Budget, Political Stress Could Cause Long-Term Damage at U.S. Research Universities, Experts Say

Dramatic reductions in state funding are already forcing huge tuition increases for students and uncertainty in the federal budget is disrupting university planning, the experts said at the AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy. While the climate is pushing universities to operate more efficiently and effectively, the experts warned that such pressures also could undermine a system that has made U.S. universities a dominant global power in research, innovation, and economic growth.

Governments in a number of states have “been moving to privatize the costs of undergraduate education” and have “begun to starve the core infrastructure of the university,” said Irwin Feller, a professor emeritus of economics at Pennsylvania State University and senior visiting scientist at AAAS. These changes and others, he added, amount to “a breaking of the long-term social contract that we have between the government and the American people.”

Irwin Feller

Irwin Feller

Added Debra Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools: “International competition, serious limitations in developing the domestic talent pool, and a state of economic stress, conspire to bring into question whether or not the doctoral education of today… will be able to be sustained or advanced. It is not clear that the US will continue to be the premier location worldwide for doctoral education.”

The assessments were pointed—and that’s the sort of insight for which the Forum has become known. This year, the 36th annual event convened some 475 U.S. and foreign leaders from government, education, and business in Washington, D.C., to hear top policy experts analyze critical issues. The Forum, held 5-6 May, was organized by AAAS Science and Policy Programs.

Much of the focus this year was on research and development investment and innovation policy, and inevitably, the challenges facing American universities were central to the discussion.

Reduced financial support and rising political challenges are forcing American research universities to defend long-established practices and to consider significant and sometimes troubling changes, a trio of experts said recently at AAAS.

Debra Stewart

Debra Stewart

Al Teich, senior policy advisor at AAAS and one of the Forum’s organizers, set the context for a 6 May panel discussion on research universities: The federal government supports about 60% of university research, but in the current climate has hit the universities with “a triple whammy,” Teich said.

“Not only is federal funding at risk, but state budgets, which provide support for the large public universities are in even worse shape than the feds and, in the case of the private universities, many of their endowments were hit hard by the decline of the stock market,” he told the audience. “Finally, there’s a growing chorus of criticism of the way universities are run and the value of the education they provide and there’s pressure to put a lid on ever-increasing tuition.”

Speakers on the panel offered several examples of the new skepticism and dissatisfaction coming from elected officials:

  • In Pennsylvania, new Governor Tom Corbett proposed a 52% reduction in general fund appropriations for Penn Sate and other universities;
  • In Ohio, Governor John Kasich in March proposed a budget that cut about 10%, or $2.3 billion, from the state’s universities. At the same time, he proposed to continue a 3.5% cap on annual tuition increases and to require professors to teach more classes.
  • In Texas, Governor Rick Perry has pressed leaders at the University of Texas and Texas A&M to adopt reforms based on “Seven Breakthrough Principles” developed by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation. The principles “largely are seen as de-emphasizing research and promoting instruction,” the Dallas Morning News reported recently. Faculty pay would be based more on teaching and professors would be evaluated based on their monetary value to the university.

While the proposals in those states and others have not yet been approved, they represent a dramatic departure from the past 75 years of practice at research universities. Similar sentiments are evident in the U.S. Congress as well, said Tobin Smith, vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities.

Beginning in the years after World War II, the United States “made a strong commitment to support and grow its research capacity using research universities and through the development of a comprehensive national laboratory system,” he told the Forum. “That commitment resulted in a system of research universities and national laboratories that are the envy of the world and that other universities are now trying to emulate.”

Today, he said, 56% of the nation’s basic research is conducted at universities—three times the amount conducted by private industry or the federal government itself. “Basic research really underpins the innovations that drive our economy and improve our way of life,” Smith said.

And yet, he continued, “more and more on Capitol Hill, the word investment is seen as code for more spending. Of course that’s not what we’re talking about when we’re talking about investing in universities or investing in research. We’re really talking about investment in the classic sense—spending resources now to ensure that we profit down the road.

Tobin Smith

Tobin Smith

“I’m concerned that with this fiscal situation—all of us at AAU are concerned—that some in Congress are potentially walking away from the basic commitment that’s been made, the historic commitment, to support research and our universities.”

Renewing the federal and state government commitment to research is a critical foundation for maintaining the nation’s scientific power and economic strength, the speakers agreed. They also urged reinforcement and improvement of traditional practices in other key areas: Use research both to advance knowledge and to train graduate students as a new generation of science leaders. Stabilize long-term funding of research. Keep research free of political influence, with projects funded on the basis of scientific merit and peer review. And streamline the time-consuming administrative and bureaucratic requirements imposed by on researchers by government.

But the speakers emphasized that universities, too, must also reconsider their own practices and renew their commitment to excellence and efficiency. Both Smith and Stewart argued that schools must do more to inspire students and improve their academic performance.

According to Smith, studies show that about 40% of students who initially choose a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) major change course before graduation. “We need to do a better job of finding out how we can improve teaching in the classroom and keep those students who are interested in STEM involved in those disciplines and graduating with STEM degrees,” he said.

He urged that universities begin to break down the disciplinary “stovepipes” that may inhibit research and innovation on challenges that are increasingly interdisciplinary. And he suggested that universities could perhaps use resources more efficiently by forming regional collaborations on some projects or in some fields.

At the graduate-studies level, Stewart said, universities need to continually improve their doctoral programs and their support for Ph.D students. Already, she said, there’s some good news: Universities are reporting that more students are completing their Ph.Ds more quickly, and many leading universities are experimenting with innovations to improve doctoral education and training. Still, she said, the rate of students who complete their Ph.D degrees needs to improve.

Schools need to “begin right now… to implement those kinds of reforms in doctoral education that we know will lead to greater student success—the processes, the mentoring systems, the curricular revisions,” Stewart told the audience. “Over the next decade, our universities must be able to embrace, in an empirical way, rigorous assessment of their doctoral programs and act on that assessment for continuous improvement of their programs…

“And ultimately,” she said, “we need the political will on campuses to do this.”

For Feller, one of the critical issues will be maintaining access to undergraduate education at research universities. “Access and affordability of education in this country has not only historically been a great source of economic growth,” he said. “It has been a mechanism for social equity, social justice, and social mobility. It is the means by which we’ve had assimilation.” Broad access to quality education has been a pillar of modern American democracy, he said, “and one of the ways we have honored that promise and fulfilled that promise is by providing access to education at all levels.”

To achieve that, the speakers agreed, the historic U.S. partnership that has supported research and universities must be updated and strengthened to meet the challenges and opportunities of a new era.

“This is a time, more than ever before, where we need universities and federal and state governments and the private sector to work together as partners and not look at each other as adversaries,” Smith said. “It’s a time we need to think long-term and work to develop a national strategy to ensure the health of our research universities.”

Edward W. Lempinen

1 June 2011