Paul Jacob

Here's how you draw the map of today's political divide: Take a common-sense idea. If it shocks those in charge, but not you, you know where to draw the line.

Say you are in charge of a business with lots of assets, but you just can't make its ends meet. There's an obvious thing to do: sell it. Let some new management take it over and give it a try.

And what do you do with the money? If you have other struggling businesses, well, try to figure a way to keep them going. You've got some extra dough from the other sale, so invest it right.

Common sense, no? Common business sense, anyway.

But now say the "business" is a state university system that's a hair's breadth from going under. Decreasing state support per student has hurt, despite increased numbers of students. Increasing labor costs have really hurt. And management seems ill-equipped at dealing with any of it.

So of course it was just a matter of time before a smarty on the State Board of Higher Education would bite the bullet and broach the issue: sell off a spare university or two, to help the remaining ones carry on.

That's the situation in Oregon. On the first Friday of March, Ms. Kirby Dyess, a retired Intel executive who'd been appointed by Oregon's current governor to the state board, advanced precisely that notion. Sell off one of the most financially troubled universities in the system.

Jaws dropped. Everyone was shocked. Ms. Dyess soon withdrew the idea.

Not, of course, because it was a bad idea, but because it was so good. If good ideas were common in the state's higher education management it wouldn't be in the fix it's in right now.

America's institutions of higher learning are a mixed bag . . . in more than one sense. But the sense I'm referring to now is that colleges and universities are good examples of the "mixed economy" that so many people in the last century bragged about.

Not pure socialism — that's more closely approximated by our elementary schools and high schools, most of which are run by governments and funded entirely from taxes.

But not pure private enterprise, either: there are a great many private institutions of higher learning, but nearly all work with governments that subsidize some of the students' tuition.

The education industry provides us with a lot of object lessons explaining why government institutions are so prone to a number of problems that private businesses have an easier time avoiding.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.