Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam has been turning over the management of state facilities to private contractors, and the University of Tennessee may be next. Haslam argues the transition will save taxpayer money, but detractors worry that students, faculty, and state employees will end up paying the cost.
At this point, I am fucking wary of governments runs like businesses: From private prisons to Flint’s water (which still isn’t safe to drink), cost-cutting measures too often disregard basic human decency. That said, outsourcing facility management isn’t the most horrifying thing a state could do, and there are reasonably compelling arguments in its favor. Texas A&M saved money with a similar change to its campuses, and while the projected savings of Tennessee’s own outsourcing program keep shrinking, they’re still at $5 million a year.
There are definite concerns too, and many from the university itself. UT Vice Chancellor Dave Irvin points to temperature control sites the management companies don’t deem crucial, including dorms and temperature-sensitive research labs, along with the near certainty that sustainability programs and student internships would be cut to limit expenses. Roosevelt Forward argues that, in addition to hurting students and laying off thousands of state employees, the switch is just a bad deal, one that mires Tennessee in Haslam’s many conflicts of interest. And the fact that Haslam can enact this unilaterally (it’s technically part of the budget!) has pretty much everybody a little concerned.
Personally, I like numbers, and the numbers that privatization has been getting are pretty solid. But I worry: the numbers aren’t the whole story, and even beyond that, the zeal for running government like a business seems to be less concerned with statistics than ideology, the an-cap belief that a profit motive will spur innovation in every context. It’s straightforward sociology, appealing in its simplicity, and sometimes it may even be true. But look to private prisons, or for-profit colleges, or Flint’s water, and it’s clear just how wrong it can go.