Three months ago, a large discount store—you know the one—decided to remove about 300 items because they were not selling very well. Within a month, they found that customers very loyal to those brands went elsewhere. And when they went elsewhere, they bought everything else at the competing store as well. Those 300 items went back on the shelves.
What does this have to do with education? Well, Kansas universities are becoming the victim of a dangerous “business model” of education. Between the Legislative post-audit and administrators who fancy themselves to be CEOs of an education business, universities are now beancounting.
This is not a hypothetical question. Wichita State University is reportedly about to close its physics department and merge those faculty into engineering. There are not enough “customers” (students) to meet the “de minimus” beancounting originating in Topeka. The rationale for this simpleminded approach is that we can save money by trimming programs with low numbers. But just as the discount store realized there is a down side, higher education policymakers need to also realize simpleminded beancounting is bad business too.
Closing a physics program does not save faculty lines when the courses are still needed by the biology, and chemistry, engineering, and science teaching students. This just eliminates an option for students, many of whom enter college undecided or are among the 60 percent who change majors.
Indeed, if chemistry teaching and physics teaching were considered stand-alone programs, every program in the state would be closed down by the beancounters. Not one Kansas university turns out enough of these science teachers to make the minimum required for a program. But those few physics and chemistry teachers that we do graduate are desperately needed. To turn out none at all would be disastrous for the state.
For those who believe the Gordon Gecko claim that the free market business model is the best way to run public education, we only need to take a look at some of the many cases where a private business model has failed.
Malaria is one of the most widespread diseases in the world, especially inflicting children and pregnant women throughout the tropics. But these are poor people. There no profit in developing a cure for malaria—the victims cannot afford to buy drugs. Private enterprise has no incentive to address this problem and it has not. It is left to governments and foundations.
In America, even if you are rich, you had best not contract one of the very rare diseases. There are medical conditions that seriously affect perhaps a dozen victims per year throughout the whole country. In spite or your affluence, you are far too few in number to make pharmaceutical research and production worthwhile. Again, the business model fails.
And therein lies the difference. Public universities should not work as a business to serve each student as a “customer” but for the public good of the state of Kansas. Private schools can chase after the popular majors and abandon the state to shortages of vital scientists and science teachers. But public schools have a responsibility to serve Kansas. We need chemistry and physics teachers in Kansas schoolrooms, and nuclear physicists at Wolf Creek regardless of the class sizes that the current culture generates.