Universities: Access or Research?
Bringing up the topic of presidential searches because it is going on at my alma mater the University of New Mexico, UNM. My thesis is that presidential searches are a symptom of the corporate university. It is worth pointing out the corporate capitalist influence of higher education, with New Mexico schools as a case study.
Recently an editorial in the Albuquerque Journal brought up the issue of the identity crisis of the University of New Mexico. Is it to be a college for everyone or an elite research university? It quoted some of the presidential finalists who want UNM to stop accepting every slacker out of high school and raise standards:
“There seems to be a lack of definition of what does this university want to be. Does it want to be a world-class, research Tier 1 university, as the flagship institution of the state … or does it want to be an institution that values access more than anything?” — Elsa Murano, former Texas A&M president
♦ UNM “has become a “neighborhood university” for local students “and your best and brightest are going off to Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State” and other schools. “It is absolutely essential those students be retained here.” — Robert Frank, Kent State provost
♦ “One of the things that I have been able to do at other universities is to help them think about what they’re best at, and how to leverage the strength they have to move to the next level.” — Elizabeth “Betsy” Hoffman, Iowa State provost
♦ “The first thing you have to do is decide where you want to be. … You have to decide what you can be the best in the world in. … I think the University of New Mexico can advance nationally, if you have the will.” — Meredith Hay, former University of Arizona provost (during 2007 search)
The editorial also stated that it said back in 2007 when there was another presidential search: “Does UNM want to continue to be the choice of students who wander out of high school with a lottery scholarship to dabble at college-level coursework? Or does it want to attract better students with the promise of a solid boost toward their ambitious goals? Is it aiming for excellence in a few strategic areas, or content to offer cafeteria-level quality across a cafeteria-like array of degree paths?”
The Journal and the presidential finalists seem to want to make UNM more elitist, to grow standards. This issue is nothing new.
I have entensively covered the presidential search of 2002 that brought Louis Caldera to that office. During that year journalist Olivier Uyttebrouck did a three part series in the Albuquerque Journal in August 2002. The first part, entitled “A School for All Seasons,” looked at UNM’s supposed “dual role,” that of a resource that teaches thousands of undergraduates, and that as a research university that helps drive economic growth. Business obviously wants to focus on research, specifically publically subsidized research they don’t have to take risks on. Others want to focus on access to education. UNM serves a unique population, in a state that is majority-minority, with a high percentage of Hispanic and Native Americans, and one of the poorest citizenry in the country. With the state of the schools many do not come prepared for college because they were not prepared in high school. Others want to raise academic standards from what they were, saying it would decrease enrollment at first but would attract students because of the higher standards. For these advocates, access is synonymous with lenient standards.
UNM has relatively open enrollment, and more students are coming in due to the Lottery Scholarship. Some, like former regent Richard Toliver, a former representative of Ross Perot’s Reform Party, say the state’s best students leave the state because of the lax standards. He wanted admission standards to be raised. It seems a better thing to do would be to improve the K-12 schools.
Another reason for the change in standards is the encouragement of research for economic development. Then president of New Mexico Tech, Dan Lopez, stated “Universities have become part and parcel of the economic engines of the state.” He and others also bemoan the lack of clarity and specialization from the Legislature that funds the schools, mainly around enrollment. He further states “what we don’t have is an overarching goal or mission that has been defined by some champion” like a governor. Like others, Lopez emphasizes the role of fundraising and political savvy from a university president.
Both teaching and research are important for higher education. But they don’t necessarily need to be emphasized one over the other. A broad education is healthy not only for careers but for critical thinking. Community colleges have an important role also. But as we will see they are affected by corporatization also.
Community Colleges Becoming Training Ground for Business
In an article in the New Mexico Business Journal in April 1997, Paula Paul writes about how community colleges are being used for specific training for business. Titled “So Don’t Call Them ‘Junior’ Colleges,” Paul writes about the importance of New Mexico’s 19 publicly funded community colleges. These institutions educate over half of all post-secondary students in the state, at a number back in 1997 at 52,000 students, likely more now. They offer associate degrees and certificates, and many use credits to go on to four year colleges. And the appropriation is less per student than at universities. For example, in that year it was $8,000 per student at UNM, while it was $4000 per student at TVI (now CNM). This is mainly because of higher salaries at universities, where professors have advanced degrees, compared to instructors at community colleges where they usually have a bachelors or masters degree. Also the teaching staff is often chosen based on the needs of business and industry.
Paul later wrote in a follow up article in 1999 that “[T]he New Mexico business community has, in recent years, helped shape education in the state a much or more than education has shaped business and the alliance between the two institutions promises to grow even stronger.”
Community colleges are also a good investment in tax revenue. The article quoted a study saying that for every $1 invested in community colleges it generated $1.65 to $1.85 in tax revenue. Bruce Hamlett of the New Mexico Commission on Higher Education says many companies began locating in the state because of the two year colleges and they having “the capacity to make sure students can get the training they need.”
Training is an important role of community colleges. TVI had a Workforce Training Center. Many students can began their academic careers at these colleges and transfer their credits when they continue their education at universities, but many opt not to. Many attend solely to seek training in technical or business fields that give them an associates degree or certificate geared toward a specific job. Others take a few courses for basic education or to get their GED’s. Others take classes to keep up with technological advances and new skills.
Frank Renz of the New Mexico Association of Community Colleges stated that these colleges served 165 businesses with training programs that served over 7,500 employees. The employers can also sponsor students, as well as design courses.
Once called “junior” colleges because they served as feeders to larger universities and colleges, now they are more community colleges that serve training more. One example of this shift is the Small Business Development Centers and these institutions. They “provide free training for business owners and would-be entrepreneurs.” Other businesses are getting directly involved in training. Intel had a partnership with TVI to allow the company to design courses for employees going into microchip manufacturing, with TVI providing the training. Another was with Mesa Airlines and San Juan Junior College in Farmington. Mesa Airlines provided instructors for classes in aviation, where students are screened by the airline and college before they are admitted to the program. 98 percent of the graduates were then hired by Mesa directly. The cost of this program at $38,000 is more expensive than other associate degree programs, and the salaries at $14,000 to $15,000 were low, even if they used it as a stepping stone to get into larger airlines. Other programs link automotive training with car dealers around the state to train auto mechanics. Environmental technology programs provide students for businesses doing environmental assessments.
Education overall is good, but one should ask what kind? Specific training programs have a risk of becoming obsolete. Someone trained in some electronics program would likely be out of a job if technology they were taught changed, while a physics education is more rounded and can adapt to new changes. Overall it shows how interests in education are directed toward business and corporate interests. Even in the lower rungs of education in the more affordable community colleges. Access to education is important in a democratic society, and education encourages critical thinking. As long as capitalist interests are involved, and society becomes more commodified, education will too.
“Editorial: State Needs Answer: What Will UNM Be?” Albuquerque Journal Editorial Board. Sat, Dec 17, 2011. http://www.abqjournal.com/main/2011/12/17/opinion/state-needs-answer-what-will-unm-be.html
Uyttebrouck, Olivier. “A School for All Seasons.” Albuquerque Journal. August 11, 2002.
Paul, Paula. “So Don’t Call Them ‘Junior’ Colleges.” New Mexico Business Journal. April 1997. Volume 21 Number 4. http://www.nmbiz.com/issues/97/97_april/apr97_covers/97_apr_college.htm (accessed May 11, 2000)
Paul, Paula. “Real World Education.” New Mexico Business Journal. July 1999. Volume 23, number 6. Www.nmbiz.com/issues/99/99_july/education.htm