Gartner's proposals are a step backward


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With power struggles between the Legislature and the state Board of Regents coming to a head after a turbulent year, former Regent Michael Gartner is weighing in on the real problem with Iowa's public universities.

Gartner wrote an opinion piece in Sunday's Des Moines Register condemning the influence of the University of Iowa's faculty on administrative decisions and calling for a re-evaluation of "the cherished tenets of academe," including "shared governance," the provision of glittering facilities, administrator search committees, and strong research credentials. The abrogation of these amounts to a stricter administrative hierarchy and a concentration of power in the regents.

In other words, Gartner's suggestions are essentially a philosophical privatization of Iowa's public universities. He wants them run as businesses, not institutions in the service of Iowa's students; while he has a few good points, the majority of his proposal should be roundly rejected.

Gartner, like officials across the country, justifies his radical revisions by assuming the inevitability of decreasing state appropriations and the subsequent university budget crises. While some may call this realistic, it's a counter to the ideals former regents should understand: fully funded, comprehensive, and accessible education. Accepting state cuts as inevitable automatically leads to an acceptance of university decline as inevitable, subject only to mitigation with a comprehensive restructuring.

Gartner does make some concessions to increased funding of the University of Northern Iowa, which, because of its high ratio of in-state students, suffers more from budget cuts than its sister institutions. But his proposal lists a fund redistribution, treating the three regents' universities as locked in a zero-sum competition for dwindling state funds: If UNI is underfunded, more funds must be taken from the UI or ISU.

And Gartner neatly sidesteps the ballooning tuition at the UI by blaming it on cultural factors. The argument that tuition at the UI is prohibitive only because students spend more time drinking than studying — and thus take more time to graduate — is absurd at best but borders on the insulting. In-state students in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences who graduated in 2011, after four years, spent $27,411 on their schooling — and that number is only slated for an increase, as regents acknowledge a direct relationship between dwindling state appropriations and tuition hikes. Alcohol is a familiar demon, but its invocation serves more to dismiss the needs of students than to realistically explain the cost of schooling.

Gartner's handwave of state appropriations is odd, given his prior sensitivity to the burden of tuition; he was one of only two regents to vote against the tuition increase this year and supported directly tying tuition increases to cuts in state funds as a way of demonstrating the relationship to the legislators.

Even odder is the former regent's criticisms of faculty unions (at UNI) and faculty councils (at the UI) as "institutionalizing mediocrity." Gartner claims that faculty members have too much power, particularly at this institution. His justification? They insist on academic experience in future administrators — an influence whose negativity is dubious at best.

It's disappointing to see a staunch advocate for students presenting a misleading perspective — namely, that the interests of students and the interests of faculty are fundamentally opposed. Truly, professors care about students. Professors and students both want an environment in which students learn from engaged, involved, and stimulated faculty members; they want a university with benefits both material and immaterial.

UI Graduate College Dean John Keller told the DI Sunday that he sees a strong faculty council as encouraging democratic governance. "The faculty are the workers, while the administrators and regents are the administration — the bosses, big brother," he said.

There are quarrels, to be sure, over the control of and purpose of the state's regent universities. But these quarrels can be met with dialogue and debate, not with an assertion that different bodies have entirely conflicting motives, and subsequently that power must dwell only in one position. In Gartner's stinging criticism of faculty power at the UI, that's exactly what he implies: There's no way forward for the UI unless faculty power is abridged, and regents have more power.

Gartner last hit the news for his heterodox perspective in the controversy over Jackson Pollock's Mural; a bill introduced in the Iowa House of Representatives to sell it for the $150 million it would generate was withdrawn, to Gartner's continuing disapproval ("it's strategic and financial folly for the University of Iowa to own a $150 million painting," he wrote the Sunday piece). It's an almost mercenary approach to higher education: The goal of the university, Gartner implies, is not to enrich the academic lives of students in a holistic manner but to maximize return on investment and management efficiency.

If Gartner's proposal signals the future of Iowa's public universities, it's a death knell for higher education as we know it. The universities will survive, of course, but the shape they take will be profoundly different.

It's not a difference we'd like to see.

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