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Public Research Universities in Crisis: It's Not Just Virginia

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The leadership crisis at the University of Virginia is, unfortunately, only the latest in a series of crises confronting many of our nation's greatest public universities.

While Teresa Sullivan has survived the misbegotten attempt to oust her, university leaders have been threatened or forced out of office in one state after another due to pressure from boards, from governors, or simply from the complex problems now afflicting these institutions. Not confined to particular regions, the states range from Texas to Florida, from Georgia to Oregon, from Wisconsin to Arizona to Illinois... the list goes on.

These departures are a danger sign for our country, not only because of the instability they signify at these institutions -- and at other institutions whose problems are flying below the national radar -- but also because they reflect financial and ideological tensions that threaten serious harm to the world's greatest system of public higher education.

A new report by the National Academies points out that public research universities conduct more than 60 percent of the nation's academic research and produce some 70 percent of scientists, engineers, doctors, and other learned professionals. These institutions are an indispensable part of the infrastructure of discovery and education that has made this country the world's leading driver of innovation and prosperity since World War II.

Many states, which depend so much on these institutions as economic drivers and cultural centers, have been abandoning them. To cite the National Academies again, state cuts in appropriations to public research universities are estimated to have averaged 25 percent between 2002 and 2010, and range as high as 50 percent.

This long-term trend has forced universities to raise tuition significantly. Students now pay two-thirds of the cost of education, and the state pays one-third, a reversal of the situation 20 years ago. These increases anger the public, particularly at a time of high unemployment and stagnant incomes, yet they generally restore less than half of the revenue lost from state appropriations.

Universities have employed a range of strategies to cope, such as slashing faculty and other staff, freezing salaries, and reducing the availability of classes while increasing class size. It is difficult to take these steps and maintain academic quality. Some university presidents have grown tired of arguing with those who believe, wrongly, that there is no impact on quality, or simply do not care.

Indeed, some governors and boards have the notion that public universities should essentially be vocational schools, providing no value other than preparation for jobs. And some insist that universities be run "more like businesses." Coming from the business community, they believe that lopping off an academic department is no different from lopping off a corporate division, and that popularity (read revenues) should be the primary criterion for such decisions. They even question the linking of education and research, the foundation upon which this enterprise, and our nation's innovation economy, have been constructed for over six decades.

States cannot have their cake and eat it, too. They cannot expect to have strong economies if they kill, by financial starvation or by ideological strangling, the great public research universities in their midst. By their actions, they are turning what was long considered a public good -- the education of thousands of young people to become productive citizens and economic contributors -- into a private interest, with little recognition of these institutions' public contribution or benefit.

I hope these governors and boards will listen to the business leaders who helped write the new National Academies report. They will gain an understanding of what these universities mean to the states and to the country, particularly the advantage they provide us in global competitiveness.

William Green, Executive Chairman of Accenture, stated what we all know -- that countries like China and India "aspire to be like us," and are investing resources in their research universities to catch up. "They're gonna have that," he said, "but we gotta be gone when they get there." The language is perhaps not what Mr. Green learned in the classroom, but the understanding of these universities' role in our society is what he has learned as a participant in the global economy.

These business leaders also know, as do universities, that change is needed. They know that the problems facing universities require action by government, by the business community, and by the universities themselves. Universities are not businesses, but they must be run more efficiently. They are not vocational schools, but they must send their students into the world prepared to be both strong citizens and capable workers. And they must continue to be centers of discovery and scholarship. That is what our states and our nation need them to be, and, if properly governed, they will carry out those missions for many decades to come.

Hunter Rawlings is President of the Association of American Universities, an association of 59 leading public and private research in the U.S. and two of their counterparts in Canada. He is a former President of Cornell University and the University of Iowa.