Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Resource Costs of UW-Madison Diversity Programs: A Response

This morning, Emeritus Professor of Economics Lee Hansen released a WISCAPE paper about the "resource costs of minority and disadvantaged student programs at UW-Madison" and in about an hour he will host a brownbag on the topic in the Wisconsin Idea Room at the School of Education.  I am on a flight to LA and thus will miss it; therefore I offer my perspective here.

I have a wide range of experience that I can bring to bear on these issues, having analyzed the reports of UW-Madison and UW System myself for nearly a decade, chaired the Undergraduate Recruitment, Admissions and Financial Aid shared governance committee for many years, and engaged in numerous analyses of the costs and benefits of higher education programs throughout the nation. I also know Lee, both personally and professionally.  As I offer these thoughts, I want to note the sincere belief that he seeks to improve the ways in which we serve minority and disadvantaged students in this country, and does not seek to exclude them from opportunities.  However, on the most effective and appropriate  mechanisms through which this should be achieved, he and I disagree sharply.

There are 5 things you should keep in mind in reading his report.

1. It is imperative that more faculty at UW-Madison and UW System get involved in analyzing the practices of our institution.  We are key shareholders, the most important and long-standing actors, the educators, and we are smart, critical, and essential.  We should support Lee's demands that we be provided with data to facilitate a closer look at how resources are used.  There is abundant evidence that they are not being used well.

2. The debate over the public and private benefits of higher education is far from resolved. Lee has staked out one side of that debate for many decades; in fact he led the charge nationally in the late 1960s, along with Milton Friedman, for a move to the private financing of higher education-- with financial aid distributed in the form of vouchers to facilitate choice.  We have Lee to thank, in part, for today's system in which students and families bear 2/3rds or more of the costs of attendance, while government picks up an ever smaller fraction.  His beliefs in this regard are reflected in the questions he raises about whom the benefits of diversity programming accrue to-- who should pay, he thinks, depends on who benefits. And, he thinks, educational benefits can and should be evaluated in this way too.  I sharply disagree-- education is a citizen's right, it is (unfortunately) America's only real effort to ensure equality of opportunity for a decent life-- and as such it should be publicly supported.  It has been a political choice to devote little time and resources toward documenting the public benefits of higher education, instead allowing the focus of labor economists like Lee to hammer on the private benefits over and over again.

3. The type of cost-benefit analysis undertaken in the paper gives the aura of science when in fact it is art.  Like all social scientists, Lee is relying on numerous assumptions about what should and shouldn't count when accounting for all of the costs. He is including ingredients in his model that obviously the accountants at UW-Madison and UW System left out-- on both side those are choices, but there is no clear right or wrong here.   Thus, it is merely political rhetoric on Lee's part to claim that UW has failed to be transparent in its accounting-- the Legislature itself failed in clearly specifying its expectations.

4. The timing of this report release and brown bag reeks of political motives as well, coming just weeks or even days before the pending Supreme Court ruling on Fisher vs Texas, in the midst of UW's diversity planning, and right after UW System was taken to task for another accounting "snafu."

5. The report repeatedly cherry picks evidence on the benefits and costs of diversity, ignoring entirely the recent paper issued by other UW-Madison economists, Bobbi Wolfe and Jason Fletcher, on the consequences of racial diversity.

All that said, I do think Lee is providing one important service: asking us to take a hard look at our activities beyond admissions.  As Doug Massey has written, affirmative action programs come in three flavors-- the good, the bad, and the ugly.  The best ones generate compositional diversity and leverage that diversity to improve the learning environment for everyone.  The bad ones do the former and not the latter. The ugly ones don't succeed at either.

We are currently in the ugly category at Madison.  We bring students to campus and throw resources at them but fail to give leaders in this area sufficient stature and power to effect real change.  We have segregated classrooms and living spaces, and we tokenize our racial-ethnics.

Since this report is now in the public eye, I make the following recommendations:

1. UW-Madison and UW System should take seriously the contention that faculty, staff, and students deserve greater access and involvement in how resources are spent. I think that a cabinet of social scientists advisors should supplement the UC, and that incoming Chancellor Blank should convene this group. This group should have methodological, disciplinary, and substantive heterogeneity and expertise.

2.  A discussion of costs and benefits should be undertaken for all sorts of programs on campus, including Athletics, Greek Life, faculty professional development etc.  Minority programming is not our only expense, nor our most expensive.

3. This report should not be merely ignored or dismissed as nonsense by Administration.  Use the opportunity to have a conversation about diversity and how we can do better in utilizing it to enhance our educational experiences.  Also leverage this chance to have a discussion about public and private goods.  A report I will make to the Faculty Senate on Monday about the characteristics of incoming students, developed by CURAFA, should help move that conversation forward.

I wish you all well at today's brownbag, and look forward to hearing about the discussion.