The Public-Private Balance
Keeping higher education’s reason for being in perspective
By David A. Longanecker

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 other ways.

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 diminishes.

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

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