Imagine a University With No Students

For UCSD, as with the rest of the University of California, students are much like used cars.

Ever wonder why your favorite charity or local PBS station is so keen on getting your old piece-of-junk clunker, whether it runs or not? Here’s a hint: They don’t want the car itself.

In many cases, charities — or, more likely, the price-gouging private contractors they hire to run the vehicle-donation programs — resell the old cars to other for-profit companies without ddoing much to them. Those companies, in turn, receive credits for getting “gross-polluting” vehicles off the streets, helping them to meet regulatory pollution standards, without actually reducing their own emissions of toxins. For charities, the junkier the jalopy, the better price it can fetch.

At California’s public universities, the system works in very much the same way. You see, the university receives relatively little money from the students that attend its campuses. In 2004, the latest year for which the university has reported data, UCSD received $145 million from student tuition and fees. Though it may sound like a lot, student fees made up less than 8 percent of the campus’ total revenue.

In fact, “auxiliary enterprises” — things like dining halls and the bookstore — brought UCSD more than $100 million, two-thirds the amount the campus raised in fees.

Indeed, saying that UCSD is in the business of serving students is like suggesting that any major oil company is in the business of producing renewable energy — both categories provide the respective businesses (and a university is a business) a pitifully small part of their annual revenue.

So why does the campus put up with students, then? The answer is the state. In order to get the nearly $270 million a year California gives to UCSD, the university actually has to do something resembling a public service, like educating the state’s smartest students. If the campus could still get the tax dollars without having to accept any students, it would probably happily do so, even if it had to give up the pitiful pocket change it raises from tuition.

That is not to say that university administrators and faculty don’t genuinely care about the students they serve. They surely do. However, when the interests of students conflict with things like federally sponsored research (which provides nearly a third of UCSD’s total cash), it is easy to see why any rational university administrator would side with the latter.

In much the same way, most executives that run oil companies also genuinely care about the environment — as long as it doesn’t mean lower profits.

For a case-study in the corporate-university model, consider the drama over Student-Run Television: After SRTV aired pornography, and national media descended like vultures to cover the story, the university received many angry calls from generous donors threatening to pull funding from the “porn school.” At the same time, students mobilized in support of the station’s First Amendment rights.

The new Triton Cable “acceptable use policy,” which bans nudity and the word “fuck” during daytime hours from the station, shows which side the university considered more important.

Student activists and agitators, who have long lobbied the university to change or accomplish whatever pet goal is in vogue at the moment, have yet to understand the cold-hard-cash reality of the way modern universities function. In demanding specific policies, students still see themselves as the university’s customers, and insist that customers are always right. As the university financial data shows, this model is no longer valid (if it ever was).

The state of California is a customer. The National Science Foundation is a customer. Those rich donors are customers. Students, however, are not.

For students, and their leaders, convincing the university to take their side has much less to do with proving the righteousness of their position and much more to do with convincing the administrators that their bottom line would be better off. In other words, students must demonstrate how siding with them would make the university more money. As the current mobilization against new fee increases suggest, this is a lesson student leaders have not yet learned.

If students truly wish to influence the university’s policies, they’d be better off easing the rhetoric and lowering the volume, and showing the university the silver lining. As America’s charities know, it can be done.