In January, Logan Byers, a 28-year old graduate student at the University of Arizona returned to Tucson from Guatemala where she had spent 6 weeks living with a local family and studying Spanish. It had been, over all, a positive experience, and she was looking forward to getting back to work on her dissertation. After graduating, she planned to return to Guatemala to help the local inhabitants develop an eco-friendly farming system.
Before she left there had been some buzz among members of the School of Landscape Architecture about budgetary concerns, though nothing too dire. But in the days ahead, matters would spread out of control, making the sick spell she suffered after eating a tamale made with some questionable chicken seem like a welcome memory. Cuts estimated in the millions quickly escalated to the tens of millions. Departments would be forced to merge, suffocating a diminished support staff, and graduate students like Logan found themselves facing an uncertain future.
The Arizona Republic, in a January 29th editorial, mindful that some cuts were inevitable, cautioned the Republican controlled legislature against making short-term decisions that would have long-term consequences. They warned:
Maintain basic health programs that draw major federal matching money, with two or three bucks for each dollar the state puts up. The proposal to cut KidsCare by $18 million, for instance, would cost the state $55 million in federal funding while leaving thousands of children without insurance.
Give school districts flexibility in making cuts in K-12 spending.
Don't jeopardize the university programs and research capacity that are the building blocks for Arizona's future. The three universities have proposed $100 million in cuts on top of a $50 million hit they took in the original 2009 budget. That would have a dramatic impact.
By Monday Gov. Jan Brewer signed legislation implementing a $141.5 million mid-year cut to Arizona's university system, that will translate to the loss of approximately 600 positions across the UA campus. Many feel that the cuts reflect Republican revenge against Former Gov. Janet Napolitano, who was considered a friend to higher education.
In a video address to students and staff, University of Arizona president Robert M. Shelton said: "The state needs to protect its universities, not dismantle them, if it has any hope of building an economy for the future."
The decision of the Arizona governor and the legislature seems to be in lock-step with the Republican members of Congress, who bereft of any innovative ideas, are more than willing to sit on the sidelines and throw stones. One of the more idiotic complaints coming from some Republican congressmen was that the 100 billion dollars earmarked for education in the President's stimulus package wouldn't produce any jobs.
U of A President Shelton in his pleas for sanity pointed out examples of job creation in Tucson. "Ventana Medical is hiring hundreds of people this year in good paying jobs," he told the Arizona Republic. "That was an organization that was spun out of the University of Arizona." Because of the strong science and research programs at the University of Arizona, Ventana Medical Systems Inc. remains a growing and thriving business today.
The Tucson Citizen recently published an article about undergraduates being paid to do bio-research. UA was on the forefront of the movement to get students out the classroom and into research labs. The idea originated with a UA student. Terri Suzuki was a sophomore in 1988, who, when she asked her professor if he knew of any researcher interested in hiring a student to work in a research lab, was hired by her professor. Today she is the principal researcher investigator for Sanofi-Aventis Pharmaceuticals in Tucson. Job creation starts in the university classroom.
President Obama's emphasis on education in his stimulus package is in recognition of the necessity of growing a new generation of talented individuals to pilot some of the green engines of science and commerce that will lead this nation back to good economic health.
Warning came years ago in Harvard University's Business Review. In an article entitled "Global Work Force 2000: The New World Labor Market," William B. Johnson writes: "In the 1970s and 1980s, it was common to find Indian engineers writing software in Silicon Valley, Turks cleaning hotel rooms in Berlin, and Algerians assembling cars in France. During the 1990s, the world's work force will become even more mobile, and employers will increasingly reach across borders to find the skills they need." Better that we do most of our reaching in our own back yard.
In several states across the US, our children perform well below the average of many countries that we consider under-developed. That's why India and China are now producing the computers sold in America. While our colleges and universities are envied around the world, they won't remain so by good intentions alone. And unless we establish something like a Marshall Plan for our children, especially those in primary and secondary school, we will become a second-rate nation despite our military dominance. In deference to our military leadership, a first-class educational system is our best defense against our enemies.
As for those politicians who think that our colleges and universities are populated by elitists who are out of touch with the realities of the world, turn the mirror around. The new realities in this country require that you take actions that look beyond your short life span; actions that are best for today and tomorrow; actions that put country before party.
Whether our students are helping to build an irrigation system in Guatemala, teaching English composition to college freshmen, or developing programs for a new generation of computers, they deserve the support of elected officials who put county first and see the makings of our tomorrows today.
Back in school, Logan Byers initially got busy doing what other faculty and students were doing -- protesting and marching on the state capital. "I jumped on the train already moving," she explained this week between classes. While attending a meeting of Regents that attracted hundreds of interested people, she discovered a new ally. One of the speakers was the head of Raytheon, one of the largest defense contractors in the state, "I've never agreed with these guys about anything, but after he spoke I found myself applauding him, because I believed what he said might help save the engineering department."
Because the department is now forced to tighten its belt, Logan will have to come up with another 2,000 dollars this semester. As yet, she's not sure where it going to come from. "I won't be meeting people out to eat very often," she says. "It's cheaper to cook your own beans." It's clear that she will have to learn to shape her own horizon before going off to help design a new world for others.