Editor’s note: Here’s a piece, which appeared in the now defunct Nougat magazine in April 2006, analyzing Top 20. This “Draft 4,” but it’s pretty close to what appeared in the final print version.
By Josh Reid and Danny Mayer
The UK Top 20 Business Plan has been quite a hit. The UK Board of Trustees are certainly enamored – they unanimously approved the Plan by a vote of 18-0. State politicians love it. They bipartisanly joined the love-fest by endorsing a (non-binding) resolution of support. The vote: 96-0. The Lexington-Herald Leader loves it. Ditto for the ditto-heads at the Kentucky Kernel. Governor Fletcher? Right-o. UK Faculty? Other than sporadic questions of funding, we’ve heard no complaints from them. Even UK staff leaders, whose piece of the Top 20 pie we recently learned is nearly 50% smaller than that of the faculty, are firmly behind the plan that will push UK into the Top 20 of public research universities.
The Top 20 Business Plan even has national admirers: the Chronicle of Higher Education’s been here for a feature article. There is talk of The Wall Street Journal sending a genuine Pyoo-lit-zer Prize journalist to interview UK President Lee Todd. Business Week and The New York Times have also clamored for interviews with the architect of UK’s Top 20 Business push.
If you’re counting at home, that’s 114-0 from those with the power to make educational decisions in this state, the support of UK staff and faculty, and the fawning love of local and student newspapers, a mostly-healthy governor, and a number of national publications.
The thought process behind this lemming-fest is based on a chain of educational assumptions. We’ll list them in a manner befitting Kentucky’s near-bottom educational ranking: Education is good. University education is better. Top 20 University education is best. Top 20 Business Plan for Top 20 University education is a slam dunk.
As graduate students teaching freshman composition at UK, we certainly see benefits in education, university education, and even nationally recognized university education. We are troubled, however, by the complete absence of any debate concerning UK’s Top 20 assault. We have not asked WHY the University of Kentucky should be Top 20, or WHO Top 20 status benefits, or even WHAT being a Top 20 University means. In our silence, we have ceded these debates to Lee Todd, whose unwavering position has been a simplistic “Top 20 helps the people of Kentucky.”
We are not so sure.
So we want to begin by asking: what do UK students get from the Top 20 push? What does the greater Lexington community, where most of the university’s staff resides, get from being Top 20? What do Kentucky citizens in the Cumberland Valley region, where the per capita income is $18,257, gain from our competition with the Virginias, North Carolinas, Georgias, and Wisconsins of the academic world?
The Argument for Average
UK’s ascent to Top 20 status began in 1996, when the state established a Task Force on Postsecondary Education. The Task Force shone an unflattering light on Kentucky’s educational system. Drawing from these findings, the Kentucky Legislature passed House Bill 1, which mandated that UK must become a “major comprehensive research institution ranked nationally in the top twenty public universities” by 2020. While Todd arrived at UK after the legislature passed the unfunded Top 20 mandate, he has enthusiastically accepted this charge.
Todd argues that a Top 20 flagship university is the solution to Kentucky’s endemic economic and health woes: “Top 20 universities go hand in hand with more educated and healthier populations. Average household incomes are higher,” while “unemployment rates are lower and fewer public dollars are spent on health care.” States with Top 20 universities, Todd continues, are above the national average in population with BA degrees, median household income, population below poverty, and percent of population on Medicaid. By moving Kentucky’s Medicaid percentage from 19% to the Top 20 standard of 14.7%, Todd argues, we could save the state over $700 million dollars in Medicaid spending alone. With Kentucky’s anemic national rankings positioned next to the robust data of Top 20 states, it is difficult to resist the urge to fall in line with the Top 20 banner and chant “The Dream, The Challenge” all the way to a brighter tomorrow.
Unfortunately it’s not that simple.
As Wendell Berry–one of the few to find the Top 20 plan “full of holes”—said, are we looking at a correlation or just a coincidence here? How exactly does a “leading research university” affect the population of people on Medicaid? Todd hasn’t said anything about that, and neither does his Top 20 plan. Might leading research universities grow from affluent states rather than the other way around?
In fact, leading research universities do not grow from affluent states, nor do they produce affluent states. The correlation that Todd suggests between becoming Top 20 and helping the Commonwealth is just not there. Of the top ten states in terms of median household income, for example, only four house a Top Twenty university: Maryland (3rd), Minnesota (5th), Virginia (7th), and Colorado (10th). We have yet to see UK profess to follow the research models of research institutions at the other states with top median income such as Rutgers University (2nd) or the Universities of New Hampshire (1st), Connecticut (4th), Alaska (6th), Hawaii (8th), or Massachusetts (9th) – none of which are Top 20 research universities.
In addition, many Top 20 universities are housed in states with median incomes below the national average. Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina are all home to Top 20 universities and all fall below the national average for median household income. North Carolina, for example, home to the venerable University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is nearly $5000 under the national average. Keep in mind that Todd often trumpets North Carolina’s Triangle Research cooperative between UNC, NC State, and Duke as a model of joint educational/economic development partnerships.
Even granting these correlations, we cannot get past the elephant so evident in the statistics Todd often cites. While Kentucky lags woefully behind other states in nearly every quality of life measure, Top 20 states aren’t much more impressive than the national average. The big difference is between Kentucky and the national average, not between the national average and Top 20 University status.
For example, Kentucky’s median household income is $36,786. Compare this to the national average of $44,436 and the Top 20 average of $46,856. To hear Todd, one gets the sense that the $2400 increase over the national average is much more important than the $7650 needed to just make Kentucky average. In fact, in three of the four quality of life measures that Todd’s business plan cites, the big jump for Kentucky lies in the jump to the national average: in addition to the increased median income, we’ll need 8% more Kentuckians with bachelor’s degrees and a 3.5% drop in population below the poverty line just to be “normal.” From there, achieving Top 20 status provides only an additional 1% of Kentuckians with bachelor’s degrees while only raising 1% of Kentuckians above the poverty line.
In other words, plenty of states are doing just fine without Top-20 universities. We might have to accept the fact that the solution to Kentucky’s problems may be more complicated than a university’s business plan. Of course, a joint educational/economic push around the slogan, Kentucky: We Just Want to Get to Average, will not garner a newly minted presidential salary on par with other Top 20 universities.
Privatizing Public Education
One of the most visible casualties of the Top-20 plan will be the affordability of public higher education in Kentucky. It might not be accurate to call the University of Kentucky a public institution any more anyway: like many “public” institutions across the United States, most of the money comes from fundraising, research, “services” (like the Medical Center), and paying customers (i.e., students). Todd—like any good businessman—has embraced this trend of privatizing public education.
The UK Business Plan documents this shift. According to its own projections for revenue sources, by 2020 the percentage from state funding will remain the same (26%), while the burden on students will rise from 16.5% to over 20% of revenue. And since UK has already tripled the plan’s projected tuition increases, students will undoubtedly shoulder more of the revenue demands than this conservative estimate. This means that while the state will continue to bear the same percentage of UK’s future revenue, students will increasingly pay more for their education.
Consider these numbers. In March, the Board of Trustees approved a 12% hike in tuition—$349 per semester for entering freshmen and sophomores to a total of $6,510 for the year. In addition, on-campus housing and dining plan are both rising by $249 per semester. The grand total annual costs for tuition, fees, housing, and dining for sophomores and freshman next year will be $12,020. That is just for next year. We can expect annual double-digit tuition hikes like this one each year for the entire duration of an entering freshman’s undergraduate career. That means that freshmen entering the University of Kentucky in the fall of 2007 will be looking at a tuition bill of approximately $9,146 their senior year—a 40% increase from their freshman year alone! In continuing its Top-20 push, UK is creating a condition in which fewer and fewer Kentucky families can afford the state’s Top 20 facilities.
The most brutal irony of the increasing student tuition is that Todd and the Board of Regents still tout Kentucky as an affordable education. Never mind that in a recent survey of students who left the University of Kentucky, two of the top three reasons for leaving included “Too expensive” and “Classes too large.” Never mind that in answer to the question, “If UK could have done one thing to prevent you from leaving, what would it have been?,” the top two responses were “Lower the cost of attending” and “Offer smaller classes with more individual attention from instructors.” Never mind these things. For proof, Todd and the Business Plan cite a national study that places UK twenty-third in affordability.
This number, however, masks the grade Kentucky received in overall affordability: D-. Let’s put this grade, and Kentucky’s tuition increases, in perspective. How can a normal student in the Cumberland Valley region of Kentucky, where per capita income is $18,257, countenance coming to a university where approximately 65% of that yearly income would go toward first year tuition, fees, campus housing, and a dining plan? Coupled with interest hikes in federal financial aid, these same families will have to pay more back in student loans. An average student could be looking at over $50,000 in undergraduate debt (at 6.8% annual interest) coming out of college at the University of Kentucky. Todd spins the exorbitant price tag this way—the meteoric rise in tuition is an “investment in the future.” It certainly isn’t an investment in the present: a student graduating from UK right now has a degree that is less valuable than it was years ago, even before Todd’s tenure here.
A “big believer in the marketplace,” Todd is making his customers pay more for a more deficient product. Buried in the business plan, for example, is the acknowledgement that UK is currently 49th (i.e., LAST) in Undergraduate Education. (Its highest ranking, 26th, is in Research Productivity.) Even worse, in the U.S. News and World Report, UK ranks 120 out of 120 as an undergraduate university. If it falls any further, it will find itself in the dustbin of “third tier” schools.
We shouldn’t be surprised at UK’s lackluster undergraduate rankings. Todd has placed most of his energies elsewhere: fundraising, research, the medical school, the basketball program. During a time of dwindling faculty and badly needed classroom upgrades and renovations, Todd pushed UK to enlarge the freshman class from 3,000 to 4,000 students. Todd calls this swelling of student ranks his proudest achievement here. We are not surprised. That’s the business man talking—more paying customers for his plan. But faculty and facilities were not ready for these numbers. As a result, faculty to student ratios have risen dramatically, classrooms are crowded, and the quality of education at the University of Kentucky has plummeted. Psychology professor Monica J. Kern has noted that Arts and Sciences alone “would have to add 170 to 175 faculty members to return student-faculty ratios to the level of the 1990s.”
In the face of these numbers, Todd’s proposed 27 faculty lines opening next year sounds less than impressive. And while the Basketball Team and the Medical Center are due for some fancy new digs, students still are relegated to the dungeons of Funkhouser and worse. If Todd is going to take credit for this surge of students, then he needs to take credit for its concomitant strain on faculty, and for the diminished quality of education that students receive here. Unfortunately for citizens of the state of Kentucky, “the dream” of a Top-20 school does not include a quality college education at a reasonable price.
Kentucky Is Not Flat
But listen. This isn’t just a crusade for lower tuition rates. The skyrocketing out-of-pocket expense for attending UK is symptomatic of a much larger problem: the failure of UK as the Commonwealth’s flagship public university. In the rush to become Top 20, we have yet to realize that setting our sights nationally clouds our vision of what we do locally and regionally.
This re-direction of university energies is something both Todd and the Business Plan hammer home. At Top 20 presentations throughout the state, Todd fondly cites Thomas Friedman’s ode to neoliberal globalization, The World is Flat. In the book, Friedman touts the economics of a ‘flat’ world where, for instance, Kentuckians compete in an open market with a number of international groups: Chinese, Taiwanese, Indians, etc. While the metaphor is nice, we suggest Todd take a class in UK’s Geography department, where he might learn that the world is not in fact flat. And neither is Kentucky, despite the best efforts of coal companies to level millions-year old mountains.
Yet by basing UK’s future growth solely on national benchmarks, Todd has completely flattened the diverse social and economic needs of Kentucky citizens. In this flattening, Todd is not alone. In the heady days leading to the state mandate for a Top 20 university, the 1997 Task Force on Postsecondary Education report noted the abysmal education of Kentucky citizens – high dropout and illiteracy rates coupled with low numbers of entering college freshman and completed bachelors degrees. The state’s solution might have been to focus on those local/regional issues contributing to high dropout and illiteracy rates. Instead, however, the Task Force – approvingly cited in the Top 20 Business Plan – partially blamed these problems on the state’s lack of “a nationally recognized doctoral degree-granting institution.”
“In contrast to virtually every other major research university in the country,” the Task Force concluded, “Kentucky’s major research university’s mission is dispersed across far broader categories: remedial education, lower division courses, workforce training, and graduate education. No other major research university among Kentucky’s competitor states has such a breadth of mission.” The excessive focus on becoming “nationally competitive in terms of…research quality” has thus cut out those things – remedial education, lower division courses, workforce training – that Kentucky’s very unflat social and historical topography suggests should in fact be the focus of the university. Put another way, we might ask whether, in a state with high rates of illiteracy, excessive poverty, and small numbers of graduating seniors prepared for college, Kentucky residents benefit from having a nationally recognized graduate research institution. Has the school’s mission changed?
Todd argues that within the new “flattened” knowledge economy, Kentuckians will reap the benefits by keeping and attracting the new global digerati to our region. This may be the case, but even Todd – a self-anointed “quantitative guy” – has not produced any quantifiable evidence of this local/regional impact. Instead, Todd’s Top 20 plan is riddled with nationally focused statistics. This discrepancy is highlighted by the fact that most research money, which Todd fondly notes have been on the rise since his arrival, mostly flow back into UK coffers to pay for the Top 20 push, rather than to the people of the Lexington or Greater Bluegrass or Appalachian regions. That is, research dollars derived from UK’s nationally recognized Top 20 research university are overwhelmingly directed back into…maintaining UK’s nationally recognized Top 20 research university.
A look at Yale University, perhaps the paragon of higher knowledge, highlights the local effects of national research institutions. Yale is a wonderful institution that produces excellent scholars, but its nationally and internationally directed focus has not trickled down to New Haven’s overwhelmingly poor residents. In the late 90s, in fact, New Haven was the fifth poorest city of its size in the U.S. As the city’s largest employer, Yale bears a great responsibility in this. Yet when we think of Yale, it is as civic testing-grounds to presidents (and failed presidential candidates), senators, mayors, scientists, and big businessmen. We think, that is, of its national and international civic reputation. Yet with its growing billion dollar endowment, Yale has fortified itself inside New Haven as a national outpost antagonistic to the area’s local and regional economy. Yalies, it seems, while good global citizens, are poor local citizens.
While UK is not Yale, and Lexington is not New Haven, UK’s Top 20 Business Plan already calls for many of the same tactics employed by Yale: the outsourcing of jobs to save minimal costs (which like research dollars are reinvested into the nationally-focused Top 20 push) and the unequal divvying of faculty and staff raises.
Todd’s reasoning for the discrepancy between faculty and staff pay raises is in fact the only time he has noted that the world is not, indeed, flat. Or to be more precise, for Todd the world may still be flat, it’s just that it is more flatter for faculty than it is for staff. UK recruits faculty on a national market, Todd argues, while staff are competitive only on a local market. Todd’s use of the ‘world-is-not-always-flat’ card in this instance sheds light on just who the winners and losers will be in UK’s push for Top 20. While he was well-equipped with statistics of bench-mark salaries for faculty (ie, the national market), the self-described ‘quant’ guy offers no corresponding local ‘benchmarks’. Indeed, the appallingly few staff whom the Lexington Herald has bothered to interview suggests that they, too, are exceedingly underpaid on the local market – by the very university who claims to impact the region positively.
Todd’s most effective response to this social and economic elitism has been that other benchmark universities do the same thing. While this answer may sound logical to a three-year old (Johnny’s doing it, so I am too), it makes sense to an adult only if you focus – as Todd does – on national rankings over localized living conditions. That is, it makes sense only if you justify differing pay scales on the basis that doing otherwise damages UK’s national push.
The Wages of a Top 20 University
It’s time we rethink the Top 20 mandate. Don’t get us wrong – we strongly believe in education. As have virtually every local, state and national politician, as have nearly every community college, liberal arts and university president, as have all republicans, democrats and independents – for at least the past fifty years. Maybe it’s time that we break the bipartisan and unanimous consensus that education pays and begin thinking about who pays, and what they pay for.
Universities are not basketball teams. They are not businesses. We need a president who recognizes this. We need a president – and a plan – that allows UK to fulfill its obligations as a land-grant PUBLIC institution of higher EDUCATION. We don’t want a “business” plant. We want a University plan.
If we come off as harsh, or as stepping beyond the bounds of civil discourse, we respond simply that our harsh analysis of Todd and UK’s Top 20 push is a more civil project than the continued 12, 14, and 15 percent tuition increases foisted on students these past four years, more civil than responding to these increases by admonishing students to find another summer job (and when back on campus to find the already strained financial aid department), more civil than unequally divvying up staff and faculty pay scales to compensate those on a national market at the expense of those on local and regional markets, more civil, indeed, than trying to sell off these actions as a benefit to all, or even most, Kentuckians.
So let us be blunt here. If education is a state resource – and we think it is – then what we are currently experiencing in Lexington is the sale of that resource to the highest Top 20 bidder. Certain Kentuckians will undoubtedly benefit. But many will not. Students are increasingly saddled with a choice between an increasingly unaffordable Top 20ish flagship school or a less unaffordable, non-Top 20 affiliate school. Locally rooted staff employees are increasingly seeing their interests diminish against the ‘global marketplace’ of highly expert faculty. State taxpayers increasingly find their educational taxdollars going to Top 20 initiatives such as new state of the art buildings for the Pharmacy or Business schools that keep those departments in the upper echelon of national rankings, while their friends, brothers, daughters attending UK see little return on those rankings.
Increasingly, these are the wages of a Top 20 University.