WASHINGTON -- Recalibrating the puzzle pieces of support for public universities to include more financing from the federal government as state contributions wane might offer the best solutions for public universities’ economic woes, a panel of presidents concluded here Sunday.
At “Financing Tomorrow’s Public Research Universities,”  the opening session of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities’ (APLU) annual conference, four public university presidents -- and one ex-president -- came together to consider how to fund their institutions once the federal stimulus money runs out, the recession runs its course and the Obama administration’s efforts to expand access to higher education kick into high gear.
The presidents, all coming from situations of financial duress and speaking to a gathering of administrators from other struggling institutions, couldn't be expected to argue for less federal funding or to get too bogged down in discussion of the strings of accountability that would almost certainly be attached to any new appropriations. In their remarks, panelists Elson S. Floyd, president of Washington State University; Sally Mason, president of the University of Iowa; Lee T. Todd Jr., president of the University of Kentucky; and Mark G. Yudof, president of the University of California System, all looked to federal support for their state-based universities, as did Peter McPherson, the association’s president and former president of Michigan State University.
“The competitive future of our country in part depends upon the academic community as a whole certainly including public and land grant universities,” McPherson said, after listing the challenges facing APLU members. “These are the most daunting we’ve experienced since the modern public university system was built … [and we] can surmount these challenges.”
In an October paper,  Yudof called for the creation of a national strategy for higher education. “There never has been an integrated national strategy in this country for higher education,” he wrote. “There needs to be one now. The mission is simply too important to leave to state governments that seem disinclined or unable to pursue it.”
He carried the same line of argument throughout his talk, rallying for the expansion of federal support of higher education to include more than just financial aid and research funding. “The policy of thinking you can just in a laser-like way say we want the poor kids to get a break and we want to do lots of research, but, you know, the rest of it is up to the states, is simply not working.”
Though “some people say it’s not the time to act” while the country lurches through a recession, Yudof said he thinks the time is right for major change. The Morrill Act funding the creation of land-grant institutions, he noted, was signed into law in 1862 in the midst the economic and social unrest of Civil War. “What worse moment in American history?"
The challenge, he conceded, “is a delicate problem of federalism.” Congress doesn’t trust state governments to spend federal dollars as instructed so instead holds back to avoid seeing money marked for higher education ultimately fund highways construction or the state department of corrections. But, he said, “we’ve got to deal with this federalism problem” because it's one that Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea and many other emerging higher education powers don’t have.
But he offered no support for a federal solution proposed earlier this fall by the University of California at Berkeley Chancellor  Robert J. Birgeneau and Frank D. Yeary, a vice chancellor, to provide special support for a few of the country’s most elite public research universities. “My feeling is if we say let’s designate the top 20 research universities that should get special treatment from Congress, it’ll die,” he said.
Mason, of the University of Iowa, said she “would use Iowa as a perfect example of why federalism [works].” The university sustained $740 million in flood damage in June 2008 and “FEMA is solving all my problems” in reconstructing the Iowa City campus.
“I would tell you that you need partners if you’re going to get through these difficult times, if you’re going to sustain and grow, if you’re going to continue to be a world-class research institution,” she said. “It absolutely behooves us now to take it a step further and build our partnerships out as far as we can, whether it’s with the federal government, whether it’s with other entities that we can come up with.”
Kentucky’s Todd and Washington State’s Floyd also spoke in favor of better cultivation of partnerships, with the federal government, the states and private donors. “The idea about trying to leverage federal money to push the state or state money to push industry … is something that really works,” Todd said.
“We must work with our respective state legislatures to identify stable and predictable revenue sources that will continue to fuel and fund our colleges and universities across the country,” Floyd said. “If we fail to do that we have only ourselves to blame because the reality is we must be unrelenting relative to our stewardship of these institutions.”