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Don't be an agent of the state

Brendan Cantwell
Brendan Cantwell
How should we think about the relationship between public higher education and the state? Higher education researchers often think about public colleges and universities as agents of the state. I’m not so sure that’s the best why to understand it. In this issue, I share three recent examples to show why.
Hey, it’s Wednesday! Yes, I’m late this week. I took my kids away for a couple of days. We had a blast but I didn’t get much work done. Sorry for the delay. As compensation, please enjoy this photo of us playing at the North Avenue Beach in Chicago.

How things relate
As a higher education scholar, I want to understand how higher education relates to other aspects of society. For public colleges and universities, the big part of this is to understand how higher ed relates to the state.
Let’s define the state. A simple dictionary definition will do. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary definition will do. The state is “a politically organized body of people usually occupying a definite territory.” So, “the state” of refrence could be Germany or it could be Bavaria (one of German Landers or, err, states) depending on how public higher education is organized in a particular country. Just for the fun of it we can complicate things a bit further. The state of reference might also depend on the aspect of higher education we are doing with. In the U.S. public colleges and universities are established by the several states (like Illinois or Oklahoma). Ah, also in some cases counties (like Maricopa Community College) or cities (like the City University of New York) but we can basically ignore that for now. But student loans and research funding, for example, organized by the federal government, that the U.S. is the state of reference in these cases.
Control is not ownership.
Public colleges and universities - at least in the U.S. - are generally understood as publicly controlled. Control is not the same as ownership. The state does not own public colleges and universities. The state establishes them, the state supports them (or is supposed to anyway), and the state holds them accountable (presumably for that body of people who make up the state). We generally don’t think about public colleges and universities as part of the state or the government. They are autonomous individual organizations or systems that are governed by boards, which are often linked to the state. Think politically appointed trustees. So as you can see, when it comes to the relationship between public higher education and the state: it’s complicated.
Let’s take a look at three examples from the past several days of how complicated things can get between public higher education and the state.
Vaccine mandates?
Should colleges and universities mandate vaccines for students, faculty, and staff? This is an important question. More so because higher education is preparing for a more “normal” semester with in-person learning, living, and activities at the same time was the Delta variant of virus that causes COVID-19 is spreading rapidly.
You know the story. According the the New York Times tracker, just under 50% of all Americans are fully vaccinated. The vaccine is very good a preventing infection and excellent at preventing serious illness. But greater than half the population need to be vaccinated to stop the spread. As of now, children under the age of 12 cannot be vaccinated. Data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention shows that only about 43% of people 18 - 24, prime college years, are fully vaccinated.
It seems likely that a partially vaccinated college population congregating closely on campus will lead to spread of the highly contagious variant, with the obvious possibility that return-to-campus drives community spread, including increasing infections among those under the age of 12 who cannot get vaccinated.
Schools and colleges have long required vacation as a condition of enrollment (with exceptions). It’s pretty normal. But COVID is different, partly because the vaccines still have only emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, but mostly because vaccination is a charged political issue. Conservatives argue that mandating the vaccine is a violation of political liberty, and conspiracy theories and disinformation about the safe and effective vaccines spread like wildfire on social media.
The Chronicle of Higher Education is keeping track of vaccine mandates on campus. At the time of this wring, they document nearly 450 campuses with some sort of mandate for students, faculty, and staff. A growing list of public institutions are on the list, including the University of California and the State University of New York systems. But most of the public colleges and universities with a vaccine mandate are located in Blue states in the Northeast and West Coast. A notable exception is Indiana University, were a vaccine mandate was recently upheld as constitutional by a federal judge. In Red States, vaccine mandates are rare, and these are some of the states with the lowest rate of overall vacation. It doesn’t take an epidemiologist to predict how this will go.
H. Holden Thorp, Editor-in-Chief of the Science family of journals, penned an editorial calling for college vaccine mandates. The science is clear. The need for nearly everyone to be vaccinated to curb spread is well known. Colleges have a lever to pull … but many are not. Why not? Here’s what Thorp says:
I wrote to several higher education administrators and local government officials to ask their opinion about vaccine mandates. Although they privately agreed that every college should require mandates, no one was willing to say so on the record. They were all worried that Republican legislators will punish the universities if they come out swinging. Like other measures to limit academic freedom and circumvent faculty expertise, this is another example of politicians and politically appointed trustees overreaching their appropriate roles in higher education policy.
Here it is again, the old institutional trap. Campus leaders worry if they do what they know is appropriate, political punishment will follow. What should they do? Well, I think they have a duty in all cases other than those where vaccine mandates are prohibited by state law to buck the the state politics and impose a mandate. The coordination problem is great. No one wants to go first. Early movers will attract the vitriol. But the stakes are too high.
Of course the stakes are high in pure public health terms. The stress of a campus outbreak is also something worth avoiding. While vaccinated faculty are likely pretty safe, no one want’s their class to be the site of transmission no one wants their student to get sick. I think the public and probably many administrators overestimate the extent to which faculty are pampered whiners and understimate the extent to which they are empathetic educators.
The stakes are also too high in terms of organizational autonomy. If campuses voluntarily ceed the autonomy and as Thorp puts it, academic freedom and faculty expertise, just to avoid angering a set of (know-nothing) legislators. Which brings me back to the question of the relationship between higher education and the state.
Higher education researchers often think about this relationship in terms of principal agent theory. The idea is that the state is the principal, which contracts with higher education (the agent) to provide education. The principal wants higher education to deliver on what it contracts - say good quality education with price control - but the agent has its own ideas - maybe colleges want to reach for prestige. In this framework, state control is a cat and mouse game of accountability versus self-interested organizations. When the agent doesn’t do what the principal wants, it’s called “shirking.” Now let’s apply this idea to the pressure to prevent vaccine mandates. Is the agent - the college - shirking it’s responsibly to the public if imposes a vaccine mandate in the name of public health and educational continuity. I hope not.
That’s why I prefer not to conceptualize public colleges and universities as agents of the state. My preferred conceptualization is to understand public colleges and universities as autonomous organizations obliged to operate in the public interest. This is of course both a little bit naïve (of course public colleges and universities have self-interest which can and do conflict with the common good) and simplistic (deterring the public interest is a fraught political processes). Still, I find it more satisfying than thinking of public colleges as “agents” contracted by the state.
Public accountability is necessary and right in exchange for public support. But public accountability should not eliminate autonomy and the authority to act in the public interest (which a vaccine mandate almost certainly would be).
Let’s move on to another example.
Critical Race Theory in the Cornhusker State
Nebraska is one of the many places you can find moral panic over critical race theory. I’m not going spend too much time over the CRT backlash generally other than to say it dumb and racist and designed to get people worked up. You’ve read all about it, I assume.
Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts ® wants the University of Nebraska Board of Trustees to pass a resolution “opposing the imposition of Critical Race Theory on students.” Rickets expressed his support for the resolution in a Twitter thread that I can only describe as equal measures nuts and desperate.
Here, take a look for yourself.
Gov. Pete Ricketts
The UCAA bills itself as an organization building coalitions to advocate for liberal issues.
Gov. Pete Ricketts
Additionally, the University of Nebraska should consider it an honor to be listed on the AAUP’s censure list alongside notable conservative institutions, including Brigham Young University, Catholic University of America, and Hillsdale College.
Gov. Pete Ricketts
I strongly urge the Board of Regents to pass the resolution opposing the imposition of Critical Race Theory on students, so we keep academic freedom alive and well at the University of Nebraska.
So, a couple of things:
First, Rickets wants the public universities in his state to operate like private universities, which do not have to honor free speech (at least not in the same way), in the name of … you got it, free speech. It’s an incoherent argument.
Second, he really wants some RTs from BYU, Catholic U, and Hillsdale. Friends, he did not get these RTs. Rickets tags these institutions in his final tweet to fish for the RT. Again, he got none.
Let’s get back to the principal agent model. Assume the majority of Nebraskans want a CRT ban (that’s probably a safe assumption). Assume the majority of Nebraska’s unicamerial legislature supports such a ban (possibly true), and assume the University of Nebraska’s politically appointed board votes in favor of the resolution. (Set aside the fact that it might be an unenforceable performance.) Are we happy with understanding the university as an agent of that state?
Now let’s take a trip to the United Kingdom.
This one might take the cake (and that’s saying something).
This month, the UK Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy released a white paper titled “UK Innovation Strategy: Leading the Future By Creating It” (after the colon is hilarious). The part of the report that got some attention is the higher education world is below.
… as part of our plan for growth, the UK government will introduce a new High Potential Individual route to make it as simple as possible for internationally mobile individuals who demonstrate high potential to come to the UK. Eligibility will be open to applicants who have graduated from a top global university. The UK government will explore the scope to expand eligibility to other characteristics of high potential. There will be no job offer requirement, giving individuals the flexibility to work, switch jobs or employers and make contributions to the UK economy. The route will also allow eligible individuals to extend their visa and settle in the UK, subject to meeting specific requirements.
What is this? This is a plan for an immigration policy that would award visas to “high potential individuals” (hello Orwell).
Who is a high potential individual? Someone who graduated from a “top global university.” And top global universities are defined by the QS rankings. Which is, well ….
Kris Olds
@cant_b The report authors cite a QS ranking. Imagine outsourcing your border control metrics to a for-profit firm that refuses to provide open access to the base data. And that’s just the tip of this iceberg. Unbelievable.
Here, the UK government is proposing the contract with an agent, in this case a much criticized consulting and analytics firm that produces a set of university rankings. Ok. Indirectly, the government proposes to contact with “top global universities” as de facto immigration that will vet who is worthy of UK residency based there admissions. Imagine the potential for exploitation. Do we think that we should understand universities as agents of the state contracted to certify “high potential individuals” worthy of residence to a wealthy country like the UK?
The perils of agency
A bit snarky, but I think I’ve made my point. The relationship between higher education and the state is complicated. Public universities are established by the state, they are supported by the state, and they should be accountable to the public, including through political processes. But when we understand them as agents of the state, we get into some sticky territory pretty quickly. If we think about the state as contracting higher education to do the its bidding, we’d better hope the state is reasonable. That’s not always a safe assumption, even in places like the US and UK, which many people think of as stable democracies. Conceptualizing public higher education as accountable to the public, self-interested, and potentially capable of pushing society (and the state) to be better allows us to re-consider the scope of agency (which is different than being an agent). Campus leaders could act in the public good by finding a way to get more people vaccinated, even if it goes against political preferences that control the state. I don’t think that is shirking.
Ok, enough.
A favor, please.
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Brendan Cantwell
Brendan Cantwell @@cant_b

Associate Professor @HALEatMSU and Joint Editor-in-Chief for Higher Education ( Speak only for my self.

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