HERE WE go again.
Last year, Governor Tom Corbett proposed a budget that would have slashed state support for Penn State and other state-related universities by 50 percent. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth, and much criticism of the new governor - and by the time the final budget was passed, the cuts to higher ed had been whittled down to a merely severe 19 percent.
This year, Corbett is back again with the same ax, asking for a 30 percent cut in state support to three of the four state-related universities - Penn State, Temple, and the University of Pittsburgh. For those of you doing the math at home, that's a 30 percent cut on top of a 19 percent cut, or just about the 50 percent that Corbett had originally proposed.
Friends, Pennsylvanians, colleagues at state-related universities, lend me your ears: This is silly. Sure, we can do the wailing-and-gnashing routine again, and come July we may even be able to rejoice in a "victory" in which we are slashed only 15 or 20 percent. But, surely, the writing is on the wall, and we should have learned how to read it by now.
In 1985, the state provided 45 percent of Penn State's budget; in 2011 it provided 6 percent. In 1985, in-state tuition was just over $2,500; today it is over $16,000. Over the past twenty-five years, the cost of a public college education has increasingly been offloaded onto individual students and their families, as education has been redefined from a public good to a private investment.
It is becoming increasingly clear that public support for higher education in Pennsylvania is a thing of the past. Last year, in response to Corbett's proposed cuts, some commentators wondered whether Pennsylvania's public universities should turn down all money from Harrisburg. That was a forward-looking proposal, but it did not go far enough.
I don't see the point of haggling over Corbett's budgets for the next six years, doing the kabuki dance year after year until 2018, when Penn State, Temple, and Pitt will be reduced to begging for Harrisburg to maintain the state's 0.5 percent slice of the university budget. The time for a game-changing initiative is now.
"Very well," you say. "But if, for instance, Penn State goes private, how will it make up the shortfall? Six percent of your budget is still a couple hundred million dollars." Quite true - and that's where the advocates of privatization have so far missed their opportunity.
A fully privatized Penn State no longer has any reason to call itself "Penn State." Indeed, the name would amount almost to false advertising, since there would be nothing "State" about us. And that means a whole new vista would be open to us - and in different ways, to Temple and to Pitt. In two words: naming rights.
Sports stadiums routinely lease their names to corporate sponsors on a competitive basis, and there is no reason for universities not to follow suit. For tipping-point thought leaders and innovative job creators, it offers a visionary way to leverage synergy with private industry while maximizing the profit-making potential of the university's tangible and intangible portfolio. It is, in short, the wave of the future.
There are dozens of large, wealthy corporations whose profiles could use precisely the kind of boost that they would enjoy from leasing the naming rights to a university. Goldman Sachs and British Petroleum come immediately to mind, but doubtless there will be others, perhaps even among our new neighbors in the natural-gas industry, who will surely have plenty of untaxed income at their disposal. Offering such firms five-year leases on naming rights for $2 or $3 billion would be not only a win-win-win for Pennsylvania higher ed, for Harrisburg and for private industry; it would also serve as a model for similarly distressed state systems in California, Nevada, Texas, Louisiana and New York.
Last but not least, for my own institution, the advertising pitch writes itself: "We are . . . [your name here]!"
Let the bidding begin.