Officials address challenges facing public research universities

Local academic leaders discussed the topic Thursday.
April 30, 2009

The president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, addressed University of Minnesota faculty and staff Thursday on how the nation’s financial turmoil will affect public research universities.
Peter McPherson joined a panel of local higher education leaders in discussing the changing competitive position of national public research universities. The event was part of a series, hosted by the University’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, on the impact of the economic crisis.
McPherson, formerly the president of the University of Michigan, compared national statistics for public and private research universities, highlighting the increasing financial turmoil public research universities are facing, and discussed President Barack Obama’s goal for all Americans to have some sort of college education.
The panel, made up of representatives from the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, the University and St. John’s University- College of St. Benedict, addressed how economic shifts could greatly impact the quality of public, land-grant universities, like the University of Minnesota.
Public universities are relying more and more on tuition and less on state support, which puts them at an increasingly competitive disadvantage with private research universities, McPherson said.
The statistics McPherson presented showed faculty and students tend to migrate to institutions with better finances, which tend to be private schools.
However, public research universities continue to receive about 60 percent of the research dollars given out by the federal government, he said.
The question is whether public universities can maintain this research funding if the gap between finances at public and private research universities continues to grow and no changes are made, McPherson said.
Panelists discussed a variety of strategic ways to adjust higher education and save money, including having three-year course loads, providing more opportunities for high school seniors to take college courses and finding new ways to create knowledge outside of the stereotypical research lab.
McPherson said finding ways to provide affordable higher education at public universities is important because they play a huge role in our society in terms of research and the students they educate, McPherson said before the event.
“The kind of research that we do at a place like the University of Minnesota is crucial to the economy in the state,” Humphrey Institute Dean Brian Atwood said prior to the event.
John Finnegan, a panel member and dean of the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health , said before the event many people who monitor long-term trends of changing state funding are worried.
“They are basically saying that the model of the public research universities is not sustainable in its current form,” he said.
Public universities are in a difficult position because they are simultaneously under the national pressures of the financial crisis and the state-by-state requirement to balance budgets, Atwood said before the event.
Now is the time to have the hard discussions to decide strategic ways to keep the public research universities competitive, Finnegan said before the event.
“If you’re not going to be strategic about it than the decision that will be made for you [by the state] is a slow decline into mediocre,” he added.

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