Friday, April 24, 2015

The Team is Everything

Several years after I resigned the presidency of California State University, Monterey Bay to serve as ADG-Education at UNESCO, a former colleague said to me, “If it wasn’t for you, this place wouldn’t be here.” For a while, I bathed in the glory of that sentiment. But, at heart, I knew how inaccurate, though well-intentioned, it was.

To be sure, I had led and held together a fractious environment, refusing to let a small cabal of people define the university in their own image. And the result, after almost 11 years, was one to be proud of: an innovative, growing university well on its way to becoming a great place to learn. But could I have survived, let alone prospered, without Diane, Betty, Bertie, Bill, John, Chris, Dino, and Kevin? The answer is “No way.”

These people symbolize all those who contributed to the university’s success during its founding years.

Diane Cordero de Noriega was our provost for the last six years of my presidency. She and her husband Carlos stood back-to-back with me as we built the academic program. She knew the California State University system in a way that I did not, easing our growth at that level. On top of that, they were my friends, lending their support when times were tough.

Betty McEady was a professor in the Teacher Ed program who not only served students superbly, but also developed community ties in the Marina and Seaside areas. When the university needed to do some explaining or when community members were concerned, Betty opened doors that I never could have moved. We didn’t agree all the time, but we did share a larger vision for the university, and Betty stood by it.

Bertie Bialek was a community member who took an interest in the university from a philanthropic angle. When state senator Bruce McPherson asked me whether I could raise $5M to finish a new science center if he secured base funding of $12M from the legislature, I immediately said “Yes.” At the time, we had not raised more than $250K in any year, let alone $5M for a science center. As we closed in on the date of the ground-breaking, almost $1M short of our goal, my phone rang. It was Bertie and she had successfully put us over the top.

Bill Head saw the opportunity to establish a science program, using earth systems as the organizing principle. He has committed the last 20 years (and counting) of his life to seeing that vision through and bringing it to life. But in the early days, there were skeptics aplenty who seriously questioned the legitimacy and quality of his vision.

John Ittelson was a quiet but tireless worker on the IT faculty. We were committed to being a wireless, “tech savvy” university in 1995. Many people helped put us in that place, but John, teaching, coaching, and doing community outreach near and far, symbolized the effort it took to succeed.

Chris Hasegawa and Dino Latino lived beside each other on Eichelberger Court, just down the street from me. Chris, a rarity in academics, shared a faculty position between the science and education departments and was a gifted jazz sax player. When we needed someone to help with our fundraising efforts, Chris stepped up. And Dino was the “fix-it” man. Whenever something broke or went “bump in the night,” he was there with a smile, to make it right.

Kevin brought business sense and a commitment to the university’s vision from day one. As the Director of the University Foundation, he continually found ways to generate revenues and add value to the quality of campus life. When we had the rare opportunity of acquiring an NPR radio station, he took on that challenge and brought the station into the university’s arms.

There were many, many others who made this success happen. From that experience, I know it is one thing to say “There is no ‘I’ in team.” It is another to know it in your bones. That’s what I learned at Cal State Monterey Bay. And it is a lesson I try to live by every day.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

“Belling the Cat” of Investments in Higher Education

In their provocative new publication “Rich Schools, Poor Students: Tapping Large University Endowments to Improve Student Outcomes,” Jorge Klor de Alva and Mark Schneider painstakingly document yet another of the ways that the overall higher education investment in America favors the well-to-do – both institutions and students alike. By combining the property tax benefits as well as the inviolate status of large endowments, Klor de Alva and Schneider raise the issue of indirect public subsidies, putting them on the table along with the myriad other subsidies, including tuition, state and federal appropriations, and financial aid.

The findings are, frankly more extreme than I would have imagined. Over $100,000 per student at Princeton (my alma mater) with $50,000+ totals at the other leading non-profit, elite institutions. The authors then elaborate on who attends those institutions from a needs-based vantage point. Not unsurprisingly, although their numbers have improved, Pell-eligible students still constitute small minorities of the student populations at these institutions. The net effect is a huge cross-subsidy to everyone else and their families.

As a solution, the authors propose an excise tax on the largest endowments, scaled to the size of the endowment, while continuing to protect the deductions that go to donors, thus preserving that advantage. And they suggest that the proceeds go to improved student services (and hopefully improved outcomes) at institutions that serve a majority of low income learners. This might be called a “robin hood” approach by some; but I think of it as a progressive move to put our money where our societal and educational challenges, rural and urban, lie.

As author and professor Jeffrey Selingo reports, some people might well disagree with Klor de Alva and Schneider’s solutions to the problem, either the excise tax or how its proceeds would be used. And some people might argue against the whole proposition, citing the disruption it would cause these premier teaching and research institutions.

The simple fact of revealing the extent of the hidden subsidies for the 100 wealthiest colleges and universities, however, and asking whether this was really the intent of the policy makers when they were put in place, is long overdue. My study of the origins of these policies suggests no such intent. The institutions were deemed a social good, as were churches and other community institutions and given a pass on property taxes. The same gentle treatment was applied to endowments with the “misunderstanding” that they actually reduced the demand for public support by helping keep non-profit private institutions solvent.

As the run-up in tuition and costs has underscored in the last 20 years, the traditional equation is no longer working. I might suggest a different “fix” with the money raised by the excise tax, whatever its rate. Why not put the money – with a negotiated base allocation for each state that favors smaller, rural, and poorer states – in a trust fund to be allocated annually to the Governor of each state for re-allocation “from the bottom up” to the operating budgets of community and state colleges?

No matter what, the political and policy communities, not to mention the institutions that serve marginalized students and their families, owe Klor de Alva and Schneider great thanks for “belling the cat” of this extraordinary cross subsidy and the unintended inequity it represents.