Public universities and declining public support

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    There’s little doubt that our universities are among Michigan’s most valuable and important assets. But real alarm about public higher education is spreading throughout the country — and threatening profound consequences for our state and it colleges.

    Take the case of Teresa Sullivan, a former provost at the University of Michigan and now president of the University of Virginia. On June 10, with no advance warning, she was forced to resign by the university’s board, which said she wasn’t making changes fast enough. The campus erupted in anger, and under pressure from the governor, Sullivan was quickly reinstated.

    But the pattern has been repeated this year across the country: Richard Lariviere, president of the University of Oregon: fired. Carolyn Martin, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison: resigned to go to Amherst, a small private college. Michael Hogan, University of Illinois president: resigned after a faculty revolt. Bill Powers, president of the University of Texas: in big-time conflict with his board over tuition increases.

    Underlying these events are a series of structural problems affecting public universities. Once among America’s proudest achievements, they now face a set of unprecedented threats:

    • Declining public support. According to higher education’s respected Grapevine Survey, overall state appropriations to universities have deteriorated by $6 billion, 7.6 percent, over the past decade, with more cuts likely coming. Over the last decade, successive Michigan legislatures have cut $536 million from higher education support, according to the Senate Fiscal Agency; that amounts to a 29.3 percent drop, the most of any budget category. This year’s state budget increased support for higher education by three percent overall, the first in years. Twenty years ago at the U of M, public support provided 75 percent of costs; tuition and fees, only 25 percent. Today, you may be shocked to learn it’s exactly the reverse.

    • With state appropriations dropping, universities have increased tuition and fees to maintain quality. According to the National Report Card on Higher Education, tuition nationwide has increased by 375 percent since the early 198os; the inflation-measuring Consumer Price Index by only 95 percent. The result? An explosion of student debt, now approaching $900 billion nationally. In Michigan alone, student debt now has to be in the tens of billions.

    • By increasing tuitions and making education less accessible, universities are aggravating students, their families and politicians. Lawmakers are also meddling; in Michigan, the legislature this year bizarrely attached various restrictions to higher education appropriations.

    • The basic business model of many residential universities is suddenly at risk, thanks to new technology. Coursera, a start-up nonprofit joint venture between the U of M, Princeton, Pennsylvania and Stanford, is offering for free on-line courses taught by world-famous professors, “education for everyone.” Initial response was overwhelming; more than 100,000 students worldwide have signed up.

    But the new delivery platform raises a host of questions. If students can get classes taught on-line for free, why should they pay expensive tuitions? Why should professors, already under criticism for low productivity, teach classes face-to-face when lower cost alternatives are available? How much will a certificate from an on-line class cost, compared with traditional tuition — and how much will it be worth as a credential?

    One of the biggest stress points is the relationship between governance (exercised at universities by their boards, which set overall policy and hire and fire presidents) and leadership (exercised by presidents, who need to manage the rate of change their institutions can tolerate.)

    The dispute at the University of Virginia between President Sullivan and the rector (chairwoman of the board) Helen Dragas was exactly about this. Dragas said “the world is simply moving too fast” for the University to maintain its position “under a model of incremental marginal change.” However, Sullivan argues that universities are not like businesses, which can be managed forcefully from the top down. Instead, colleges require careful consultations with various constituencies, including faculty, students, and alumni.

    Pressure is building statewide, best seen this year in the legislature. At hearings in May on state support for higher education, lawmakers criticized universities for arrogance, unwillingness to provide information, rigidity and whining.

    Reportedly, some higher education officials are not welcome in the office of House Speaker Jase Bolger (R-Marshall). Worse, recent talks with a number of university board members revealed that most have no idea of just how unpopular their institutions are in Lansing.

    This is a big issue that can only get bigger.

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