ACADEMICALLY SPEAKING: Follow the money to understand why universities went woke

The stratospheric rise in revenue indicates of an institutionalized growth strategy throughout higher education to fund leftist programs, initiatives, and offices.

”Academically Speaking” is a series by Campus Reform Editor in Chief Zachary Marschall that, drawing on his firsthand experience working with other scholars across the globe, reveals how radical ideas originating in academia impact Americans’ daily lives. 

Marschall holds a Ph.D. in Cultural Studies and is an adjunct professor at the University of Kentucky. His research investigates the intersections of democratic political systems, free market economies, and technological innovation in the production of national and cultural identities, as well as the exchange of cultural goods, services, and practices.

Money matters in higher education because universities, as social institutions, like to behave simultaneously as if they are and are not businesses. And in recent years, they enjoy being woke.

Those two behaviors are connected.

Most colleges are not-for-profits with educational and research missions, but entrepreneurial speculation is present all over campus. Large new shiny buildings, corporate partnerships, and new academic programs resemble the components of a for-profit growth strategy.

Money dictates the trajectory of higher education because revenue and spending influence the composition of people who have a political stake in the research, curriculum, and programming on campus.

In previous editorials, I have argued that hiring practices and administrative hierarchies are the sources of leftist indoctrination on campus. Those trends represent the spending side of financial matters.

Revenue is equally important.

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Aug. 17 report “State Support for Public Colleges, 2002-20” is essential to understanding why university revenue influences social institutions so strongly.

The stratospheric rise in revenue since 2002 is indicative of an institutionalized growth strategy throughout higher education that uses rising tuition and fees to fund new programs, initiatives, and offices that specifically cater to college as an experience for leftist activism.

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For that reason, conservatives who support limited government and financial restraint should still worry about the decline in state funding of public universities.

During this 18-year period, public universities receiving less public money learned to fund their operations through other sources.

In most cases, that new funding came in the form of higher tuition rates and higher levels of fundraising. As Campus Reform continues to report, both earned and contributed income in the form of donations, tuition, and fees fund the administrative glut in higher education imposing leftist ideology on all aspects of life.

The data confirms the trend academics like me have informally known for years: that states are funding their universities less and less, making those schools reliant on tuition increases to operate and grow.  

Though many universities received more money in state funding in 2020 compared to 2002 in real dollars, inflation means that many of these colleges are operating with less state support than twenty years ago.

The report covers all 50 states. I looked at a cross-section of states in geographically distinct areas to identify a national trend: Florida, Texas, California, and North Carolina.

For the purposes of a relatively brief editorial, I then looked at the numbers from one major research university in each of the four states: University of Florida, North Carolina State University, University of California at Berkeley, and the University of North Texas.

All four universities’ total income increased significantly between 2002-2020. But more significantly, tuition-based income rose by larger percentages than state funding. For example, the University of North Texas’ total revenue increased by 168% between 2002 and 2020. The amount it generated from tuition grew from approximately $76 million to over $215 million; that’s a 183% increase compared to a 55% jump between 2002 and 2020 state funding levels.

The difference was starkest at the University of California at Berkeley. There, tuition revenue increased 265% while state funding decreased 36%. Total revenue jumped 62% to $2.147 billion in 2020.

Additionally, the smaller state funding revenue increases did not keep up with the inflation rate as closely as total or tuition-generated revenue. For example, the University of Florida received $551,215,000 in state funding in 2002. That number equates to approximately $846 million in 2020 dollars. However, the university received just over $688 million in 2020.

These numbers confirm Campus Reform’s reporting that the cost of higher education continues to go up because administrators increase bureaucracy by raising tuition without any meaningful accountability.

It is no coincidence that Campus Reform started publishing articles in 2009 around the halfway point between 2002-2020. As state funding became increasingly less stable and reliable, public universities turned to other sources of revenue to sustain and grow their operations.

Colleges and universities have been liberal since at least William F. Buckley Jr. wrote God and Man at Yale, but they’ve only been woke since Glee Season 5, or around when gay marriage was legalized in 2015.

By that year, public universities were well acclimated to pushing themselves farther left at the literal expense of students’ pocketbooks.

Liberal policies such as gay marriage are not why universities went woke. But the financial conditions at the time of key socially liberal victories preceding anti-Trump ‘resistance’ and COVID-19 inflated the more recent scale and success of leftist indoctrination on campus.

Tuition-generated revenue increased 335% at North Carolina State University during the 18-year period. That jump does not just reflect inflation and population increase. It speaks to systemic speculation in wokeness.

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The University of Nevada, Reno, is launching its LGBTQ Studies minor this fall, the same semester that in-state tuition increased for freshmen by nearly 3 percent, Campus Reform reported in August.

Also this year, students at George Mason University (GMU) in Virginia are paying 3% more in tuition while the school is participating in Campus Pride’s rating system for inclusive colleges.

“Campuses in order to survive, they’re businesses,” Campus Pride’s executive director told Campus Reform in June. “So regardless of the education, at the end of the day a college campus is a business, and the way that they make money is by recruiting students and retaining students.”

Reading the Chronicle report, I recalled a point I made in my doctoral dissertation on art museum growth strategies.  

In my dissertation, I argued that museums should pursue multiple revenue streams to ensure sustainability because an overreliance on one source compromises long-term financial viability. I made this argument in response to calls for museums to forgo receiving funds from the state, wealthy individuals, or corporations.

Diversified income sources keep the power of each funding source in check; simply put, if museums stopped taking corporate money, the state and billionaires would have greater power over the institution.

Although public universities and museums are two different types of institutions, they are both non-profits that can be entities of the state.

Though the state funding model for public universities is not perfect, it can be a moderating influence on public universities because budgets are set by democratically elected politicians from both sides of the aisle.

Conservatives should still push for balanced budgets, restrained spending, and lower taxes. Universities should not be spending taxpayers’ money on superfluous diversity officers and leftist initiatives.

These conservative values are not mutually exclusive with robust state funding for traditional liberal arts curricula and cutting-edge research at public universities.

Earlier this year, for example, Governor Ron DeSantis approved $3 million in funding to create the Hamilton Center for Classical and Civic Education at the University of Florida. 

Not all hope is lost. We can still fund public universities in a way that benefits students without compromising our values.

Editorials and op-eds reflect the opinion of the authors and not necessarily that of Campus Reform or the Leadership Institute.