Go Ahead, Blame Reagan

Go Ahead, Blame Reagan

In a seeming effort to affirm the corporatization of higher education in America, the University of Iowa recently hired former Boston Market and Kraft CEO Bruce Harreld as their new President. Since then, both he and the school have received a firestorm of criticism – the University for hiring Mr. Harreld despite a lower than 5% approval rating from the faculty and students, and Harreld for falsifying information on his curriculum vitae. The University Board of Regents president, Bruce Rastetter, insists that the “status quo is not acceptable” and that Harreld’s appointment will help “turn it around.” It’s a bit unclear, however, what exactly requires the round-turning, or how Mr. Harreld’s unique skill set of managing national corporations is going to accomplish it. Rastetter points to Iowa’s higher-than-average student debt, its need to find revenue sources outside of tuition, and the need to get the University closer to its core mission of research and teaching. By his own admission, Mr. Harreld will be compensating for his lack of experience by leaning heavily on faculty and staff to advise him. This begs the question: How is it that a man whose professional experience lies almost completely outside of education (except for a brief stint as a lecturer at Harvard) became the man hired to “turn around” a major public university? In short, Ronald Reagan.

Way back in 1966, when the Free Speech Movement was in full swing and the Vietnam War raged on, students at the University of California Berkeley engaged in protests and demonstrations decrying the violence and insisting on change. Ronald Reagan just happened to be running for governor of California at the time. He declared, “Get them out of there. Throw them out. They are spoiled and don’t deserve the education they are getting. They don’t have a right to take advantage of our system of education.” He based his campaign on his criticism of the protesting students and vowed to “clean up the mess in Berkeley” if elected. Three weeks after Reagan assumed office, UC Berkeley president, Clark Kerr, was fired from the presidency of UC Berkeley, ostensibly for allowing the protests to continue (A 2002 investigation by San Francisco Chronicle Reporter Seth Rosenfeld indicates that good old J. Edgar had put Kerr on the FBI radar back in 1964 and that Reagan had been conspiring with them to unseat him as UC Berkeley president throughout Reagan’s gubernatorial campaign). Reagan’s abuse of the University of California system did not end with Kerr (and neither did the student protests). Reagan went on to propose 10% budget cuts to the entire UC system and suggested that they sell off their collection of rare books to gain revenue. While he was not successful in having these cuts approved, he was able to convince the Legislature to pass lesser funding cuts. He was adamant in his stance that students bear the financial responsibility of their educations and announced that “the state of California has no business subsidizing intellectual curiosity.” In response, the UC system raised fees until eventually they become equivalent to the cost of tuition. Perhaps Reagan’s vow to clean up the Berkeley mess was only political posturing, or perhaps he really was a full-blown anti-intellectual. What is obvious is his ignorance of sociological theory as he doubled-down during a 1980 Presidential campaign speech, “Why should we subsidize intellectual curiosity?” Reagan was elected President and in 1981 proposed his $2 billion in cuts to financial aid beginning in the 1982-1983 academic year. According to the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, all student loans were subject to a 5% origination fee to pay for the government’s interest subsidy while the student was enrolled in school. This meant that if a student received the maximum loan of $2500, they would only receive $2375, but still pay interest for the full amount. These loans were only available to students whose family had an adjusted income of $30,000 or less annually, unless the family could prove a demonstrated need for aid. The interest rate on these loans was raised from 9% to 14%, and the minimum annual repayment after graduation (the grace period was eliminated) was raised from $360 to $900. In addition, students became ineligible after May 1, 1982 to receive Social Security payments while enrolled in college, with the program to be phased out by 1981. In 1985, the Reagan Administration proposed further cuts to student aid programs, but Congress would not approve the $5.8 billion budget Reagan proposed, instead passing a budget of $9.4 billion. However, the federal Pell Grant program took a hit of about $200 million, which would disqualify approximately 3.5% of applicants.

These cuts disproportionately impacted low and middle-income students attending public institutions and slowed the growth of diversity on many college campuses as under-represented students were priced out of their college education. In the first few years after 1982, Harvard found that matriculated students from low-income and African-American backgrounds dropped significantly. The number of enrolled students whose fathers had not attended college dropped from 26% to 21% between 1979 and 1982 while the number of African-American students choosing to matriculate dropped from 69% of those accepted in 1981 to 57% in 1982. 44% of those African-American students who chose not to attend Harvard responded that they did so for financial reasons.

In the face of the drastic cuts to financial aid, colleges had to come up with a plan that would enable them to admit a full class of incoming freshmen while simultaneously maintaining their operation costs. Because of its enormous wealth, Harvard was able to maintain its need-blind admissions process, but schools like Dartmouth and Wesleyan were forced to refuse admission to some students who were not able to afford the cost of admission. Georgetown began charging all matriculated students a $200 fee that was redistributed as financial aid to the neediest students, while UPenn and Princeton redistributed funds within their budgets to compensate for the shortfall. Whitman College also diverted funds from its endowment while other schools, like University of Massachusetts and Holyoke, sought donations to fund scholarships and work-study programs. Lehigh University raised its tuition from $6,100 to $7,200 to cover a loss of $1 million in federal and state assistance. This was only the immediate response – distribute fewer aid packages, charge more fees, dip into endowments…increase tuition. Unfortunately, schools haven’t gotten too much more creative since then as the cost of college continues to rise at a rate far surpassing incomes. The cost of college has risen 90% since Reagan’s presidency while the adjusted family income has increased by only about 10%.

Thus began the not-so-slow shift to colleges as a consumer market. As colleges continued to charge more in the ensuing decades, students began to demand more for their money. More services, better facilities, better grades. Many college campuses now boast state-of-the-art fitness facilities (including rock climbing walls), gourmet cafeterias, and living arrangements nicer than many a graduate’s first apartment. Faculty and staff are expected to be perpetually available, as emails roll into mobile devices at all hours of the day and night. Students will not hesitate to challenge a grade received lower than an A, and as many professors’ tenure, raise, and promotion is at least partially contingent on student evaluations, professors are more likely to hand them out. After all, the student is paying for it. It is no longer unusual for a faculty or staff member to receive a phone call or email from a disgruntled parent, either over a grade, or a letter of recommendation, because after all, they’re paying for it. These A’s are a commodity to be carried into future success.

While it may seem at a glance that colleges were suddenly getting rich quick at the expense of their students, the students’ own increased expectations coupled with increased government oversight caused a surge in administrative needs. According to a recent study conducted by Vanderbilt University, the nation’s colleges spend an estimated $27 billion complying with federal regulations. While a large chunk of that, $10.2 billion, is related to research costs that not all institutions incur, and 5.6 million is spent in areas not necessarily specific to higher education (like immigration and Affirmative Action) the remainder is said to be spent on compliance with financial aid, accreditation, and assessment. The accreditation guidelines for the Middle States Association of Colleges and Universities are 75 pages long and cover 14 separate standards. Annual fees for accreditation run into the thousands of dollars and require an annual submission of Periodic Review Reports, in addition to an extensive self-review every 5 years and a site visit every 10 (which the college pays for). Compliance with Title IX has become especially challenging in recent years as colleges are assuming more responsibility for prosecuting sexual offenders on campus. Most institutions have initiated some type of Sexual Assault Response Team, and have added Title IX Coordinators, Administrators, and Directors to their administrative teams. Many have even brought on attorneys, not only to defend them in the event of a lawsuit by an alleged assailant or victim, but to guide them through the investigation and trial in an effort to avoid such a lawsuit. Compliance doesn’t just happen. Somebody, usually many somebodies, must be compensated for the difficult work.

There are also issues that aren’t necessarily ones of compliance (yet) but that colleges and universities can’t ignore because of increasing student interest. Some of these include trigger warnings, safe spaces, and comfort animals on campus. Micro-aggressions, interpreted as often unintentional assumptions and attitudes about a socially marginalized demographic that reflect or affirm stereotypes, are also coming under increasing scrutiny. While these topics are still controversial – there are those who believe avoidance of sensitive material is too much like coddling, and those who believe that making allowances for students’ sensitivities is protecting them from emotional trauma – colleges and universities still need to allocate budgetary resources to address them. While it’s true that some top-ranking administrators seem to earn exorbitant salaries (Bruce Herrald will be pulling in $590,000), it is also true that they are required to possess the unique skill set of working with a team to balance student needs against the needs of the faculty and college, against government regulations, against the interests of alumni, against the interest of the community, in a way that satisfies all constituents in an increasingly fluid environment. They must do all this and still have their organization be solvent so that it can continue to provide education, employment, and tradition to future stakeholders.

How does this all tie back to Ronald Reagan? Ronald Reagan set a precedent for anti-intellectualism when he launched his attack against the students at Berkeley. When he became President, he set a precedent for Republican cuts to higher education services. He set the precedent for political attacks on higher education. Right now there are governors in Louisiana, Wisconsin, and Illinois launching full-blown assaults on their states’ systems of higher education reminiscent of the Reagan era cuts decades earlier. When colleges began searching for creative sources of revenue and started selling themselves as an experience, rather than an education, the inevitable happened. They became corporations. And who better to steer higher education through the frenzy but a shark of their own? Welcome to higher education, Mr. Harreld.