses with some of the best professors in the country and in our state.
The new trends in online learning also open new opportunities for collaboration among our state’s many universities.
A bill that essentially attacks the teaching of evolution and the scientific method has apparently died quietly in the legislature, and that’s good news for the state’s public school students and its overall intellectual community.
But supporters of the anti-science measure—House Bill 1674—could still use the amendment process or other political moves this session to get the bill passed and signed into law as they strive to codify their religious views in the state’s education curriculum.
Meanwhile, House Bill 1940, the so-called Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act, which encourages religious expression in schools on different levels, was overwhelmingly approved by the House Thursday. The lopsided vote, 79 to 13 in favor of the bill, was discouraging for Oklahomans opposed to religious intrusion in the government sphere.
The anti-evolution bill, HB 1674, had passed the House Education Committee in a close 9 to 8 vote earlier in the session, but it never made it to the full House for a vote. Legislators, however, could still use the language of the bill in another measure, which was attempted last year, or use other legislative rules or protocols to pass it.
Sponsored by Gus Blackwell, a Laverne Republican, the bill argues that topics, such as evolution, global warming and cloning can cause controversy, and teachers should teach their weaknesses and strengths. The problem here is that the underlying science of these subjects is absolutely not controversial among scientists, researchers and academics. The controversy is generated by some religious people, who feel subjects such as evolution contradict their world view, specifically their belief in creationism. I wrote about the bill here. Similar bills have been passed in Louisiana and Tennessee.
The Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act was initially introduced this session by state Rep. Mike Reynolds, an Oklahoma City Republican, but a committee substitute measure, HB 1940, that included its language, was later offered by state Rep. John Bennett, a Sallisaw Republican. That was the bill that passed the House by an overwhelming majority Thursday. I wrote about the initial bill here.
The bill essentially allows overt religious expression by students at school events and prohibits teachers from penalizing students for religious views expressed in their school work. The bill is couched in the language of civil rights and anti-discrimination, but it's not difficult to see its intent as an effort to bring religious views into classrooms to, among other things, challenge the crucial scientific method, a foundation of medical science.
Earlier, Bennett said this about why such a bill is needed: “Religious expression is being treated as second-class speech in many schools.”
Let’s be clear: In Oklahoma, even at some schools, it’s really the secularists and people of religious faiths other than Christianity that face discrimination of varying degrees, not, say, Southern Baptists.
The bill has the potential to turn our public schools into seething cauldrons of factional conflict as students try to prove or argue their religious views are the only valid views. What’s going to happen to the basic curriculum in that setting? Will teachers feel intimidated? The bill only creates problems.
The Senate should kill HB 1940. If it doesn’t, Gov. Mary Fallin should veto it.