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Privatizing the Public University: Perspectives from across the Academy

reviewed by Malcolm Tight - June 25, 2010

coverTitle: Privatizing the Public University: Perspectives from across the Academy
Author(s): Christopher C. Morphew and Peter D. Eckel (eds.)
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore
ISBN: 0801891647, Pages: 224, Year: 2009
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This relatively slim volume contains nine chapters (two of them by the editors) by ten authors, all of whom are based in the USA. Its theme is the privatization of public higher education in the USA, with privatization defined as “the retreat of public dollars from public universities and a corresponding increased reliance on private money and diverse revenue streams, increased competition for resources, and freedom from excessive public regulation” (p. vii). This is seen as a worldwide trend, widely associated with the inexorable rise of new public management. The book has its origins in a conference held at the University of Georgia in 2006, with the authors selected to offer alternative disciplinary perspectives on the theme.

Stanley Ikenberry starts the volume off with a brief canter through the changing policy and funding terrain, identifying many of the issues facing the American public research university. Michael McLendon and Christine Mokher then offer a substantive analysis of the origins and growth of state policies that privatize public higher education. They trace five privatizing trends over the last three decades: declining state funding effort, deregulation of tuition setting authority, the growth of prepaid tuition and college savings programs, the advent of merit aid scholarship programs, and governance decentralization. They then turn to consider the reasons for these trends and for their variation between states, finding that, while economic and demographic factors have been influential, “for many of these policies, we find a greater number of influences from the political context and governance structure within the state” (p. 25).

Robert Lowry poses the question: Why do we have public universities anyway? He outlines the key differences between public and private universities in terms of their ownership of land and capital assets, sources of operating funds, and formal limits to discretion and authority to exercise discretion, before considering the case for public ownership. Such arguments include market failure, capital constraints, and incomplete contracts, which leads him to look for evidence on differences in preferences (which there clearly are) between state government officials and academics. Three sources suggest themselves: historical evidence, contemporary differences between states, and differences in academic emphases within universities. Lowry concludes by considering possible scenarios for change towards greater privatization.

Robert Toutkoushian offers an economist’s perspective on the relative decline in state support for higher education, making use of the positive externalities approach and the median voter model. He suggests two key explanations for the decline in state support: the recent decline in income growth leading to lower state tax collections, and the growth in K-12 enrollments, a major competing source for funding. He argues that a key policy option for states might be “to provide state support mainly through financial aid that could only be used at in-state, public institutions” (p. 84).

The editors then contribute a chapter on the organizational dynamics of privatization, arguing that we need more nuanced accounts than those that focus solely on economic or policy perspectives. They focus in on university decision-making processes, and question what effect increasing privatization might have on what Cohen, March, and Olsen (1972) once characterized as the organized anarchy/garbage can model. They suggest that the “likely bottom line for decision making, given the increasingly privatized public research universities, is more anarchy and less organization at a time when leaders are trying to pursue the opposite” (p. 103), but they offer some possible ways forward for the latter. Gabriel Kaplan follows this by looking at the implications for governance, seeing both opportunities and challenges for states and institutions.

Mark Stater considers what policy lessons might be learned from the privatization of public agencies outside the education sector (and not confined to the USA), examining in particular the impacts of contracting out, public divestiture and deregulation. While his conclusions are not particularly heartening, he notes that privatization “appears to be an entrenched phenomenon with which society must contend” (p. 154), and that the choice for state officials may be between full and partial privatization, the costs and benefits of which will need careful consideration.

Carlo Salerno adds a welcome comparative perspective by looking at the European experience, categorizing the different strategies adopted in terms of the degree of centralization and whether funding is input- or output-based. The trends in tuition fees, private philanthropy, and basic and applied research are considered, with Salerno noting how “the fiscal privatization of a public higher education sector can be, and is, fostered in the absence of direct competition from elite private providers” (p. 177).

Finally, the editors round out the book by seeking a clearer understanding of privatization. They identify some key pieces of the privatization “puzzle”: increased institutional competition, growing disparities and increased homogenization between institutions, limits on access to and affordability of higher education, and tensions in quality. They conclude that privatization “is truly about higher education’s ability to provide access and to ensure social mobility, its ability to deliver on unmet state needs, its growing role in the exploding knowledge economy, and its ability to be a social conservator” (p. 191).

All in all, then, this book is an engaging and stimulating read. For me it achieves two things well, which is probably more than you can say for most (and certainly most edited) books, though one of these was probably not in the editors’ and authors’ minds. First, it usefully re-acquaints someone based outside the American system with its structures and practices. Second, and more generally, in laying out the causes, processes, and possible consequences of creeping privatization in the USA, it identifies trends and issues which are impacting, or will impact – though, doubtless, in subtly different ways – many of our societies and systems.


Cohen, M., March, J., & Olsen, J. (1972). A garbage can model of organizational choice. Administrative Science Quarterly, 17, 1-25.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 25, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16043, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 7:10:22 AM

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About the Author
  • Malcolm Tight
    Lancaster University
    E-mail Author
    MALCOLM TIGHT is Professor of Higher Education at Lancaster University, having previously worked at the University of Warwick, Birkbeck College, and the Open University. He has been Editor of the leading international journal, Studies in Higher Education, since 1999. His current research interests are in the state of higher education research internationally and the development of higher education in the UK postwar.
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