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   from the issue of February 3, 2005

Resource competition threatens higher ed future, panelists say


Building on themes outlined in his installation address earlier in the day, University of Nebraska President James B. Milliken turned to a handful of colleagues to set the stage for the challenges and opportunities facing higher education.

Clockwise from upper left: J.B. Milliken, Linda Pratt, C. Peter Magrath, Molly Corbett Broad, Graham Spanier.
Clockwise from upper left: J.B. Milliken, Linda Pratt, C. Peter Magrath, Molly Corbett Broad, Graham Spanier.

Privatization of public universities, innovation, access, funding, K-12 and social issues were among the topics discussed by Milliken and his panelists at Kimball Hall Jan. 27. "Public Higher Education: A Discussion" included individuals whom Milliken described as being "among the most talented leaders in higher education."

Molly Corbett Broad, president of the University of North Carolina; Graham Spanier, president of the Pennsylvania State University; C. Peter Magrath, president of the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges; and Linda Pratt, chair of English at UNL, had a 90-minute discussion in front of a crowd of 200 about the status and role of higher education, particularly land-grant universities, in today's world.

"Public universities have always had a special place in this country," Milliken said, opening the discussion. "They were created by states to serve states. I believe there's a compact between public universities and their states -- the state provides support and the university is obligated to serve the needs of the state through teaching, research and outreach. And in some circles this compact is under assault."

That assault, panelists said, will force change. Public universities will need to provide leadership, initiate new discussions and renew their partnership and communication with their states to move their states and country forward.

"Today's public universities must balance the public demands of high quality, for access and accountability, during a time of constrained resources, increased competition and technological advance," Milliken said.

"Nebraska's success depends on knowledge, and fully developing the human capital of its citizens," he said. "It's a time of great potential. We hold the keys to progress in our nation's universities and we must successfully address the challenges we face."

Spanier, former UNL chancellor, said the way higher education is financed threatens the compact between states and public universities. "There's no question there's a trend of public universities becoming more private, but at the same time, private universities becoming more public," he said. In a Penn State study, researchers discovered that 49 percent of the MIT budget is from public money, at Stanford, 35 percent, at Penn State, 31 percent. He added that if you include federal research grants and contracts, financial aid for students, and earmarked funds, "it turns out that private universities are more public than anybody knows, but public universities like ours are becoming increasingly private" and as such rely more on tuition and less on legislative appropriation.

"It could be as soon as 10 years from now where the discretionary part of state budgets has vanished and there's virtually no money for higher education," he said. At Penn State, only 11 percent comes from the state now, and Spanier said at a loss rate of about 1 percent a year, some day soon, state universities could be forced to operate without state funds.

State money isn't going to come back in a flood, Pratt said.

"It can't because it's not there in most states," she said. "Funding for higher education is going to be tighter in the next five years than it's been in the previous decades. What does that mean? That we can't grow and be strong? I do think that a focused sense of reality of the situation is necessary. We need to think about what kinds of real resources we have for the future, then be prepared to be creative and think of new ways of doing things."

Broad said much of the compact between states and their public universities is based on history.

"But also connected to the fundamental tenet of the social compact, is providing affordable access," she said. "The evidence is clear. When state appropriations go down, tuition goes up. With this slippery slope we're on, the Pac-Man of Medicaid is eating up more and more of the state budget, and that represents a dangerous tear in the social compact between the public universities and the people of the states."

Magrath said a recent position paper for NASULGC and the Kellogg Commission talks about economic development and business partnership as a focus for renewed engagement by the university.

"We have to be engaged in all kinds of ways, not just as a nice sideline activity, specialists and people, but have engagement become a mantra and major focus of the total university," he said. "That includes the research function as well as the continuous learning function as part of our work with communities, states and regions. This is the right thing to do; this is the public purpose. It's also the smart thing to do because if we do that, we can build the kind of support from communities and citizens who will renew that social compact. People believe in the social compact. We believe in it."

"We just have to work harder now to sell the message," Spanier said, "because we are up against steeper competition, from healthcare, highways and everything else in the state budget these days, but we have to keep plugging away at and if we don't, a lot of the things that are unique to land grant university are in jeopardy."

Milliken concluded the session by describing his optimism for the future. "A fundamental thought shapes my approach to this job and to the University of Nebraska and state," he said. "This state faces a number of challenges, and I think the solutions to the challenges aren't easy but I do think they're clear. They involve investing in the talent of the people in our state so that all the people can enjoy a great life in Nebraska."



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