Making the case for research universities

Jim Duderstadt, President Emeritus of the University of Michigan, sent me the other day information on a report just released by the Committee on Research Universities of the National Research Council. Duderstadt is a member of the committee. The report and accompanying video are worth checking out. They can be found here.

As you know, Michigan Future has long believed that the state’s public higher education system – and particularly its research universities – are Michigan’s most valuable assets to the state’s future economic success. (I recently made that case again in a Detroit News op ed.)

The report makes that case for the entire country. As the report states: “America is driven by innovation — advances in ideas, products, and processes that create new industries and jobs, contribute to our nation’s health and security, and support a high standard of living. In the past half-century, innovation itself has been increasingly driven by educated people and the knowledge they produce. Our nation’s primary source of both new knowledge and graduates with advanced skills continues to be our research universities.” (Emphasis added.)

Jim gave me permission to share with you his summary of the work of the commission and their findings. Here is what he wrote:

On June 14 the National Academies held a major press conference in DC (over 800 attended) to roll out the report from the study requested by Congress on the future of the American research university. This launches a decade-long effort to re-establish both the priority given these institutions by the feds, the states, industry, donors. Just as significantly, it challenges the universities themselves to significantly restructure both the academic and cost structures of their institutions.

The NA committee consisted roughly 50%-50% of leaders of several of the nation’s most prominent universities and leaders from business and government (including CEOs, past and present, of DuPont, Bank of America, CitiBank, Accenture, Eli Lilly, Cisco and Silicon Valley venture capitalists).

The unanimous conclusion reached early in our two years of hearings and testimony was that the most vulnerable component of the Nation’s knowledge/ research/innovation infrastructure was the unwillingness of the states to sustain the world-class quality of their flagship public research universities. As the president of Stanford put it, “The states are methodically dismantling their public universities where the majority of the nation’s campus research is conducted and two-thirds of its scientists, engineers, physicians, teachers, and other knowlege professionals are produced.”

The message here is a call to arms to the states, since their devastating cuts to public research universities (ranging from 20% to well above 50% over the past decade) is not only harming their own future but putting at great risk the nation’s prosperity, health, and security. This is really a message we need to get out, since usually state governments and citizens think only in the most local of terms. One of our most important messages is that “As goes the public research universities of the states, so goes the nation itself!”

I’ve provided below some text from the body of the report that makes this case:

America’s public research universities, in terms of scale and breadth, are the backbone of advanced education and research in the United States today. They conduct most of the nation’s academic research (62%) while producing the majority of its scientists, engineers, doctors, teachers, and other learned professionals (70%).  They are committed to public engagement in every area where knowledge and expertise can make a difference: basic and applied research, agricultural and industrial extension, economic development, health care, national security, and cultural enrichment. In fact, it was the public research university, through its land-grant tradition, its strong engagement with society, and its commitment to educational opportunity in the broadest sense, that was instrumental in creating the middle class, transforming American agriculture and industry into the economic engine of the world during the 20th century, and defending democracy during two world wars.

Yet today, despite their importance to their states, the nation, and the world, America’s public research universities are at great risk.  There is ample evidence from the past three decades of declining support that the states are simply not able–or willing–to provide the resources to sustain growth in public higher education, at least at the rate experienced in the decades following WWII.  Despite the growth in enrollments and the increasing demand for university services such as health care and economic development, most states will be hard pressed to sustain even the present capacity and quality of their institutions.  In the wake of the recent global financial crisis, many states have already enacted drastic cuts in state appropriations ranging from 20% to 50%.  Leading public research universities such as the University of California, the University of Colorado (Boulder), and Pennsylvania State University have been pushed to the brink by deep and permanent reductions in their state appropriations.  In this budget-constrained climate, state support of higher education and research is no longer viewed as an investment in the future but rather as an expenditure competing with the other priorities of aging populations, e.g., health care, retirement security, safety from crime, and tax relief.

In fact, many states are encouraging their public universities to reduce the burden of higher education on limited state tax revenues by diversifying their funding sources, e.g., becoming more dependent upon tuition–particularly that paid by out-of-state students, intensifying efforts to attract gifts and research contracts, and generating income from intellectual property transferred from campus laboratories into the marketplace. Yet, such efforts to “privatize” the support of public universities through higher tuition or increasing out-of-state enrollments also subject public universities to strong public outrage and political intrusion.  Furthermore, since state support is key to the important public university mission of providing educational opportunities to students regardless of economic means, shifting to high tuition funding, even accompanied by increased financial aid, usually leads to a sharp decline in the socioeconomic diversity of students (Haycock, 2008, 2010).

While it is the case that several public research universities might be able to survive as “privately-funded but publicly committed” institutions (the Universities of Virginia and Michigan provide interesting case studies), most will be unable to accomplish such a transition from public to private support with their quality and capacity intact. Their key public missions to their states–including broad educational opportunities and economic development–will go unfulfilled. Furthermore their capacity to conduct research and graduate education at the world-class levels required by our nation will rapidly erode without adequate state support.

Today, many nations have recognized the positive impact that their public research universities can have in a world increasingly dependent upon advanced education and research. They are investing heavily to upgrade their quality of their institutions to world-class levels. America already has such leading public research universities. They are one of our nation’s greatest assets. However, preserving their quality and capacity will require not only sustained investments but also significant paradigm shifts in university financing, management, and governance. It also will likely demand that many of our public research universities broaden their public purpose and stakeholders far beyond state boundaries. Preserving the quality and capacity of the extraordinary resource represented by our public research universities must remain a national priority, even if the support required to sustain these institutions at world-class levels is no longer viewed as a priority by our states.
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Lou Glazer

Lou Glazer is President and co-founder of Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future’s mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. Its work is funded by Michigan foundations.