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Publics and Privates

06 Jul Posted by in Business | Comments Off on Publics and Privates

I just did an interview with a very perceptive University Relations staffer, who was asking among other things about why I wanted to become Provost and why I moved from a private to a public setting.

The fact was, when I did decide to put in for the position at Mason I didn’t think a lot about the move from private to public. I remember thinking that a public setting might make funding for capital projects easier than they had been at Carnegie Mellon, and on the whole that has probably proved accurate. We still have urgent capital needs still to be addressed, and I also have learned over the past decade that intentionally or not the state often tries to buy us off with capital offerings rather than more demanding annual operational support. But we have made some progress.

I thought a little about how a public board would compare to a private set of trustees. But not having been a provost before, my experience with the trustees was at some remove — I was never responsible for primary care and feeding. It is certainly true that a public board requires a lot more work and agility than the private trustees seemed to expect, particularly outside purely fiscal matters.

On the other hand, serving at a public university raises opportunities to think more systematically about access and service to diverse student backgrounds than work at a good, but not fabulously wealthy, private institution permitted. This proves challenging, particularly in the current fiscal climate, but really important and rewarding as well.

But I am troubled, now at least, by the differences in fiscal flexibility that now seem once again to be opening between the public and private sectors. The better privates simply have salary resources and ranges that publics, unless massively endowed, cannot systematically compete with, and we have to expect not only raids, but raids involving surprisingly massive salary gaps. Obviously, we will be working on greater responsiveness, but amid serious public constraints and even some head-in-sand reluctance even to acknowledge the problem.

Public-private balance sheets are both complex and volatile. That said: it’s impossible to be happy with the present mix.