Rebecca Blank: Not Quite Right for UW-Madison Chancellor

March 13, 2013 | Blog

As a social scientist engaged in poverty research, I wanted very much to like and welcome Rebecca Blank to campus. When the list was announced, I immediately expressed positive feelings– she was well-liked the last time she came to campus. Her colleagues and friends adore her, and came out in droves to meet with her today. People whom I respect immensely, including Bobbi Wolfe, Bob Haveman, Chris Taber, Karl Scholz and Tim Smeeding, are very supportive of her. Should she come, she’d join them as economists and colleagues at the Institute for Research on Poverty, and undoubtedly help to grow that part of the university.

Unfortunately, given that my first priority is not my corner of campus but rather helping to ensure that Wisconsin’s great public flagship university is led by someone who wants it to serve all of the people of Wisconsin, I cannot support the candidacy of this undoubtedly outstanding researcher and public servant.  I gave her the same litmus test I used with Mike Schill last week, and not only did she fail, but she failed in the same exact manner that Biddy Martin did several years ago.

Frankly, when it comes to higher education affordability, I can’t tell these two women apart.

Here’s how our conversation went:
SGR: “Hi, It’s so nice to finally meet you! We have many friends and colleagues in common. I’m Sara Goldrick-Rab.”
RB: “Nice to meet you too. Are you a professor here?”
SGR: “Yes, in Educational Policy and Sociology.  So, I know we have just a moment but I want to ask you about affordability.”
RB: “Affordability? What kind, housing, or…?”
SGR: “Education. How to help students afford college.  When you were here several years ago, you expressed the opinion that our tuition at Madison was too low, and should be raised at least to be on par with our peers. I’m curious, since time has passed and you’ve been in Washington, how are you currently thinking about this issue?”
RB: “Well, it’s not about tuition. That’s the first thing– we shouldn’t talk about the sticker price. It doesn’t matter. What we need to focus on is the redistribution– we need to get the resources from the wealthy families and be sure that the poor ones pay a low price.  Sticker price doesn’t matter at all.”
SGR: “Oh. So you think our sticker price could be higher than it is now?”
RB: “Well, I don’t know about Wisconsin. I have no idea what the situation is here, maybe having moderate in-state tuition is about right. But I’m an economist, and so I think about redistribution.  We can redistribute money and make college affordable. And we have to think about all of the tuition– we should be charging what our peers do for out-of-state students, no less. And the Business school tuition, that should be high.  We can play with lots of kinds of tuition before dealing with the in-state one, but that all depends on what peoples’ tolerance is.”
SGR: “Hm. Do you think that strategy works? What’s the evidence on that?”
RB: “Well, we see it in North Carolina, with the Carolina Covenant.  That’s a very important symbolic policy, promising students they can afford it.”
SGR: “Is it effective?”
RB: “Well, I think so. Maybe not in Wisconsin, I don’t know. Well, thanks, I enjoyed meeting you!”
SGR: “You too.”
I believe this conversation holds two lessons:
1. Blank did not do her homework.  She is unaware of the major debates around affordability and how it is achieved both nationally and locally. She has not taken the time to read about the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates or discussions about tuition caps.  She has not spent time googling to read about local politics.  She isn’t up to speed.
2. On affordability, yes, Blank sounds like many economists (though not all).  Her conclusions are based evidence mainly from the late 1980s, when college tuition was much lower and the student composition was much less diverse. In fact there is no evidence that the Carolina Covenant (at UNC-Chapel Hill, where I suspect Blank is already a candidate for chancellor) has been effective (there’s been just one, non-rigorous evaluation and UNC retains its reputation as a gated community).  Reasonable people disagree on the effectiveness of this redistribution approach– it is far from a resolved debate, as she implies. Her rejection of “sticker shock” as an important consideration is out of step with the Obama Administration, which is taking it quite seriously.   And the latest evidence from Wisconsin and elsewhere suggests that program complexity, which is not easily resolved, is rendering the impacts of redistribution nearly meaningless–and just as importantly may be providing little incentive for colleges and universities to keep costs down.
These are precisely the issues on which I tangled with Biddy Martin.  Again, reasonable people can disagree on these issues, so what alarms me is that, like Biddy, Becky speaks with great confidence on this issue. Moreover, she went so far as to invoke her status and perspective as an economist, which for many people “settles” the debate (Biddy did the same by telling me she’d talked with Ron Ehrenberg, her friend the economist, and welcoming support from the Econ department in her debates with me). She responded like an expert, yet she obviously hasn’t studied the issue. Why not simply admit that and note that it needs to be studied? Why not ask about how things are going here? In fact, four years after Martin’s arrival and her initiative to raise tuition, the enrollment rates of first generation students and students of color are dropping, and we are shifting to an ever-elite student body.  While we can’t pin that on our rising prices with certainty, we also can’t reject the reasonableness of that hypothesis.
Moreover, since I was her conversational partner, and she isn’t an expert, why didn’t she ask what I thought?  That would have been an alternative, reasonable response.  But unlike Mike Schill, Rebecca Blank did not spend much time with her visitors today. She leaned slightly back with most, and rocked back and forth on her heels a bit. Her eye contact was limited, and each person moved on after about 90 seconds.  Much as I think it would be nice for the social sciences here to have her, I’m ready to move on too.  
With that, I am expressing great hope that Michael Schill will be the next chancellor of UW-Madison. 

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