Date: 
Friday, April 9, 2010

The public research university has fueled the United States’ world prominence in higher education and advanced research for over a century. It has been an American idea that has worked and has enjoyed the enthusiastic support of citizens for much of our nation’s history. As Jonathan R. Cole notes in his recent book The Great American University, since the 1930s, about 60 percent of all Nobel Prizes awarded have gone to Americans, with research-oriented prizes going predominantly to university professors. As well, “a very high proportion of the leading new industries in the United States, perhaps as many as 80 percent, are derived from discoveries at American universities” (4). As Cole says, “It is the quality of the research produced, and the system that invests in and trains young people to be leading scientists and scholars, that distinguishes [American research universities] and makes them the envy of the world. That is true across the board, from the sciences and engineering to the social and behavioral sciences to the humanities” (5)

In recent decades, however, public research universities overall have experienced highly unstable funding from the states that are traditionally their core support. This volatility obviously creates problems for consistent budgeting. But even more significantly, it raises important questions about the fundamental vision Americans have for these institutions. What are the consequences of this disinvestment for the generations of students to come? What are the implications for the basic research and development of this country’s intellectual, technological, and economic infrastructure? What are the effects on the United States’ very position in the world?

First let’s take a brief historical journey. In the early years of America’s universities, ambitions were certainly big, but beginnings were usually small. For example, over 150 years ago, The University of Iowa—my home institution—opened its doors to 124 students and a handful of faculty, a small group who aspired to become that frontier state’s leaders. Today, The University of Iowa educates more than 30,000 students in dozens of different disciplines and professions who will go on to careers within our state, across the nation, and throughout the world. At Iowa, we conduct nearly half-a-billion dollars’ worth of research with global implications. Today’s UI is a remarkable achievement, but it is far beyond the wildest imaginings of the small group of state legislators who founded the University in the mid-nineteenth century. It is a national and international university—and in need of consistent, dependable support for both its most far-reaching innovations and its core services.

As Cole notes, even Harvard University’s beginnings were humble—16 students when it opened its doors in 1636. And as Frank Rhodes notes, The University of Virginia opened its doors in 1825 with eight faculty members (The Creation of the Future 4). By the Civil War—over 200 years after Harvard was founded—there were only between 100 and 200 colleges surviving in the U.S, mostly still focusing on ministry education with some liberal arts curricula. There were “no advanced research degree programs and no graduate schools devoted largely to research and the training of scientists, engineers, social scientists, humanities scholars, and other professionals” (Cole 6)

The spark that ignited the American research university came from the federal government’s Morrill Act of 1862, which envisioned a new kind of university—a public higher education system that provided incentives to expand both research and educational opportunities. (Cole 28-29) And, by the way, the first newly created land-grant school under the Morrill Act was Kansas State University. Thanks to the Morrill Act, state universities like Michigan State, Penn State, Rutgers, and Wisconsin—as well as unique hybrids like Cornell—were able to join their state support to the federal partnership that expanded their missions and prominence.

In 1863, President Lincoln signed legislation creating the National Academy of Sciences, which provided the government with expertise on increasingly important scientific and technological questions, predominantly through university research. The federal role in research expanded further with the Hatch Act of 1887, which created agricultural experiment stations. And the public service mission of land-grant universities was extended even further with the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, which expanded extension programs and brought new campus research out to communities. (Rhodes 6)

The first American university “to emphasize research rather than undergraduate teaching was Johns Hopkins, which opened its gates in 1876” (Cole 19). At this new kind of university—albeit a private one—President Daniel Coit Gilman envisioned and implemented the American hybrid university, which emphasized a combination of research, advanced graduate instruction, and undergraduate education. (Cole 19)

By 1900, this hybrid American university model had taken hold at the Ivies, at Chicago, at Stanford, and at many of the country’s large state universities, both land-grant and flagship. The University of Iowa started to come into its own as a national research university at this time, during the 1887-1898 Presidency of Charles Schaeffer. In his inaugural address, Schaeffer declared that he wanted to make Iowa one of the leading universities in the country. First and foremost was the expansion of an “’able faculty’”—“’all else is accessory,’” he said. In fact, one of the most important Schaeffer appointments was that of philosophy and psychology professor Carl Seashore, who went on in the first half of the 20th century to become Iowa’s graduate dean and oversee Iowa’s innovations in legitimizing creative work as part of university endeavor, including the founding of our world-renowned Writers’ Workshop. But President Schaeffer also wanted larger buildings, better-equipped labs, an expanded library and museum, and more financial aid for students. He built strong alliances with our state partners—citizens and legislature—to secure the public commitments for such initiatives. At the same time, the growing national profile of scientific research at Iowa happened under Schaeffer’s watch, including highly pertinent natural history expeditions by Iowa faculty to the Laysan Islands, the American West, and the Bahamas. (Gerber, Pictorial History of the University of Iowa 51-52)

The federally partnered research that emerged in the 20th century at places like Iowa, Johns Hopkins, and Kansas was aimed at national needs, was distinct in the world, and continues to grow. But as Frank Rhodes notes in his book The Creation of the Future, the U.S. research agenda originates at the professor-investigator level, not from the sponsoring agencies or national institutes and academies as in many other countries. Instead, peer-reviewed proposals are awarded on the basis of individual merit (15). This “public trust,” as Rhodes calls it, in the creativity and freedom of the university professoriate has brought us the Salk polio vaccine, Pap tests for cervical cancer, computers, space satellites, early childhood education programs, Pulitzer-Prize winning novels, and on and on.

More milestones fueled the rise of the American research university in the 20th century—the GI Bill of Rights in 1944, the expansion of the National Institutes of Health in 1947, the creation of the National Science Foundation in 1950, and the creation of the National Endowments for the Humanities and Arts in 1965. Here is where my own personal scientific journey comes in. Even as a young girl, my dream was to be a scientist. While that was a challenging vision for a girl in the 1950s and 1960s, it was also a time when we as a nation were dreaming big about the future of science for our country and world. To this day, I remember my fascination and excitement over the unfolding Sputnik program. Little did I know then that I would someday have the privilege of leading a great institution that was central to America’s ambitions beyond the planet. Just over a half-century ago, the first U. S. satellite, Explorer I, carried a Geiger counter designed and built by Iowa’s world-renowned astronomer James Van Allen into space and ultimately led to the discovery of the Van Allen radiation belts. As President Obama said at the National Academy of Sciences last year: “A half century ago, this nation made a commitment to lead the world in scientific and technological innovation; to invest in education, in research, in engineering; to set a goal of reaching space and engaging every citizen in that historic mission. “That was the high water mark of America’s investment in research and development.”

I am living proof of citizen engagement in science in that era. If it hadn’t been for our country’s staunch commitment to the vision of our leaders, my—and many others’—lives may very well have taken different turns. Our world certainly would be very different today. And for me—as well as thousands and thousands of others—my scientific and higher education career has occurred in our state research universities: The University of Kentucky, Purdue University, The University of Arizona, Indiana University, The University of Kansas, and The University of Iowa.

Today at The University of Iowa, we have many wonderful stories of this unique type of American university—where undergraduate education, graduate training, and faculty research meet. One wonderful example happened just last fall. Matt Flannigan, an undergraduate student in civil and environmental engineering, was part of a research team honored at the Partners in Environmental Technology Technical Symposium and Workshop in Washington, D.C. Matt joined Engineering Professor Jerry Schnoor and graduate student Travis Anderson in being recognized with a Project of the Year Award from the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program/Environmental Security Technology Certification Program, which is a cooperative program of the Department of Defense, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Energy. The project that this team is working on involves phytoremediation—the use of plants to alleviate the effects of pollution. Matt, Professor Schnoor, and Travis Anderson took their work from the laboratory to test it in the field at Eglin Air Force Base in Galveston, Texas, and then went on to national recognition.

Where else but in the American research university will you see this kind of multi-generational research/educational collaboration? Frank Rhodes describes this unique dynamic wonderfully. He says that it creates “a larger sense of common purpose—inquiry and discovery—that permeates everything, and gives to the undergraduate experience a rich and distinctive flavor.” (23)

Despite wonderful stories like this, I am very concerned about the future prospects for students like Matt Flannigan. What is the state of America’s commitment to research and education in this unique American university that has become the envy and model for the rest of the world? Let me zoom us forward to today, where I believe we stand at a crossroads—or, to use a more alarming metaphor, teeter on a precipice. And let me start at the root of where we all prosper or whither—the budget.

By many measures, we have had a catastrophic year at The University of Iowa, as have many others. The annual “Grapevine Study” out of Illinois State University shows that the state of Iowa cut its percentage of support for higher education this year more than any other state in the nation: 21.1%. The average cut was 3.4%. A number of states actually increased their support for higher education this year despite the recession. Over five years, Iowa is one of only eight states that saw negative growth in state appropriations. By way of comparison, Kansas experienced a 6.7% state appropriations cut this past year and an overall five-year 3.8% increase.

A little more than a year ago, our state appropriations at the UI totaled about $276 million. Today, they stand at little more than $211 million. That’s about a 24% reduction of our total state appropriations and well over 10% of our General Education Fund. Today, the UI’s appropriated budget is below the level of the mid-1990s, adjusted for inflation. In essence, the cuts we experienced over 15 months wiped out the appropriation increases of the previous 15 years.

Without support for the core educational function of our institutions, the entire institution falls. To use a common metaphor, the three-legged stool (of teaching, research, and service) cannot stand when one of its legs is compromised—or is cut off.

Regardless of the relative extent of our financial difficulties, public universities nationwide are confronting fundamental questions. These questions are not only about where the money is going to come from. The larger—and related—questions are what will our very character be, and who will be our partners in fulfilling our mission?

For public higher education, the vast majority of our institutions have been partners with our states. But we’ve seen the shift from state-supported, to state-assisted, to what now feels like state-located institutions, at best. Today, overall, state appropriations now account for less than 8% of our total operating budget at the UI. While there is still a relationship that exists in the State of Iowa between our universities and our citizens, it is now largely with those citizens who pay tuition and not with the citizenry as a whole.

Despite this shift in support, we continue to say—and we mean it—that our primary mission is to provide a high-quality, accessible education for Iowans (especially) who are prepared to go to college. But, as with so many of our public institutions in this country, we’ve now seen the pendulum swing wide. Tuition dollars make up the majority of our General Education Fund while state appropriations continue to be diminished. And I realize that many other states crossed that threshold some time ago.

What I fear is that Iowa—along with many other states—seems to be in a race to the bottom. The larger questions are not simply about dollars and where they come from, but what our country wants higher education to be—a public good or a private benefit that is purchased?

So what have we done? Many large public research universities have simply outgrown or outstripped the ability to be supported by our states alone. Perhaps it’s because we at Iowa were the beneficiaries of the worst natural disaster in our history shortly before the economy collapsed that we were better prepared than many for what is transpiring. Having suffered $740 million in damage from a flood two summers ago that affected more than 20 buildings on our campus, we began pulling back on budget almost immediately until we knew what outside sources would be available for our recovery. Then the economy collapsed. While flood recovery money was flowing in, state appropriations began to flow out.

When faced with disaster, be it physical or economic, you set and hold to priorities that take a long view, not a short view. This was true for our flood recovery, and it’s true as we navigate the current economic disaster.

Student success will and must continue to be one of our top priorities. However, we regretfully must look more and more to the tuition revenue from our students and their families and not the State of Iowa for improving—and even maintaining—the excellence of the undergraduate education we offer. We remain committed to providing affordable and accessible higher education to all Iowans—and, frankly, we’re a bargain to anyone who looks at us from anywhere in the world. As with many of you, as tuition goes up, so does financial aid. And we’re committed to providing more and more, both need-based and merit.

Given these seismic shifts, the questions we ask ourselves are obvious. Has the traditional partnership that we have historically enjoyed with our states come to an end? Should we—or can we—detach ourselves from the dramatic ebbs and flows of state budgets that are so dependent on politics and local economic conditions?

The price of public higher education remains, in most states and sectors, an absolute bargain, but the national tide of calls for controlling higher education costs will not recede soon. Many—maybe even most—Americans believe that the cost of attending college is far greater than the reality, often because we see headlines, like those in a recent Chronicle article, touting the fact that a number of private universities now have tuition that exceeds $50,000 a year. It’s not a huge leap to believe that college is expensive. Public higher education cannot and should never just shut out those who cannot pay. That violates the trust that citizens and their universities have held together, often since the founding of a state.

There are national and international implications to our funding crisis as well. We continue to hear that Americans are falling behind other countries in educational achievement, particularly in math and science.
The Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities estimates that the U.S. must increase the number of bachelor’s and associate’s degrees half again by 2025 to keep pace with Canada and Japan, the current world leaders in the number of young adults earning college degrees. President Obama has set a goal for the United States to have the world’s highest proportion of college graduates by 2020. More and more, a college education is an expectation of families, employers, and a national and global economy.

Let me step back a moment and address other priority areas of the American university besides undergraduate education. In fact, for Iowa, I have more good news to tell than bad. Unfortunately, that makes some in our state believe there is still ample opportunity to take back from the University.

Even in the midst of difficult economic times, we shattered a research funding record last year, posting a 10% increase over the previous year at $429.5 million. That places us in the top 20 among public universities, and we rank 13th in National Institutes of Health funding.

This year, faculty and staff have been very successful in receiving federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grants. All told, University of Iowa researchers have received 141 ARRA-funded grants for scientific research from federal agencies, totaling more than $53 million over the next three years. While ARRA has economic stimulation as its foundation, the federal government has also drawn upon its historic commitment to scientific university research as one of our country’s greatest strengths. Thanks to ARRA, many of us at Iowa—and in public research universities across the nation—are addressing pressing national concerns. At the UI, we are investing these resources in both our traditional strengths—such as prevention and treatment of human diseases— and emerging areas, like the remediation of environmental damage.

In addition to the robustness of our current research funding, we at Iowa also had our second-best private fund-raising effort in our entire history last year. And much of that funding is designated for research. Our most dramatic example of the past couple of years is over $50 million in just two gift commitments from philanthropists John and Mary Pappajohn and from the Fraternal Order of Eagles to support our new biomedical discovery institute.

Despite these successes, our University enterprise is becoming more atomized, more patchwork, as opposed to the integrated hybrid university that brought America’s higher education to world prominence in the past century. While some areas of universities are holding their own, and sometimes even experiencing robustness, others—including their core functions—are crying desperately for resources. The suffering areas can have campus-wide effects. At Iowa, we’ve eliminated more than 400 positions from the University that previously had been supported by the General Education Fund, largely through attrition and incentivized early retirement programs. And yet we’re hiring researchers, scientists, and engineers to carry out the activities supported on grants and contracts. We’re also in the throes of huge construction and building projects, totaling more than $1 billion—largely from projects that are funded privately. But these projects were started before the recession or are funded from flood recovery money that continues from federal and private sources despite the economy.

On the surface, Iowa City appears to be just fine. While this is very much not the case, we at public research universities must resist the temptation to think only for the short term. We must plan for a time when we come out of the crisis stronger, more focused, and poised to address our nation’s most pressing needs. However, let’s look more closely at the international situation to see how well we’re positioning ourselves.

Many rapidly growing Asian universities are benefiting from national policies that link the importance of research and education—just as our government did 150 years ago. Henry Yang, Chancellor at UC-Santa Barbara, sits on an international panel that advises Singapore’s government on its higher education and research efforts. In Singapore, Chancellor Yang gets to review plans for a new public university, the country’s fourth. Back in California, he gets to slash salaries, furlough employees, and reduce enrollments.

South Korea has recently launched its Educational Capacity Enhancement Project, which focuses on developing that nation’s high-quality, highly educated workforce, in addition to its Brain Korea 21 Project, which focuses on research infrastructure and graduate training.

Jonathan Cole reports visiting a Chinese university as a consultant in recent years. He noted how they had taken over 3,000 acres of farmland and in four years had built more than 50 academic buildings, libraries, labs, and residence halls. One thousand additional acres remain for more buildings. (Cole also notes that in China, it was fairly easy simply to appropriate the land and assign 50,000 laborers to construction projects.) (Cole 3)

It is true that questions remain as to the relative quality of many Asian countries’ graduates compared to the United States. Cole notes that, despite the massive construction of infrastructure, by 2008 a Chinese study showed that China did not have a research university that ranked within the top 200 in the world, and that 17 of the top 20—and 40 of the top 50—of the most distinguished research universities were in the United States. (Cole 3). Nevertheless, most analysts seem to agree that the dominant trend in the East is upward while the trend in the U.S. is downward. In the 19th century, our country looked to the great universities of England and Germany, combined parts of their models into a new hybrid, and invested massive public and private resources into higher education and research infrastructure. China and other Asian countries are doing something similar now. Within three or four decades of the Civil War, the U.S. university system had eclipsed Europe’s. Without a sea-change in this country’s support of its universities, a similar pattern will play itself out in today’s world, with Asia eclipsing the United States.

So where are public universities to look for revising their funding models? The conversation today is more and more focusing on two areas I’ve already mentioned—private dollars and the federal government.

For some, maintaining strength and quality will increasingly come from tuition. The University of Michigan and Pennsylvania State University practice perhaps the most well-known high-tuition/high-financial-aid models. More and more, other universities are looking at this model and trying to persuade their constituents of its wisdom.

The Virginia partial privatization model is also being looked at more and more. Colorado State University is one of the latest to be caught in a public firestorm this past year over suggesting this approach. While CSU insists that the suggestions were last resort, officials took a serious look at Cornell University, where three colleges and a graduate program are public and seven colleges are private. Whether or not a particular school plunges wholly into a public/private model, the widespread trend is clearly toward tuition differentials.

One other aspect of privatization is increasing the number of nonresident students who pay full tuition. Iowa is a small, aging state, and the number of Iowa high school graduates is declining rather than increasing. Because of our state demographics, our student body is approaching 50% nonresident, with roughly half of those from nearby Illinois. This has helped our tuition situation greatly while we continue our admissions policies for Iowa residents. Still today, we admit all qualified resident students—but that pool is shrinking in Iowa.

Other states are also looking to increased numbers of nonresidents. While that can bring in more funding, it can change the institutional mission. For example, another one of the Colorado State system’s proposals is to cap the number of in-state students who receive in-state tuition. Regardless of any state’s particular demographics, however, we must ask just how far we can go poaching each other’s students before some states experience irreparable harm.

This last point emphasizes that we must take a hard look at the big picture: national higher education needs. For many of us, the federal government has played an increasing role in our institutions. Most of our research dollars at Iowa come from the federal government, predominantly the NSF and NIH—and right now we get well more than twice as many dollars from these agencies than we do from our state in appropriations.

This year, ARRA has helped a lot. In addition to the research dollars I mentioned before, we received $34 million this fiscal year to avert the budgetary cliff that massive spending reductions created. These funds, along with our conservative and careful budget management, helped us avoid resorting to layoffs or furloughs. In addition, ARRA has also expanded Pell Grant funding. All of this helps the whole university enterprise. But of course, stimulus funds are gone at the end of the year.

Mark Yudof and his colleagues within the University of California system have spoken eloquently, passionately, and with great insight on the growing partnership between the federal government and higher education, especially at the research university. Research dollars are critical to the scientific and technological advancement of our nation’s intellectual infrastructure and economy. But those dollars rarely, if ever, trickle down directly to the education of our undergraduates and the training of a highly skilled mass workforce for our society. One could argue this was the very vision for American universities in the late 19th century. Yet still today at the public research university, where many of those research dollars are flowing, we are also educating vast numbers of our future workers, thinkers, inventors, scientists, humanists, creative artists, and leaders. As UC-Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau and Vice Chancellor Yeary note, “The top 10 publics have more than 350,000 undergraduate students. By comparison, the eight Ivies educate less than a sixth of that number. Public universities with strong state support have an admirable cross-section of ethnically and economically diverse students. In essence, their student bodies look like America.”

The federal government kick-started the American public research university nearly 150 years ago. Since then, it has become an increasingly important partner in the university research enterprise. But is it time for the federal government to become a fuller partner in the educational and research synergy that marks the American university as unique in history and in the world? Is it indeed time for the federal government also to play a significant role in the basic operating support of our public research universities? Is a hybrid federal/state model, at least for our greatest public universities, essential not just to higher education, but to the nation itself?

Since their inception, America’s public universities have been conceived as partnerships. The 20th-century partnership between the statehouse and the resident student has expanded greatly to include students from other states and other countries, private donors, and the federal government. Perhaps it is time for the federal government to enter that partnership in an even more comprehensive and intentional way.

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