The sharp decline in state funding for higher education in recent years may have brought tuition increases and rising student debt, but it also has been accompanied by a reexamination of what the role of our publicly funded colleges and universities should be. Not everybody is happy about that, but this is a conversation we need to have.
Some governors and legislators have been rightly criticized for what seems like a short-sighted and anti-intellectual assault on higher education, but I think a significant portion of the blame for this new and critical scrutiny of public higher education falls on the institutions’ faculty and administrations. To many elected officials and members of the public, they seem arrogant and out of touch.
What happened a few months ago at the University of Iowa brings this conflict into focus. The school’s board of regents interviewed several candidates for the university’s presidency, including J. Bruce Harreld, a former IBM executive. There was loud protest from the faculty and staff of the university because Harreld, unlike the other candidates, had no experience in higher education administration. When the regents nevertheless chose Harreld, the faculty senate approved a vote of no confidence in him and called on Gov. Terry Branstad to dismiss the board of regents, an idea the governor rejected.
At its heart, this is a dispute about who owns the university and how it should be governed. This a public institution controlled by the citizens of the state through the governor, the legislature and the board of regents. This sort of faculty resistance to public control is contributing to a decline in public support for these important institutions.
The lands granted by the federal Morrill Act of 1862 created many of today’s most prestigious public universities “in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes.” As that suggests, public colleges and universities should be judged not on how well they emulate the Harvards of the world, but on how well they further the mission of providing access to higher education for people of ordinary means and achieve the public purpose of contributing to the economic development of a state and the prosperity of its residents.
Universities need to be more responsive to the public, and they need transparency, accountability and good stewardship of public funds. A good university administrator has much in common with a good politician, and indeed many have come to their university posts from successful careers as public servants.
Providing higher education for people who could not gain access to or afford elite private institutions was a good idea in the middle of the 19th century, and it is a good idea today. States that will best compete economically over the long run will be those whose public universities are not only well funded but also have embraced their most important public mission.