The Chicago Council's newest Heartland Paper, "A Master Plan for Higher Education in the Midwest," by James J. Duderstadt, is a magisterial piece of work, living up to the author's goal of a "roadmap" to Midwestern education, especially higher education, and its role in the region's economic future. From K-12 to universities to lifelong education, the former University of Michigan president covers the scope of education, as seamless as it is ambitious.
Duderstadt's roadmap is a guide to the long-range future, but it also is very timely -- more timely, in fact, that we had expected when we asked him to write it for us. Readers of this blog got a preview last week, and the report itself is to be unveiled this Thursday, March 31. A couple of his recommendations seem to pop from the week's headlines and demand attention now.
The paper calls for "a reconsideration of the social contract between public higher education and state governments, seeking to provide public universities with the agility they need not simply to respond to growing market forces, but to finance themselves increasingly from the marketplace as state support continues to decline as a proportion of their operating budgets."
In another passage, Duderstadt decries the continued attempts by states "to micromanage or constrain the options of public universities during what might be a several-decade period of weakened public support." He doesn't accept this weakened public support as inevitable; instead, he says Midwestern states must raise their funding for higher education by no less than 40 percent to enable them to match the support given by "states with strong knowledge-based economies," such as California, North Caroline, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Whether this is likely to happen is something else again.
Basically, Midwestern state governments are short-changing higher education, especially the big state research universities that bear their name. At the same time, state governments -- both governors and legislators -- are not only cutting the universities' budgets but are demanding a bigger say in how those budgets are spent and more control over the activities of professors. In other words, state governments are trying to call the tune even as they stop paying the piper.
All this has been on display in the Midwest recently, with state governments in Wisconsin and Ohio passing laws ending collective bargaining between universities and their employees and with Republican legislators in Wisconsin trying to seize the e-mails of William Cronon, one of the Midwest's premier historians, in retaliation for his criticism of the state's new governor, Scott Walker.
At the same time, new statistics show that state support for their flagship universities is sinking by the year. The statistics, published by the Chronicle of Higher Education, show this erosion is a national problem, but one that is particular acute in the Midwest. Of the 50 states, 33 provide more than 20 percent of the total revenues of their flagship institutions: in the Midwest, only two of the 11 states -- Minnesota and Indiana -- meet that threshold.
At Duderstadt's school, the state pays only 7 percent of the operating expenses, the lowest in the nation. Penn State gets 9 percent, Ohio State 13 percent, Iowa 16 percent, Missouri 19 percent, and Illinois 18 percent. All this support is declining. Wisconsin gets 18 percent, which is down from 24 percent less than a decade ago.
Naturally, this weakens the ability of universities to do their key jobs -- not only educating students but doing the kind of cutting-edge research that is the real key to future Midwestern economic vitality.
Perhaps, as Duderstadt says, it's time to rewrite the "social contract" between states and universities. Ideally, this would mean cutting the links between states and their universities altogether: the universities would stop taking taxpayers' money, and the state would give up any right to tell the universities what to do.
This total break isn't likely any time soon. But the issue -- less state financial support, less state political control -- is a hot one on all campuses.
Right now, the focal point of the debate is the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where the new chancellor, Carolyn A. (Biddy) Martin, wants to cut her flagship school loose from the other regional campuses that make up the University of Wisconsin system, while also freeing Madison from many of the state's educational regulations.
The debate is not really new. One of Martin's predecessors, Katherine Lyall, said the evaporating state support for universities amounted to a creeping "privatization of public education." And the Chronicle quoted Martin's predecessor, John D. Wiley, as asking "At what level does the fraction of state support get so low that you're no longer a state institution anymore?"
What does this mean in practical terms? Total freedom from state political control would enable these schools to raise tuition as necessary (with state financial aid going to individual students, not to the universities themselves); to take in more students from other states and other nations; to focus their research on projects that could benefit the region instead of only the state; and to concentrate on research and graduate education, leaving most undergraduate education to smaller state schools, private schools and community colleges. Especially, as Duderstadt says, it would enable the universities to "finance themselves increasingly from the marketplace" by signing contracts, especially with corporations, to do the basic research that will define the industries of the future.
Think about these proposals a moment, and think about the vitriolic reaction from your typical state legislator, rooted as he or she is in a particular place or a particular philosophy. All these suggestions violate the way higher education in the Midwest has been practiced since the 19th century. The only good thing to be said about them is that, by and large, they are vital steps that must be taken if Midwestern universities are going to compete and to provide the education and research that the region needs in the 21st century.
Wisconsin is a perfect example. The University at Madison invented The Wisconsin Idea 105 years ago. The Wisconsin Idea proclaimed that the state and its university were inseparable. The state financed the university, and the university existed to educate the students of the state and promote its economy.
That rationale has long since passed. As we've seen, the state and its taxpayers have pretty well stopped paying for the university. And the university's mandate no longer stops at the state line. Wisconsin, like all Midwestern states, is part of a broader region. The health of both the school and the region are intertwined. Wisconsin has to be free to draw students from around the world and to cooperate with universities, from Ann Arbor to Minneapolis to Beijing, to fulfill its global role. University leaders know this: almost no state legislator understands it.
Some states, like Virginia and Colorado, already have rewritten their social contracts with their flagship universities, giving the schools more freedom to engage with the future. Schools in Ohio and Oregon are doing the same.
Duderstadt wants Michigan and other Midwestern states to follow this lead. Giving political realities, he doesn't underestimate the rocky road toward this goal. Given the economic realities of the knowledge era, he's not inclined to settle for anything less.