Say it Ain’t So! Higher Education Reform in California

Say it ain’t so! I have fallen into the classic advocate’s trap.

Frank Gilliam - "Say It Ain't So!"

I thought Californians would surely understand the overwhelming evidence that large, public research universities are central drivers of opportunity and prosperity. Just tick off the list:
Aerospace? Check. Bio-medical inventions? Check. Internet? Check. These advances and many more are in no small measure attributable to research and teaching at public universities in the state.

How could the citizens be so blind? Worse yet, how could I be so blind not to follow the advice I have given hundreds, maybe even thousands of advocates over the last fifteen years? Just because it is true doesn’t mean that it is critical to people’s understanding of the issue. Then why is it that the people of California cannot see the value of the public university system?

It can’t be because they are unaware of the dire economic challenges that face the state’s colleges and universities (a situation that is common in many states). The media has reported time and time again that the system is in peril. They have interviewed chancellors, alumni, faculty and students alike who sing a hallelujah chorus: “we are drowning here”; “we have to cut critical services”; “I can’t get the courses I need to graduate”; and “I’m leaving for better pay and more resources at a private university”. Troubles indeed.

Then why is the public indifferent? Why don’t they seem to care?

I went back and read the FrameWorks MessageMemo that summarizes the Institute’s research on how Americans think about higher education. The clear message within that body of work is that people see higher education as a commodity to be purchased and not as a public good. They approach it from the perspective of a consumer. When they are in this mode several things are concealed. They do not see a system, they do not see interdependence and they do not see preparing for the future.

From a consumerist perspective, then, elite public universities are perceived as luxury goods. Some people can afford them (financially and/or intellectually) and some people can’t. In fact, some people don’t even need them!

This also explains why there is such uproar over providing financial support to undocumented students. Why should they get to have free access to a commodity that I have to pay for? Especially when they are in the country illegally.

So what do university leaders have to say about all of this? I found my answer, or so I thought, in a final report of the University of California Commission on the future. Not surprisingly, I read a thoughtful, well-researched report that offered a series of well-considered recommendations. What’s the problem then? The problem is that the document never offers a compelling narrative of what is at stake. It never clearly lays out the case of what reforming public universities are really about.

Instead it lives in what we FrameWorkers like to call “Level 3 Land”. This refers to the communications practice of lodging the public conversation in the language of experts – language about specifics and how-tos. In doing so, the conversation never rises to the level of a persuasive storyline that captures the public’s imagination and aspirations. And when this happens it makes it difficult for people to see themselves as a player in any reform movement.

What needs to happen? For one thing, university leaders must develop a story of interdependence where it is made abundantly clear that future of the state is intertwined with the future of the university system. It must be a story that illuminates why and how our fates are connected. Only then can experts interject the various tools and practices that can get us there.

But they have to get the story right, they have to get the story out and they have to find the right messenger. If not, one of the great public treasures will suffer death by a thousand cuts. Say it ain’t so!


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