Why Aren't Public Universities More Transparent and Accountable?

By Michael Newman

Over the last six months of researching for my work-in-progress documentary about the pitfalls of American higher education, The Elephant on Campus, there have been many problems I have come across. One of the biggest and least talked about problems is that public universities are totally opaque when it comes to the way they receive and spend money, especially tuition money. No one outside of these institutions can say with any certainty how this process works.

Public universities are supposed to be providing a public good to society and therefore should be forced to be totally transparent with their finances and accountable for their actions. Unfortunately, they are allowed to operate under the radar with very few questions asked. These universities are neither transparent nor accountable for their finances because neither the public nor the elected officials are questioning them and the media isn't investigating them.

Knowledge is power, which is why public university administrators and their boards of trustees keep most of the knowledge of their finances to themselves. It's a process that is as confusing and secretive as they want it to be. With all the financial turmoil surrounding the American economy you would think that at least the media would be shining a light on this issue. So far, to my knowledge, this isn't the case. There have been some investigations into the finances of universities' athletic departments, but none looking into the detailed finances of the universities themselves. There have been numerous books and articles written that point out that universities are wasting money on everything besides education, but even these don't dig beyond the surface.

I haven't found one investigative journalist that has looked deeply into this issue. Maybe they are out there somewhere, but I haven't discovered them yet. All I've found up to this point is a website created by UC Berkeley professor Charlie Schwartz. It seems to be a pretty intensive site with a lot of research, but I haven't been able to dig too deeply into it. I wish I could focus solely on this issue, but my documentary takes a much more broad approach to the problems with American higher education.

The financial integrity of public universities is a subject that should be the focus of serious investigative journalism all over the country but hasn't been. Why? I have no answer. I'm just a documentary filmmaker. I'm not an investigative journalist. I don't have the resources nor the training to look deeply into this issue. I just know that it is my job to ask questions that people aren't asking and it's time to start asking serious questions about the way our public universities spend and receive their money.

How much tuition money is being spent on education and how much is wasted on everything else that has nothing to do with education? How much of the endowment money goes towards improving the quality of education? How much money goes into the pockets of the administrators and bureaucrats that never step foot inside a classroom? These are just a few of the questions the public universities should be forced to answer.

Students have a right to know exactly how much of their money actually goes towards their own education. Taxpayers have a right to know if their money is being used like it should be. If their money isn't being spent wisely, then the universities should be held accountable. I don't think this is asking too much from institutions that are supposedly here to serve the interests of the public.

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Added on October 23, 2011 by
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