How to reinvigorate public universities

With 80 percent of the nation's college students on their campuses, America's public universities need a strong blueprint for efficiency and educational excellence. James C. Garland, a former professor at Ohio State University, believes he has a plan to address the struggles of these institutions brought on by tight state treasuries, changing demographics and legislative indifference. In "Saving Alma Mater: A Rescue Plan for America's Public Universities," Garland outlines how public universities can stave off decline and beat back resistence to change.

GUEST BLOGGER: James C. Garland

Student protests in California and elsewhere have called attention to the dire fiscal plight of the nation's public universities. Furloughs, salary cuts, layoffs and soaring tuitions have spread like a flu epidemic across the nation's public campuses, angering students, taxpayers and employees. Campus leaders stand accused of mismanagement, greed, elitism, and deception.

The crisis is but the latest installment in a half-century saga of decline. In 2006, the Los Angeles Times reported that U.C. Berkeley "has nearly $600 million in deferred maintenance." At Ohio's thirteen public campuses: $5 billion; at New York's SUNY system: $3.2 billion. Professors' salaries now lag those at the private institutions by $21,000. Public faculty unions have sprouted like dandelions, and underpaid "contingent" faculty now outnumber tenure-track professors.

Beleaguered campus leaders lay the blame for their woes on state cutbacks, but that is only a half-truth. Public universities have themselves to blame for eroding the public trust. Consider:

-- Trustees have allowed presidential and coaches salaries to soar, passing those costs on to students, angering faculty, and drawing comparisons to Wall Street excesses.

-- Campuses have built posh dorms, putting greens, and climbing walls to attract upper income students, suggesting elitism and misplaced priorities.

-- Campus leaders have ignored lawmaker complaints about inefficiency, out-of-control costs and resistance to change

-- Chronic complaints about faculty bias and ideological homogeneity have been ignored.

However, even if public universities have been unable to rein in expenditures, stay focused on mission, act strategically, and resist corporate pressures, the larger problem is that state budgets are chronically short of cash. History's lesson is that government will not adequately fund campus needs in the coming years. Reforms are urgently needed.

The model I propose has four parts. First, states would phase out operating subsidies to campuses, replacing them with a need-based scholarship fund for in-state residents. Blanket appropriations use taxpayer dollars inefficiently by subsiding those without need.

Under my scenario, the same state dollars would end up at public campuses, but schools would have to compete for the money. Those that offered the greatest value -- attentive faculty, attractive programs, affordable prices, excellent services -- would prosper and see their enrollments (and revenues) grow.

Second, states would deregulate (not privatize) state universities by turning them into autonomous state-owned entities with independent governing boards. Like their private sector counterparts, campus trustees would approve admission requirements, salaries, curricula, and tuition.

Third, I would provide incentives for professors and administrators to use their time more productively. Huge savings can result from reducing committee sizes, eliminating marginal committees and programs, and curtailing wasteful administrative practices. My suggestions would increase efficiency without undermining academic values or shared governance.

And finally, I would overhaul appointment procedures for public campus trustees. Public universities need experienced, qualified trustees, but too often are burdened with politicized, ideologically driven governing boards.

The key question is whether systemic reform of public universities is really possible. Not unless governors and legislatures take the initiative. Long experience shows that universities cannot make painful structural changes without the outside assistance and encouragement of their state governments.

By Steven E. Levingston |  December 15, 2009; 5:30 AM ET Politics , Steven Levingston
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