Monday, October 5, 2009

You Can't Always Get What You Want

Sometimes I wonder if understanding basic math is an entry requirement for universities. Students at McGill recently protested corporate involvement with the academic world. While there are some real concerns to raise about such interactions, there is a big problem here.

The students want to keep tuition low, they want smaller classes and better facilities, and they don't want corporations funding research (and infrastructure). The only way to square that circle is to have someone else fund universities at a time where endowments are in steep declines. In the case of public institutions, such as McGill (many people thing McGill is private, but it most certainly is not, and its modest endowment is now tanking), students can hope that governments will step in the gap.

That would be great, but it is not going to happen, especially now that states and provinces are strapped for cash. I saw this clearly in the early 90's and it still true--politicians face many competing demands, and even though $$ going to universities are great investments and economic multipliers, other "demanders" have more access, more votes and more power.

Again, I would love to see government step up here, especially if there is some stimulus cash to be spent. But I just don't see that happening. I don't know how colleges and universities are in the US are going to manage the challenges ahead of parents with broken savings, limited capacities for banks to take on new loans, and severely underfunded states.

So, if a corporation wants to sponsor an endowed chair, a grant program or a department or building, I will look for strings, but if I don't see any, I will take the cash. Of course, I have taken cash from the Canadian military and will do so again, so these students probably would consider me to be severely tainted.

It is always easy to be idealistic as a student. Harder when one is facing significant tradeoffs and constraints.

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