Bringing revolution to the U

The current University president should be removed as a sign of commitment to students.

Is a revolution possible at the University? Students on the whole are unorganized and apathetic. They are only here for four (or six) years and lack effective institutions to advance their interests. The true costs of high tuition are felt only after students have left and face years of paying off loans. The University is a large bureaucracy resistant to change. The situation would appear to be hopeless, but the same thing was said regarding the Soviet Union until shortly before its fall.

Once the policy of glasnost was introduced in the USSR, individuals began making their dissatisfactions with the regime known through newspapers, protests, posters, etc. Soon individual dissatisfaction became a widespread conviction that the Soviet regime was illegitimate. And when the leadership became convinced of its own illegitimacy, its days were numbered.

Revolutions can be made by a small number of activists. When Communist Party hard-liners attempted to stage a coup to reverse the reforms in progress, they were stopped when less than 0.1 percent of the population of Moscow took to the streets. Similarly, at the time when Lenin seized power, Bolshevik Party members were less than 1 percent of Russia’s population.

Can a revolution accomplish anything? Or would it just result in an alteration of names at the top and new empty slogans? Certainly bureaucracies are resilient. During the fiscal crisis two years ago when public universities across the country had to cut their budgets, a survey was taken among a group of college administrators. When asked what attributes they looked for in deciding where to make cuts, a frequent reply was “high visibility.” You or I might think it would be better to make cuts where no one would notice. For the savvy bureaucrat, this would make it obvious that there had been waste. By cutting basic services or those in high demand, they would be more likely to see their funding restored in the near future (while getting funding restored for a pet project might take years).

Nevertheless, universities can be changed. Ten years ago, Michigan State began a policy of not raising tuition more than the rate of inflation. It was, and remains, a fine school. Consider just one basic indicator of how well it is supporting its academic mission: the amount of money it spends on purchasing library books. In 1993, MSU ranked 41st out of about 100 schools. In 2003, it was 37th. The high-spending University of Minnesota was ranked 19th in 1993 and only 48th in 2003, according to the Association of Research Libraries statistics.

To bring tuition under control, the University needs to make about 10,000 budget cuts, most between $1,000 and $50,000. There is no way we could identify or enforce all of these cuts. We need the bureaucrats to do this for us. In order to accomplish this, there must be a change in the incentive system.

As we have seen in part two of this series, under the current regime, the factors that motivate the U’s decision-makers – pay, power, promotion, etc. – lead them to want to spend more. They could be made to fear a loss of pay, prestige or job security unless they exercised fiscal restraint.

Like all good revolutions, what is needed is a reign of terror. The current University president should be removed not because he is particularly evil or incompetent but to “encourage the others.” Any new president would realize that keeping tuition in bounds is a condition of their employment.

A small auditing office should be created to annually do several cost/benefit analyses on a very limited scale in various units of the University and make recommendations for corrections when appropriate. These few small-scale studies would have a negligible impact on the U’s total budget – they might even cost more than they save. But if the results of these studies together with suggestions for curbing waste submitted by members of the University community were published say, twice monthly in the Daily, the ripple effect throughout the University would be significant. Just like with the IRS, the value of audits is not so much the few that they catch but the fear they promote throughout the population.

Our choices are revolution now or an indefinite future of ever-increasing tuition. This institution is unlikely to change on its own. As early as the 13th century, shortly after the University of Paris was established, Philip the Chancellor was complaining of the increase in bureaucracy:

Now when you have joined yourselves together in a university, lectures and disputations have become less frequent; everything is done hastily, little is learnt and the time needed for study is wasted in meetings and discussions.

Perhaps after 800 years it is time to reverse this trend.

Robert Katz is a University library assistant. Please send comments to [email protected]