Saturday, March 08, 2008

A Tale of Two Universities

By Richard Vedder

Perhaps the most frustrating thing to me about higher education is the penchant for secrets. People who are dedicated to expanding knowledge, to learning more about the world, and to telling people how humans and planets behave are mostly against putting out any information about themselves unless they tightly control it. The typical school runs an agitprop operation similar to that found in the old Soviet Union. Schools dedicated to learning are militantly anti-learning when it comes to themselves.

Some schools, however, are breaking out of the mold. My favorite university today is Oregon State. As a midwesterner, when I think of Oregon I think of left-leaning, Granola guzzling vegetarians who recycle faithfully each week and are currently suffering angst over whether to support Hilliary or Obama. But Oregon State has done something wonderful --and at almost no cost --it has put on the Web every single financial transaction that has occurred since 1996. How much did the Psych department spend on a pizza party for its majors? One exception: salary data are not available (which is very bad). Also the information is not accessible from off campus computers, which is doubly bad (transparency must be kept within the family, I guess). But the move is a bold one to make visible how campus resources are spent. I am doing a lot of thinking on this, and should have an article out in a major publication within a month or so. I am advocating that schools follow the Oregon State model.

Contrast that to Penn State. A commenter on the INSIDE HIGHER ED story on the Oregon State move noted that the prez of Penn State fought hard and successfully to exempt his university from transparency provisions earlier this year --arguing it could hurt it somehow in competiton with its intellectual rivals Penn and Cornell (wishful thinking --Penn State and Penn resemble one another in name only). It took major external judicial intervention before Penn State would say how much Joe Paterno is getting paid (answer: a lot, but not more than people imagined).

Universities show a parochialism, a lack of vision, no, a stupidity, in wanting to hide things (my university has been harassing student newspaper reporters for revealing embarassing things this year). When things are hidden, rumors spread that lead people to believe even worse things than are true. The anti-transparency mentality of universities leads the public to believe "they are hidding something bad." Overwhelm people with information about your operations, and they will praise you for openness and then their eyes will glaze over after a few minutes of looking at the informationm (except, of course, my Whiz Kids at CCAP who will have a ball finding out about administrators who take their secretaries out to three martini lunches at University expense).

Besides, the public has a RIGHT to know what is going on. Excepting a few schools like Hillsdale College (which can and should do what they darn well please), everyone is on the government dole --including the rich private Ivy League schools that take big research grants from the Feds and urge their students to apply for federal student assistance. I believe transparency in operations should be a prerequisite for the granting of tax exempt status to universities, not to mention subsidies. But try getting that one through Congress!! I can hear Terry Hartle, David Warren and other DuPont Circle Mandarins now complaining load and bitterly about this historic infringement on their autonomy, their academic freedom, and indeed, their Way of Life.


Veblen said...

I'm the commenter at IHE. I've written extensively on my blog about the effort to bring Penn State and the other public research universities in Pennsylvania under the state's Right-To-Know Law.

You can find my critique of Spanier's state senate testimony here and links to articles which discuss the law which passed last month here.

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Cowboy said...
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dubrowg said...

"(wishful thinking --Penn State and Penn resemble one another in name only)"

ugh. talk about elitist tripe, and i say this as a person with a penn doctorate and a temple b.a. no psu affiliation except for having grown up in the state. penn state is a top-flight research institution. getting into the main campus for four years is about as hard as getting into many selective private institutions. and what used to be the guarantee of doing the first two years at a branch campus and then transferring got harder when they expanded the branch campuses to four-year colleges.

for all your talk about the mandarins who guard the gates, the comment above was more than revealing.

Veblen said...

The bottom of the SAT score distribution at Penn overlaps the top of the SAT score distribution at Penn State.

bobguzzardi said...

I am from Pennsylvania which recently passed a Open Records ( Right to Know ) law which was first reform of open records or right to know law in 51 years.There is a presumption that government records prepared and maintained by public money to account for expenditures of public money for public purposes should be made public. Radical!

It was passed in February and will be effective Jan 2009! State related universities are included to a limited degree. There was a lot of whining and complaining about the costs of transparency and costs of compliance, however, transparency wa expanded. What do you want to know? We can start making our requests now.I heard Richard Vedder speak at annual Club for Growth conference in Florida this year and last.

Veblen said...

What do you want to know? We can start making our requests now.
Bob, under the new law state-related universities are required to post a fixed dataset on their Web sites. The information includes the salaries of the 25 highest paid employees and all the information which on an IRS Form 990, even if the school does not file such a form. However, the schools are exempt from reporting the the identities of their donors.
This is all of the information which the public is given a right to see under the new law.

These schools are explicitly exempted from open record requests.