Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Non-Profit Web of Life

My friend Michael, who spends part of his life dealing with people who don't pay their student loans, turns a jaundiced eye on the whole matter of higher education bloat. Michael signs on with those who think they see demand push: the government makes funds available to students via various forms of credit, easy and otherwise; the students tank up on the stuff and the colleges and universities get to build bigger, fancier, more palatial building, higher more faculty deans and assorted administrators and do the other things that people do when somebody gives them a bunch of greenbacks to play with. Michael is remembering the great boom in health care spending when we pressed new dollars into the hands of consumers without doing much of anything to increase the supply of medical services. If you come, they will build it, especially if you come bearing a government subsidy or guarantee.   
[Second theme in a minor key: except in this case, of course, the students are the ones left standing when the music stops. The shortfall on all this easy credit is not dischargeable in bankruptcy, and just try paying your $200k professional school marker with your income as a massage therapy assistant.  True, but I don't think it undercuts the main thrust of the story].

I'm thinking of Michael this week when I'm back in Ashland, Oregon for another shot of Shakespeare. Allow me to explain. I just now did a quick check on the history of the Ashland festival. . Sure enough, when the festival started in the 30s, it hardly deserved the name: just two plays a year in the inaugural 1935 season, then three, then four, then five—and  then leveled off at five through 1969 (with couple of blips along the way). The year 1970 brought the opening of the big new indoor theatre named after the founder Angus Bowmer, and allowed them to kick up the annual count of productions to nine. In 1977 they added the shirt-pocket “third theatre,” although the number of productions didn't increase exponentially: the modal number through most of the time from them up to the present seems to be about 11.

There have been internal changes: the current outdoor theatre is actually the third on site. This current outdoor facility went into service in 1958, although there was a multi-million dollar upgrade in 1992. A new “little theatre” subbed out the original smaller performance space, also in 1992. Staff and administrative facilities have also evolved over the years though not, perhaps, in the way you might think: there's still nothing like the costly palaces that adorn so many college and university campusus.

What you do note if you look around you is the increase in personnel. Wiki reports that there is a fulltime payroll of 300, including about 100 actors: that would mean 200 in the backshop, plus part-timers and volunteers. Is this “too many”? I'm not ready to say so, but just as a guess, I'm betting Angus Bowmer did not have the services of “voice and text director” plus a “head of voice and text,” nor a “director of literary development and dramaturgy,” nor a “resident fight director,” saying nothing of an “associate costume designer,” at least three “composers & sound designers” a “voice & projection designer” a “dance captain” plus individual individual directors, scene designers, light directors, costume designers for particular plays, and suchlike. And a dramaturg; I always wanted to be a dramaturg—in a pinch I'd settle for assistant dramaturg.

I'm sure these are all total cheap shots; I'm sure I've enjoyed every single piece of work that every one of these worthies has carried out. And I don't mean to say they are rolling in the big bucks: Guide Star shows them running a deficit in the range of $2.5 million on revenues of $27 million (there's also a foundation).  But you'll have to concede: there is a certain sense of mission creep here. Outfits like this never get smaller. They may die; they may choke on their own bodily fluids in the section 501(c)(3) equivalent of pulmonary edema.  Otherwise, the pathway is a ratchet and the only trajectory is up.

And what does all this have to do with higher education bloat? Well I admit, the comparison is not 1:1. Ashland doesn't finance the purchase of theatre tickets. And if they did, the liability wouldn't be exempted from discharge in bankruptcy. But look around you: whom do you see in the crowd outside the theatre at Ashland, this balmy autumn afternoon? My guess would be you are looking at upwards of 60 percent public employees, maybe upwards of 70 percent. And of these, I'm betting that more than half are present or retired employees of public educational institutions--i.e., the same universities and colleges who have profited so much from the boom in higher education. If somebody passes out  in an Ashland theatre and you yell “is there a doctor in the house?”  you'll probably get a response, maybe several. But perchance you should ask for a professor of rhetoric, my guess is that there would be a stampede. [I'll bet a good three quarters also own public broadcasting tote bags but that is another story.]

In other words, what we are seeing here is the recycling of the money that went into the education bubble: the great web of non-profit life. Again, I feel no need to deride: I'm one of the proud holders of this lucky ticket and I think I worked hard for my good luck, thankyouvery much. But it's a good life, even if I am not a dramaturg. If you'll excuse me, I'm off to see the show.

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