U.S. Research Universities Face Profound Pressures, Says University of California-Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi

The deep recession and shifting social values are combining to place U.S. research universities at risk of a decline that could undermine long-term economic strength and make higher education unaffordable for many students, University of California-Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi told a AAAS audience.

State support for the world-class University of California system has been cut by 50% in the past 25 years, and by more than 20% in the past year alone, Katehi said at AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy. The state Board of Regents raised student fees by 32% last year. At the University of Michigan, where Katehi was previously a professor and associate dean, tuition is now comparable to that of private schools, she said.

“The welfare for our nation and our states lies in the ability to educate our workforce and prepare citizens for a life that is meaningful and productive,” she said. But the diminished support jeopardizes “the ability of the state to sustain the public research university, and to sustain the mission of educating the citizens, and sustain democracy.”

In her talk, Katehi said that without renewed public support, the state research universities might face a bleak future: They could be forced to impose huge tuition increases. Rates for in-state students could approach rates for out-of-state students. Middle-class students, lacking wealth or access to financial aid, would find it much more difficult to afford a top public research university. That would circumscribe the American dream of upward mobility for thousands of students, which in turn would harm long-term economic health at the state and national level.

Linda Katehi, chancellor of the University of California at Davis. | Credit: Robert Durell for UC Davis

Katehi, a member of the AAAS Board of Directors, spoke for a little over 30 minutes at the opening morning of the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Forum, held 13-14 May in Washington, D.C. The Forum, celebrating its 35th year, attracted over 500 U.S. and foreign leaders from government, education, and business to hear top policy experts talk on range of critical issues, including the global economic outlook for science research and development; building a stronger culture of innovation; science and technology in national security; and the impact of science and technology on society. The Forum was organized by the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program.

Much of Katehi’s research and teaching focused on electronic circuit design. She has 16 U.S. patents and an additional six U.S. patent applications, and her work has been nationally and internationally recognized. She was appointed chancellor at UC-Davis in August 2009.

The University of California includes some 230,000 students at 10 campuses. It has five medical centers and manages three national laboratories. It has been one of the jewels of higher education not just in the United States, but worldwide—widely regarded as a proof that public education can achieve elite status and yet still be accessible when backed by lawmakers and the public.

It was policy enacted in the years after World War II that served as a springboard for the university’s growth and evolution, Katehi told the AAAS audience. But in the past two decades, especially, there has been a gradual social transformation that has undermined not just the University of California, but many of the state’s public endeavors.

She described it as “drift,” an almost spiritual malaise characterized by diminished trust in government, which leaves the public wary of common efforts for the common good. To illustrate her point, she cited an unusual example:

“California has long led the nation in the number of gated communities,” she said, “and the number of those gated communities has almost doubled in the last 10 years…. This movement away from the feeling of communal belonging and of obligation to a social entity that’s larger than self has been a trend that we’ve seen in California, and I can tell you, having been in other states as well, a trend we are seeing in other places.”

In Michigan, Katehi said, state support provides just 4% of the University of Michigan’s budget. At the University of California, the state has cut its support by half, and restrictions on lawmakers’ tax and budgeting powers has made it all but impossible to generate new funding. In the past 10 years, tuition has more than doubled for in-state students.

“It has left us with a question,” she said. “To whom will the doors of the public research universities in the 21st century be opened?”

That challenge has been compounded by the ongoing U.S. financial slowdown.

She cited recent research that found support for public research universities has fallen to its lowest levels in 25 years. More than half of state universities have reported that budget cuts have compromised their ability to recruit students, retain faculty, and do important research, she added.

And the recession has hit California harder than many other states. Last summer, facing a devastating budget shortfall, state lawmakers cut the university’s budget by an additional 25%. Most of the system’s 180,000 employees were forced to take unpaid furloughs.

At UC-Davis, the reduced state funding meant a shortfall of $150 million almost overnight.

In response to a question from AAAS President Alice S. Huang, Katehi said that the budget cuts have been so severe that they threaten the core functions of the university system. In response to a question from the audience, she acknowledged that universities must be able to tighten their belts in tough times, just as California residents must. But, she said, the cuts have been so sudden and so deep that it has been difficult for the university to make its choices with due consideration.

She acknowledged that bureaucracies carry significant costs. But in part because of unions and their “pretty outdated” rules, she said, the university must at times preserve staff even as it is cutting programs and raising tuition.

According to Katehi, many universities are looking to the federal government for a policy on steering public research universities through difficult times—and for support.

Some organizations have proposed a federal program to provide support for students seeking graduate degrees. In Canada, she said, the government has adopted a program to provide support to distinguished faculty who do teaching and research at highest level.

The Association of American Universities and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities are studying options for a national agenda for higher education. And, Katehi said, the U.S. National Research Council has convened a panel to explore those issues.

The key is to work toward stronger public support for higher education.

“It is imperative that we continue this national discussion,” Katehi said, “that we try to find a way to preserve this wonderful resource that we have developed in our country over many, many years and with the support of many generations who felt that higher education is really the means to a better life.

“It is my hope that in… the state of California, and in our own country, we will indeed choose to invest in higher education in ways that will help us shape a future that is worth passing on to our children.”


Listen to audio from Linda Katehi’s address to the AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy.

See more news from the 2010 Forum.

Get details about the program and speakers at this year’s Forum.