Sandefer Exaggerates

Peter Wood

Jeff Sandefer, a member of the board of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, writes on the TPPF website an article that declares, accurately, “Public Universities Belong to the Public, Not the Faculty.” 

Sandefer, who is president of Sandefer Capital Partners and founder of the Acton School of Business, which he chairs and where he teaches, has recently made several provocative statements about higher education.   He has predicted the demise of the university as we currently know it because it has “no interest in consumer satisfaction,” it spends two-thirds of its money on research rather than teaching, and it does a poor job at its core tasks.

Sandefer’s new article repeats some of this. He writes:   

Academic research, properly accounted for, consumes two-thirds of every dollar we spend in American universities.

I’m not at all clear how he derives this. A vast amount of money in higher education is spent on student services, student amenities, and sports.  Sandefer’s claim that two-thirds of every dollar is spent on research sounds hugely improbable. My guess is that he is adding up the money the NIH spends in medical schools and the funds the government puts into big physics and astronomy, which generally run as operations almost entirely separate from the other undergraduate and graduate programs. Research funding outside the sciences is miniscule. 

But Sandefer clearly sees himself as a man who deals in cold hard facts. He continues:

Over the last decade, Texas taxpayers have spent more than $20 billion on scientific academic research—reportedly the most economically productive academic research—to generate less than $14 million a year in net patent income. That's less than a 1 percent rate of return.

Catching college administrators in their inveterate habit of exaggerating the good that comes from funding their institutions is wholesome sport.   But it might be worth adding that most university scientific research is basic, rather than applied. Sometimes it produces patentable results, sometimes not. I’ve dealt with science faculty members unhappy that their universities declined to pursue patent applications on their work because the patent attorneys saw too little likelihood of commercial return. That doesn’t mean the research was ill-conceived or useless. It just means that the market isn’t the measure of everything. 

But I get the feeling that that’s not a view that is much heard at the Acton School of Business, which has a definite Gradgrindian flavor.

Sandefer has one more comment, which is really what prompted this post. Concerning that $20 billion Texas spent on scientific academic research over the last decade, he writes:

That same money invested in college scholarships would have allowed us to double the number of Texas students who attend college.

He does not say that he really would want to double the number of Texas students who attend college, let alone do this at public expense.  It is an idea I find very unattractive, but it does line Sandefer up closely with President Obama’s goal that the U.S. should have “the world’s highest proportion of college graduates by 2020,” which would indeed require doubling the number of college students not only in Texas but everywhere. 

I’ll guess again that Sandefer doesn’t really want that. 

I’ve been on record for a long time with my view that American higher education absorbs way too much money and misspends a great deal of it.  I’m glad that someone of Jeff Sandefer’s obvious talent and ability is arguing the point as well. But I sure wish he would cool the rhetoric. Dramatically overstating a case is not a wise way to advance it.

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