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The Emergence of the National University and the Role of the Federal Government

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Around the same time my parents' generation was dreaming that higher education was in their children's future, the California Legislature adopted the Master Plan for Higher Education, setting priorities for the University of California, California State University and community college systems. The Master Plan reflected California's commitment to higher education as a public good. Recently, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger held a roundtable in Sacramento to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the California Master Plan for Higher Education -- a plan that, even as we celebrate it today, is clearly at risk.

The University of California system as a whole has seen its state funding per student plummet by 50 percent in the last 20 years -- and by about 20 percent since May 2009. While some elements of the California fiscal crisis, and of its university system, are unique to the state, the fate of its higher education system -- and specifically of its public research universities -- offers a parable of the contemporary research university in America that the entire nation should consider carefully.

The cuts that California's public universities have seen are not only the result of a fiscal crisis. The state's constant disinvestment in its higher education system has been the result of a drift in social values, a reduction of public support toward public services, and a general trend of the public's distrust of government. As the journalist Peter Schrag points out, California's choices over the last three decades reflect an increasingly privatized concept of government. California has long led the nation in its number of gated communities, exemplifying a view of government services as a private choice. Lost in this privatized version of government is the sense of communal belonging, of obligation to any social entity larger than the self, and of any responsibility to future generations.

The concept of the public university was born nearly 150 years ago when President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act in 1862, to build the national workforce to better support economic development. It was the time when the nation learned that democracy is based on valuing human life, respecting the right of the citizen to live a contented, prosperous life, and contribute to the common good. Some 80 years later, the devastation of the Second World War reminded us once again that national security could only be achieved if every citizen has access to knowledge and the power to contribute to a safe and prosperous society. This reminder led to the G. I. Bill of 1944, the National Defense Education Act of 1958 and the Higher Education Act of 1965. These actions created the underpinnings of the public research university and assigned national importance to the mission of these institutions.

A recent article written by faculty of the University of Michigan and published in the Chronicle of Higher Education observed that across the nation statewide funding of public research universities has fallen to its lowest level in 25 years, crippling their ability to meet their missions. As that same Chronicle article suggested, some of the benefits of contemporary research accrue far beyond state boundaries as these institutions serve the national priorities and as such many states are disinclined to invest in research, and in graduate and professional training. While it may make sense for individual states to accord lesser priority to their research universities, the cumulative "mismatch between state priorities and national needs" is a "disaster for the nation" in its making.

It is true that the federal government -- and, recently, The Obama administration has strongly articulated its support for university research and, through the stimulus act alone, has invested billions in new grants to federal agencies in support of health, defense and science, much of which is flowing to academic institutions. While these grants provide support and are meant to power the national innovation engine, they are distributed unequally in response to specific projects and needs, with no certainty of continuation after each grant expires.

Furthermore, universities must dig into their own pockets to pay a portion of the indirect costs associated with a given project. National data have shown that for every dollar of research, universities pay an additional 20 cents. It is true that public and private research universities have turned increasingly to corporate sponsorship of research in recent years; the University of California was one of the first public universities to seek additional funding from such sources, yet specific areas of scholarship and research that are critical to educating the public for work and citizenship, such as the arts, humanities and social sciences, have remained woefully underfunded.

With a view informed by recent events, I can predict with some certainty that the absence of sufficient state and federal funding will force the public research universities to continue to raise tuition and fees. And, while Pell Grants and Cal Grants would assist those from economically disadvantaged homes, high school students whose families occupy the lower and middle rungs of the middle class will increasingly find themselves unable to pay for a public education, or forced to assume substantial loans.

This is one version of our future where assets -- and not ability -- will determine access to the best public universities. Such a future, all too imaginable though far from inevitable, starkly contradicts the principles governing the creation of the land-grant universities through the Morrill Act in 1862. Against that privatized version of the public university, let me pose once again the vision of higher education embodied in the California Master Plan of 1960, where higher education was imagined as a public good and accessible to all, where citizens not only relied on education and enjoyed its benefits, but invested in that education to create a prosperous future.

In the coming months, Californians will make crucial choices to help determine future state support for public higher education and similar choices are on the horizon for other states in the coming years. As we meet the financial challenges of today, it is crucial that we do not compromise our dreams for tomorrow.

At no time in American history was sacrifice more preeminent than in 1862, when the Morrill Act was passed, and the G.I. Bill was passed in a time of national depletion when victory in a worldwide war fought in two theatres was not yet in sight. Now, even in the face of a lingering recession and two wars, is the time for a similar sacrifice made for the benefit of future Americans.

If ever the United States needed to formulate a long-range compass for the future of its higher education system, now is that time. And if ever the United States needed to make a long-term cut: fiscal investment to safeguard those aspirations against short-term contingencies, and to declare education as its highest priority both for the good of its citizens and for the continued welfare and security of the nation, now is that time.

It is imperative that we continue these national discussions about how the federal government might invest in ways that ensure and enhance the future of our nation's research universities. In the end, it is my hope that California and the nation will indeed choose to invest in higher education in ways that will help shape a future worth passing on to our children.