Bread-and-Circus Politics

Who would have thought one little paper could cause such trouble? I’m talking about “The UNC School of the Arts: Should it Be Self-Supporting?” a report I wrote for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. My recommendations for the performing-arts conservatory in Winston-Salem have been greeted with hyperbole, hysteria, and ad hominem attacks. The backlash is indicative of just how hard it is to wean subsidies from any interest group, even during a recession.

Allow me to repeat some simple facts:

  • UNCSA’s annual cost for taxpayers (per student) is $24,943–far and away the most expensive in the state (and that doesn’t include capital costs).
  • Alumni listed in UNCSA’s April 2009 Callboard newsletter showed that only 27 of the 194 listed live or actively work in North Carolina—14 percent (UNCSA’s chancellor disputed this, but offered no counter-evidence).
  • North Carolina residents attending the school pay $3,357 per year, while non-residents pay $15,303. Students in private conservatories around the country pay about $30,000 per year.
  • In a 2009 economic impact study, economist Michael Walden couldn’t even include UNCSA because: “Data on the salaries of the School’s college program graduates were limited and often showed starting salaries lower than those for high school graduates.”
  • Forty-seven states have no public arts conservatory (and yet have art).

As taxpayers, what are we getting out of this? These facts reveal an institution that depends heavily on subsidies, and fights hard for them. 

My suspicions were confirmed on this latter point when I received an email from a School of the Arts alumna, Cinamon Storm Houston. She wrote: “At the alumni weekend in October 2009, the chancellor, John Mauceri, told me that he has no intention of seeking funding from alumni. He said that he intends to focus all his energy in convincing N.C. state legislators to give more money to the school.” Isn’t anyone willing to acknowledge that this outcome is perverse? The alumna also said she had high hopes about her career until graduation, after which she found dim career prospects. This supports the conclusions of Professor Walden. (Houston eventually became a lawyer.)

In my report, I recommended that UNCSA make reasonable efforts to be more innovative and self-supporting:

  • Use technology, like distance learning, to resolve economies-of-scale problems
  • Pursue more private support from arts patrons
  • Increase in-state tuition to around $7,500 and out-of-state to $30,000
  • Consider partially privatizing, as the University of Virginia did
  • Charge high-school students tuition for their specialized education (currently free)

In a world of scarcity, we need to define and observe criteria for spending taxpayer dollars. Critics accused me of heresy for even suggesting cost/benefit analysis, as if arts education should rise—like Persephone—from the cold calculations to bring warmth and light to our state. But there ain’t no escaping the Underworld. It’s the Great Recession and people need jobs more than they need unemployed actors.

While everyone else has been cutting back or losing jobs, “the salary for [UNCSA] Chancellor John Mauceri increased from $225,750 to $236,000,” according to the Triad’s Business Journal. North Carolina’s political elite protects its own. But it’s this sort of bread-and-circus politics that needs changing.

You’d think the stewards of our dollars would have standards for state expenditure. For example: is a specific expenditure likely to bring benefits, even marginally, to any given citizen of North Carolina? I think this is a reasonable starting point.

Chancellor Mauceri disagrees. Defending UNCSA’s public resources habit, he invokes the “too-small-to-matter” argument: “We cost each citizen of the state less than one penny a day.” That’s only $3.38 a year ($13.52 for a family of four)—if you don’t include all the new buildings purchased on the state’s credit card. Every special interest justifies its goodies with this fallacy. But when we ignore all the pennies-a-day consumed by all the special interests in North Carolina, we ignore tremendous costs, i.e., resources diverted from real growth. Better stewards would not need to raise taxes on people and businesses hurting from recession.

Let me be clear: I’ve never suggested arts are not valuable. Instead I ask: Valuable to whom? Many believe that in order for art to exist at all, political elites must extract it by force. But like churches and charities, art will do just fine on its own. Artists will be more entrepreneurial. America’s greatest art form, jazz, rose up from the streets of New Orleans and New York way before the age of subsidy. Craftspeople in Asheville have thriving co-ops that meld the cultures of Appalachia with the urbanity of bohemians and Yankee transplants. Art was in Winston-Salem long before UNCSA.

Not to put too fine a point on things: It’s wrong to make the public pay for the education and entertainment of wealthy elites.