Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Netherworld of Public Universities: Free Tuition Redux

One of the arguments made against the free tuition programme in NB is that it does not include "private institutions." It includes only, say, its opponents "public institutions," like Mount Allison University, where I work. There are actually reasons for this. They might not be good reasons but there are reasons and those reasons do not include, as some of the policy's opponents suggest, an attack on religion. In my last post, I tried to address this issue with regard to Crandall University. I argued that Crandall was, in fact, the "author of its own misfortune" in this regard. One need not and one should not slag Crandall, insult its students or its faculty or even its mission. These are choices that the folks who run, work at, and attend Crandall have made and we don't have to like them to be polite.

It might however be a different matter to talk about "public" and "private" institutions because the language does not exactly fit the NB post-secondary educational system. This language of "public" and "private" is, from what I can tell, a language imported from the US where there is a distinction between private institutions and state-run university systems (like the University of California system, as an example).  I'm not at all certain that this language applies easily to Canada, although there might be examples of instances where it does. It does not fit the other universities in NB well at all and its use, particularly by those defending Crandall and its desire to obtain "free tuition" for its students, clouds the issue.

The truth of the matter is that so-called "public institutions" like Mount Allison University exist in a sort of netherworld between the state and private institutions. Crandall, as I noted in my last blog, is a "private institution" for its own reasons. It adopted this approach precisely to avoid the influence of the state on it. (That was, of course, their choice and they did nothing wrong in making it. My question is simply this: after making it, do they have to live with the implications of their own choices?) But, does this make Mount Allison, say as an example, a public institution?

In one sense, yes. Mount Allison is bound by the state.  The provincial government, for instance, can tell us how much we charge for tuition (in practice this takes the form of telling us how much we can increase tuition each year -- 2% this year; 0% last year).  While it does not do this -- and is bound by the law of contract (which all parties prefer) -- it can legislate my salary, that of administrators. We are certified by the MPHEC, which tells us what programmes we can offer and whether or not those programmes are up to snuff. Should they want, the provincial government can also tell us how to teach (specifying say, "deliverables" in terms of learning outcomes or something like that). Our budget is, likewise, dependent on the state and we are bound, as a result of this, by the Charter, the Citizenship Act, and human rights legislation. As a public institution, in this sense, we cannot set limits on who we hire (something the folks at Crandall want to do) in terms of diversity. I don't want to make this point too strongly. The hand of the state rests lightly on Mount Allison University. It is there and it imposes obligations (most of which I have no problems with) but it is not a heavy burden.

It differs from private institutions in a number of respects, most which I addressed in my last blog. One key respect, however, is that Mount Allison is not -- and cannot  be -- a for profit institution. It runs a balanced budget but it cannot run a profit. This is what makes it different from most private post-secondary educational programmes. They are in the for profit business. NBCC, of course, is also a state-run not-for-profit enterprise. Other institutions, however, are. They are in the educational game to educate but also to make money. Crandall is different. It is not a money making institution. It might make money. I don't know: I tried to find its budget online and couldn't, which doesn't say much since I won't claim to be good at searching. My point, of course, is that Crandall is private not because it wants to make money but because it allows it to avoid the obligations that affect Mount Allison and other universities (UNB, UdM, etc.) in NB. Is this category appropriate? Likely not and I'd suggest that it likely should be changed. But, it is the category that Crandall chose for itself.

Mount Allison, however, is also a private institution. The state regulates Mount A but does not own it, as it were. It contributes significantly to its budget but it does not provide its entire budget. Mount Allison has its own governors (Regents) who approve its budget and make financial policy. Its president goes to the legislature (actually, I think, a legislative committee) and answers questions about it, but its budget is determined by the Board of Regents, as opposed to the government. Its academic programmes are approved and certified by the MPHEC and the province can tell us what to do, but the University Senate approves individual courses, changes to majors or minors, and the like. There is, in other words, a substantial degree of self-regulation that goes on (in my gig we call this collegial government)-- including that done through MASU (the student union whereby students regulate themselves) -- and that makes Mount A something of a private institution as well.

For those who know it, Mount Allison's history is that it developed as a Methodist and then United Church institution, becoming increasingly connected to  the state for budget support after WW II. At the same time, it was involved in a process of slow secularization, as a result of a variety of factors. As an institution, Mount Allison confers its own degrees, makes its own decisions about building priorities, and sets its own agenda regarding its self-regulation and administration, among other things. This process of self-regulation does not always flow smoothly as those who witnessed or were part of the strike a couple of years ago know, but that is how it operates on a day to day basis.

This is important because some people -- particularly the belated and odd right wing proponents of free speech -- seem to feel that universities are the equivalent of the state and thus they can just go in book a room and give a public lecture that says whatever anyone happens to want to say. Universities are not branches of the state the way, say, the public schools are or community colleges or even public parks. They are also private institutions and, as a result, have the right to regulate who can rent rooms or speak on campus. Said differently, Mount A is not an open space -- akin to a town square -- and does retain autonomy and independence from the state.

Mount Allison is, thus, neither a branch of the state (in the manner of the public school system) nor fully independent of it. It is neither public nor private, retaining elements of each and existing in between ideal types. This is important because the state does not consult Mount A with regard to policy (because it is independent) even while it regulates Mount A (because it is not independent).  This situation seems contradictory and it may be. It is, however, to suggest that the stark distinction some people want to create between public and private universities in NB does not exist. The distinction is the product of choices different institutions have made and the degree to which they are willing to accept regulation.  This last point may be, in fact, the key difference between, say, Crandall and Mount A and that, it seems to me, is something different than saying one is public and one is private.

The same thing, btw, applies to Crandall. Its web site, for instance, tells students and potential benefactors about the tax implications of their tuition or gifts and that they can qualify for public bursaries and the like. I will confess that I am not familiar with these things because this is not something with which I have much interaction but I think you can see my point. Crandall is also dependent on the state for things like tax breaks for its students and benefactors or public bursaries in the same way that Mount A is.

Said differently, the supports of "free tuition" for Crandall are missing a significant point when they define Crandall as a private institution and fail to note the character and nature of what that means: it does not cut Crandall off from the state-sponsored economic benefits. It cuts them off from this one -- the low income free tuition policy -- but not others. Hence, the distinction that they are making between public and private as if it were black and white fails to acknowledge the gray quality of the distinction they are drawing. Crandall is not being treated markedly different from other institutions excepting to the degree that it has asked to be treated differently. Once we understand the netherworld of so-called "public" universities and the degree to which the state already supports "private" universities, the concerns being raised by those who claim that this policy is an attack on religion become even more difficult to understand.
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