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Should taxpayers subsidize universities that do not contribute to economic development?

October 12, 2011

Re: Florida GOP vs. Social Science on Inside Higher Ed

Should taxpayer’s taxes be used to subsidize academic departments at state universities that do not contribute to economic development? This is an interesting question that involves two issues: use of public funds and what is an “education.” In the broadest sense, and education involves a search aroused by an experience of amazement. We are amazed at the world we experience and want to understand it. That may include studying political science or anthropology. That is one of the issues. The other is whether a state government has the obligation to sustain every academic department with tax money.

The answer is definitely, “No.” In fact, at some elite institutions another principle applies: “Every boat on its own bottom.” I’ve argued that academic departments with postgraduate degrees should pay their host institution for office accommodations, records management and admissions tasks, and keep all other income they derive after returning 50% to 60% of government contracts to the university that hosts them. They may keep everything remaining. If they can’t support themselves from income, then they should close. The taxpayers have no obligation to sustain postgraduate programs, if they can’t pay for themselves.

Undergraduate programs are another issue, but even at that level is there a need for an anthropology department? Political science? These are questions now being raised across the states by Governors—mostly Republicans—who feel no allegiance to an academic Establishment that is 99% Democratic. This should an interesting recession as American taxpayers take a hard look at soft expenses like public universities and colleges.

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