The Public-Private Balance
From the May 2001 AAHE Bulletin
I watch a lot of college athletic events on television,
and at some time during every game, each college or university usually gets to
strut its stuff with a short film highlighting its attributes as one of
America’s leading institutions of higher education. Over the last couple of
years, I’ve noted with interest how few of our public institutions mention
their “publicness” in these films — and how many private universities
proudly espouse their responsiveness to public purposes.
Discussions about the appropriate balance between public
and private purposes are all the rage these days. Yet I don’t really think it
is the balance between public good and private gain that we are concerned about.
It’s the imbalance, and the concern that higher education is at risk of losing
its reason for being.
In the olden days, it was much simpler: Higher education
served the public interest. True, public and independent institutions served the
public interest somewhat differently, with public institutions serving the
public as defined by government and independent institutions serving unique
proprietary public interests — sometimes religious, sometimes egalitarian,
sometimes meritocratic — that were nonetheless basically public in nature.
Without doubt, there was private gain associated with
these public purposes: College-educated individuals benefited greatly
financially and their communities benefited by their presence, as did the
businesses that hired them, which also benefited from higher-ed-produced
research that increased their productivity and streamlined their production
processes. But the reason our institutions did what they did — instruction,
research, and service — was to serve the public good. Any private gains were
simply the logical result — a by-product, if you will — of this public
investment for the public good.
Today, private gain has become one of the goals of higher
education. How did that happen? I believe that the change from strictly public
purpose to a public/ private “balance” has followed three distinct paths. It
began with a perception that public purpose not only served private interests,
but that public interests and private interests could actually “join
together” to advance public purposes.
A second step involved the courting of private gain for
the public good. Just two examples: Customized research, undertaken by our
public research universities and subsidized by private business, and customized
worker training, taken on by community colleges and others.
The final way that the balance between public good and
private gain has been tipped in recent years is via our efforts to take the
public enterprise private — through governance changes that divest our public
institutions of their public ownership, for instance, through for-profit
ventures spawned from our public and nonprofit institutions, and in a host of
Why are we doing this? In part to compete in the modern
world, in part because it is fun — and in part because many of us believe that
the most effective way to maintain the public good is to finance it through
private gain. But we should beware: The viability of “private” alternatives
may provide an excuse for diminishing public investment as perceived public good
In the past, efforts at private gain failed to assure
that we addressed the legitimate and basic needs of all the people in this
country — for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. A focus on private
gain never has and never will advance those conditions of quality and equality
that we consider an integral part of “civilized” behavior. Privatization
works well to advance private gain but not to advance public good, whether that
good involves caring about those who are the least fortunate or maintaining the
quality of the education we provide.
When it becomes obvious that private gain and public good
are not synonymous — that in fact they sometimes clash — I believe public
policy will come alive to protect the public good.
David Longanecker, former U.S. assistant secretary for
postsecondary education, is
executive director of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.
This article is an excerpt from his speech at AAHE’s 2001 National Conference
on Higher Education, held March 25–27 in Washington, DC. For the full text of
the speech, see www.wiche.edu/welcome.htm.
Copyright © 2008 - American Association for Higher Education and Accreditation