Friday, July 15, 2005

Brinksmanship, or Shooting the Hostage

There’s a scene in the movie Speed in which cop Jeff Daniels tries to teach cop Keanu Reeves how to handle a hostage situation. Keanu Reeves suggests shooting the hostage to simplify the situation (“isolate a variable,” as they said in algebra class). Jeff Daniels, horrified, gives up.

In response to my rant about how the nursing program is bleeding us dry, some folks emailed to suggest taking the Nursing program (or some other high-cost, high-profile, much-loved program) hostage. Loudly proclaim that, in the absence of a serious influx of cash from the state or the county, the beloved program dies. Sort of like when high schools in the Midwest threaten first to eliminate football.

Leaving aside the ethical issue (I actually think there’s nothing unethical about asking for support for programs that serve the public, or even for outlining the consequences of a lack of support), my fear is that the county or state would choose simply to shoot the hostage.

Community colleges (and most of the lower-tier, non-flagship state colleges) are in a tricky position. We provide badly needed services in an era in which the concept of a ‘public good’ has almost vanished, but our very usefulness and accessibility hurt our reputation (and therefore our ability to raise funds from other sources). Groucho Marx’ line about never joining a club that would accept him as a member has obvious implications for the public image of an open-admissions school. Yet, if we were to try to ‘raise our academic profile’ by appealing to the snootier sorts, we’d lose our reason to exist.

For reasons known only to them, big philanthropists prefer to give to organizations that don’t need it. Success breeds success, and they like to be associated with ‘excellence.’ Since we’re resolutely open to all comers, we don’t have the cachet of exclusivity. Since we focus on teaching, we don’t have the cachet of huge research grants or Nobel prize winners on the faculty. (At UC Berkeley, I once saw a parking space near a science building with a sign saying “Nobel Prize Winners Only.” Puh-leeze.) Our relative lack of cachet drives the philanthropists to the flagship state universities or the Ivies, which don’t need it.

(Thorstein Veblen nailed this over 100 years ago, in The Theory of the Leisure Class. He argued that people show wealth and power through ‘honorific waste,’ or what he also called ‘conspicuous consumption.’ Horses are higher-status pets than dogs because horses are both useless and costly to maintain. Therefore, only the wealthy can afford them. Ties convey status because you can’t work with your hands while wearing a tie. To my mind, this is still the single best description of the appeal of SUV’s -- their excess is precisely their appeal. It also explains why universities with large philosophy departments are more prestigious than community colleges with large nursing or criminal justice programs.)

Since we can’t raise money with philanthropy, we’re left to raise money by raising tuition, (which has natural limits, esp. with our population) or by pleading poverty to the county and state. Having done that for several decades now, we’ve fallen victim to the ‘boy who cried wolf’ syndrome. At this point, even when the wolf is real, we get tuned out.

Sometimes we’ve taken the opposite tack, making an ‘economic development’ argument, but economic development funding is devilishly cyclical, and we’re tenure-based. We can’t afford to pay full freight during the down cycles.

If the public were more attuned to the value of community colleges, the hostage strategy might work. But it isn’t, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Faced with the choice between higher taxes and pulling a Keanu, I think the public would shoot the hostage.