The University of River City
What happens if (when?) the public money vanishes from “public” higher education?
[Editor's Note: This is guest post was provided by Harold Hill, of River City, Iowa.}
My name is Harold Hill and I am a lifelong resident – a fifth generation resident – of River City, Iowa. My thanks to Casey Green and the editors of Inside Higher Ed for offering me the Digital Tweed platform to share with you the story of the University of River City.
I suspect that some of you may be familiar with one story about River City, the one made famous by The Music Man, an award-winning Broadway musical and later, a really good Hollywood film. The play tells the story of my great-grandfather, Harold Hill, and how his life was changed when he arrived in River City, Iowa around 1912. My beloved great-grandfather was both a character and, at one time in his life, a con-man. The story told in the musical is largely true: he was going to sell the city leaders musical instruments for the kids, then take the money and run. But it was in River City that Harold Hill met his match, Marian Paroo. My great-grandmother, Marion (the Librarian), initially his nemesis, was to become the love of his life: indeed she was the woman who changed his life.
You may recall that great-grandmother Marion was not well-liked by the grand-dames of River City. The town’s wealthy patron, Charley Madison (also known as “Old Miser” Madison) died in 1908 and left the city a good sum money to build a library. But in an unusual twist, Charlie Madison gave my grandmother control of book money. Although Madison was a curmudgeon, he was also, for his day, a pretty free-thinking fellow. He knew the city and its children would benefit from a library, but he was also concerned that local forces (the grand-dames) would render the collection bland, at best. So he directed that the book money be given to Marion Paroo, to buy books for the library. Madison's will stipulated that the books would be Marion’s property, acting as a kind of trustee for the new River City library. Admittedly, it was a very difficult relationship: the city owned the library building, while Marion owned the library books and library budget. Over time and will some help from my great-grand father who was had become an honest and engaged citizen after marring Marion, the Grand-Dames, the city fathers, Marion the Librarian, and a few lawyers worked things out: assured of no censorship by the grand-dames, Marion gave the books to the city. Charlie Madison’s endowment continues to support the library, and the library remains a much valued public resource and source of great civic pride in River City.
The success of Harold Hill's small brass band, and the impact of the library managed by my great-grandmother, led the city leaders to think about other kinds of “public investments” that might benefit the city. Yes, "investing" in the city' two small schools was an obvious choice, especially for a farm town in the years just before World War I. But the city leaders wanted to do something "big.” And in River City, thinking big — as we would say today, "out of the box" — meant thinking about a college, a college for the children and citizens of River City.
And so it happened that in the early 1920s, the City Elders convinced the citizens of River City that a college would be a great thing for community: it would provide significant educational and occupational benefits for individuals, and also bring great benefits for the larger community. My great-grandfather, Harold Hill, helped to raise money for the college, which was named The College of River City. Local businesses contributed money to buy the land and to construct the first buildings. Residents of River City voted for a modest increase on their property taxes to help fund the college. And intentionally modest tuition charges covered the balance of the operating expenses.
The College of River City became a great source of local pride. The College never aspired to be a great, prestigious, national college. Our aspirations were modest and pragmatic: a “good” local college for the children and citizens of River City.
Over time the college grew, adding both students and new fields of study. From a few dozen students in the early 1920s, the college grew to a few hundred during the 1930s Following the Second World War and the great expansion of higher education in the United States in the 1950s and 1960, enrollment rose to about 2,000, as the college drew students from other rural communities in Iowa. The addition of few small graduate programs in business, education, and health care in the mid-1970s led campus officials and city leaders to believe it was appropriate to wave the semantic wand: in 1982, the College of River City became the University of River City. Yet even with the name change, the college and community leaders shared a common vision and mission: a college for the children and community of River City. And despite the ebb and flow of the national and local economies, River City’s citizens and community leaders supported the college as they had from the start: contributions from the local business community, modest tax support, and modest tuition charges.
Alas, that balance between three buckets of revenue – contributions from the local business community, modest tax support, and modest tuition charges – began to erode during the recession of the early 1990s. Confronting other pressing public expenses and unprecedented resistance to tax increases to support the college’s operating expenses, city leaders said they had no choice but to reduce the annual funding for the college. For almost 70 years the city had funded roughly half of the college’s operating budget. That number declined to 45 percent in 1995, dropped to 35 percent by 2002, and was hovering at 25 percent by 2008. Campus officials launched ambitious efforts to secure more money from local businesses to help offset the decline in city money; however it was tuition increases that provided the money formerly provided from the city budget.
As elsewhere, the current economic downturn has wrecked havoc on the city’s finances, and, by extension, the finances of the University of River City. This past year city leaders cut the public support to less than 10 percent of the college’s operating budget; based on the most recent public discussions, the City’s support will fall to less than five percent of the University’s budget by 2014.
I’ve served two terms as a Board member of the University of River City. The university remains a local source of civic pride, even as it struggles financially, and our financial struggles are very public. Like most of my peers on the Board, I am very concerned about the greatly diminished public support for the University and the burden that rising tuition imposes on our students and their families. But given my family history, I have an added concern: what happens when the city owns the college buildings, but the operating money comes almost entirely from other sources?
River City has been here before. A century ago Charlie Madison left money for the city to build a library, but he gave the money for the books and operating expenses to my great-grandmother, Marian (the Librarian) Paroo. By all accounts, it was a very messy relationship. City officials claimed control of the library because the city owned the land, mortar, and bricks. In contrast, my grandmother argued that she was in control of the library because Madison entrusted her with the operational money for books and staff.
Here in River City, members of my extended family, including one cousin who is an attorney, are beginning to talk about the events of a century ago: they are asking who really “owns” the public college that operates with little or no public money. Some of my relatives are talking about legal action that would wrestle control of the college from the city.
We know our situation here in River City is not unique. Across the country, state support as a percentage of the operating budget for public higher education has dropped dramatically over the past three decades. Several states now provide less than 15 or even 10 percent of the operating funds for their public colleges and universities.
Our local college confronts major challenges. Ultimately, we the citizens of River City must do for others what those before did for us: if we are return to the three buckets of revenue that sustained the College of River City for seven decades – contributions from the local business community, modest tax support, and modest tuition charges – we the citizens River City must up our ante. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be pleasant. I know that the town meetings could get nasty.
My great-grandfather, Harold Hill, was charming, and he ultimately leveraged that quality to great public good, taking a leadership role in the efforts to develop the College of River City almost a century ago. Similarly, my great-grandmother, Marion Pardoo Hill, was tenacious in her advocacy for investing in education here in River City.
I hope that we here in River CIty will decide to do the right thing, to balance the revenue buckets and to up the community contribution required to support the college. Perhaps a little charm – and lots of tenacity – will ease that path.
Harold Hill IV, a fifth generation resident of River City, Iowa, is the chair-elect of the Board of the University of River City.
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