‘Investing’ in universities

The presidents of West Virginia and Marshall universities might want to rethink the framing of state funding as an “investment” by lawmakers. Last week, Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert and West Virginia University President Gordon Gee issued a statement “in support of preserving state funding for higher education as an investment in the future of our state and its people.” The two are worried about budget proposals that cut funding to higher education (among other things) as a way to keep spending from exceeding the state’s means.

If lawmakers take a real-world approach to investing when they think about how the state will spend its money, Gee and Gilbert will probably regret their wording. Investing is done with the expectation of returns, and with an eye toward risk levels.

What kind of return is West Virginia getting from its public colleges and universities? Are they providing useful educations and producing graduates ready to be vital parts of the workforce, who can lead us through the economic transition this state must make? In fact, are they producing graduates who can do the jobs Mountain State employers need?

On the other hand, is there a risk the state’s money will be thrown away on trend-chasing projects that are obsolete before they have been completed? Are universities treating young people like customers to serve, rather than students to teach? Is state money being used to produce a generation of entitled Peter Pans in search of safe spaces? Are public institutions of higher learning harboring employees who have become institutions themselves … but haven’t done any real work in years?

Would lawmakers be investing in the education of young people who flee the state the second they get the chance?

There are other rules in investing. Timing is everything, even with a “sure thing.” The folks who lost millions when the real estate or tech bubbles collapsed can tell you that. (And, by the way, there is a reason financial types call some smaller collapses “corrections.”) That means sometimes, the worst time to invest is when everyone is saying it is the best time. Sometimes what is labeled investing is actually throwing away money — particularly on enterprises that have become overconfident and inefficient, that have performed few internal checks for waste and redundancy; and have lost sight of their missions.

Or, in the words of investing wizard Warren Buffet, “the less care with which others conduct their affairs, the more care with which you should conduct yours.”

Don’t get me wrong. WVU and Marshall do an immense amount of good in this state, as do their smaller counterparts. For the most part, students who decide to can get world-class educations at these schools. But there is enough room for improvement that lawmakers should not give them a pass simply because they throw the magic words “education” and “future” into their pleas for more money.

Gee threatened “Any additional significant reductions would jeopardize the quality and value of an education that a student at West Virginia University receives, as well as the programs and services we provide to the state.”

Why?

Perhaps having less money to toss around on programs in which students are told “Go ahead and fail. That’s why we’re here. Failure is encouraged. It means you are experimenting” would mean a tighter focus on programs that turn students into adults who can function in the real world.

Has anyone dared to consider that leaner, more mission-driven universities might do bigger and better things for West Virginia? In fact, it is possible students who are taught in a less distracted atmosphere, in which they bear some responsibility, might be eager to stay in the Mountain State and help the rest of us turn this thing around, rather than skipping off to fictional greener pastures.

If lawmakers are to “invest” in public higher education in the Mountain State, they had better demand schools take a hard look at whether they are spending that money for themselves, or for the people of West Virginia.

Christina Myer is executive editor of The Parkersburg News and Sentinel. She can be reached via e-mail at cmyer@newsandsentinel.com

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