Crow, MAGA legislators, and free speech
Funding students rather than institutions might have new appeal to all the combatants in the ruckus.
I have some observations about the eruption by MAGA state legislators against Arizona State University ostensibly over free speech.
However, I write mainly to reprise a proposal to fund students rather than institutions in higher education, and in a way that captures the value-added of the education for Arizona taxpayers. It might have new appeal to all sides in this ruckus.
ASU President Michael Crow has been kind enough to take me and my views seriously. We’ve gotten together periodically to chew the fat. This despite the fact that I once wrote that he seemed to be trying to create the university that ate Phoenix. And despite my criticisms of his New American University concept, the creation of which he has made his life’s work at ASU, and about which he has written entire books.
I am completely convinced of Crow’s commitment to viewpoint diversity in higher education. And, during Crow’s tenure, ASU has been a place where conservative scholarship has been able to find a home.
Most noteworthy was the recruitment of Edward Prescott to ASU. Prescott was a Nobel laureate in economics for his work about the interaction between government policy and business cycles, and the limitations thereof. His later scholarship included evaluating the anti-productivity features of the tax structures in Western Europe. Prescott passed away a little over a year ago, having been part of the ASU faculty for nearly two decades.
Joining Prescott at his ASU center was another internationally renowned free-market economist, Lee Ohanian, whose primary university home is UCLA. At the sidelines of a symposium hosted by Prescott’s ASU center, I had the opportunity to have a confab with Prescott, Ohanian, and John Taylor from Stanford University, the most consequential thinker about monetary policy since Milton Friedman. For a hobbyist in economic policy, it was a wonkish delight. I’d be surprised if any of the MAGA legislators even know who these conservative intellectual luminaries are.
There are conservative professors in the economics department and the business school at ASU. I have heard from them from time to time, and some of them have assigned some of my columns for reading. That came as a shock to the best friend of one of my sons, when he got such an assignment. ASU is the academic home for Donald Critchlow, the foremost historian of the American conservative movement and a staunch conservative himself.
ASU has some centers and programs that are at least center-right, which offer undergraduate degrees and certificates. A conservative student at ASU can navigate his or her way to a degree with less woke indoctrination, and less need to compromise or pretend, than in other universities and colleges. At least in the social sciences. I can’t speak to the undergraduate experience in the hard sciences.
Quantitative evidence comes from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, which ranks universities and colleges based upon their free speech environments. FIRE has support from civil libertarians of the left and the right.
ASU ranked in the top third of 254 universities and colleges evaluated by FIRE for support of free speech on campus. FIRE gave ASU a “green light” designation, meaning that it has no policies limiting the exercise of free speech by faculty members or students. ASU has signed on to the University of Chicago statement about free inquiry in higher education. The most significant part of the Chicago statement is the rejection of safe spaces or protecting students against ideas and commentary that make them uncomfortable.
Having said all that, I have also had close relatives attending ASU throughout Crow’s tenure. I know that there is a lot of woke indoctrination that occurs in the classroom, curriculum, and required courses. The Goldwater Institute has unearthed disturbing evidence of required woke fealty statements for new faculty hires and mandatory woke indoctrination training for faculty and staff. ASU is far from immune from the woke infection that is eroding the intellectual integrity in American higher education.
The eruption by the MAGA legislators is a byproduct of the appearance on campus of Turning Point founder Charlie Kirk and talk-radio personality Dennis Prager. Now, to me, Kirk is a political opportunist and grifter. But he and Turning Point are a consequential part of the current American political landscape, particularly here in Arizona. Prager is a prominent conservative public intellectual. He’s not just a talk-radio ranter. He’s much deeper and broader than that.
If you don’t think a university should be a place where Kirk and Prager can appear, you are, ipso facto, an intolerant leftist. And it is disturbing that so many faculty members of the Barrett Honors College, ASU’s flagship undergraduate program, revealed themselves as such by signing a letter protesting their appearance. The MAGA legislators aren’t entirely tilting at windmills.
They are threatening to defund the universities. That will hurt the university brass and faculty considerably less than the students seeking a degree from them.
I think we need to radically change how we credential people for white-collar jobs. Universities and colleges are highly inefficient ways of doing so. And the woke infection has made higher education in the United States arguably a net societal detriment rather than a benefit.
There is a movement away from using a college degree for credentialing. But it is still in its infancy. For most people and most white-collar jobs, a college degree remains the ticket to admission.
I’ve long advocated a different approach to taxpayer support for higher education in Arizona. Rather than fund institutions, fund grants to individual students. And make the grants a loan forgivable based upon years working in Arizona.
In terms of economics, to this hobbyist, the fallacy of the current method of funding institutions as a taxpayer investment is that the value-added, an educated person, is wholly owned by that person, and that person is mobile. The value-added created by the Arizona taxpayer investment may or may not be put to work in Arizona. Given how common moving across state lines is in the United States, this is not a frivolous fallacy.
My proposal is to convert what the state appropriates to the universities for undergraduate education into grants to students, redeemable in any four-year degree granting institution, in state or out of state. The grants would be a loan, written off based upon putting the degree to work in the state. There is more return to state taxpayers from an Arizona high school graduate who goes to Caltech but returns to Arizona to work than from one who graduates from a state university and heads off to Silicon Valley after graduation. There’s no reason to subsidize the latter but not the former, which is the current policy. In fact, the opposite makes more sense.
This proposal has never gained much traction. But, in the current ruckus, it should have some appeal to all the combatants.
The legislators wouldn’t be funding the universities directly at all. They would be funding students, and those students wouldn’t be limited to the three state research universities. They could use the grants to attend Grand Canyon University or Arizona Christian University. The net cost to taxpayers would be mitigated by the requirement of those taking their educated personage out of state to repay their grants.
If the MAGA legislators really wanted to stick it to the universities they would lift the restrictions on the ability of community colleges in Maricopa and Pima counties to offer four-year degrees. I strongly favor that, although not out of any animosity toward the incumbent research universities.
From the perspective of the universities, they might experience a short-term reduction in funding and market share. But after that, taxpayer support for undergraduate education would no longer be politically vulnerable, even in tight budget years. Reducing funding would have a direct and transparent effect on students, rather than the indirect and opaque effects of cutting an appropriation to the universities. Reducing the grant would raise the ire of well over a hundred thousand students and parents, aka voters, counting on the grant to underwrite their university education. In fact, there would be steady political pressure to increase the grant.
An idea whose time has come?
Reach Robb at firstname.lastname@example.org.