Responding to a Congressional request, the National Research Council has now convened a committee  to study the health of the nation’s research universities and to identify strategies for advancing their role in U.S. prosperity, security, and global competitiveness in the 21st century. This is both an intensely timely issue and one with a very long history. While they have long been with us, these questions have never been more urgent than in the current period of economic uncertainty, as devastating budget cuts and widespread disinvestment are threatening the foundation of our nation’s higher education system, and its research universities in particular.
To define a course of action for the 21st century U.S. research university, the newly formed committee would do well to look to the roots of this question in the 19th century. We are approaching the 150th anniversary of the U.S. policy that has been key to shaping the evolution of public higher education in general and the American research university in particular: the 1862 Morrill Act.
Also known as the Land Grant College Act, this federal legislation made public higher education possible for millions of Americans, extending it beyond the rich, the clergy, and the privileged, and creating the opportunity for anyone with the talent and the motivation to benefit from an advanced education. This act surely helped to create an unprecedented century of American prosperity, fueled by the innovation, discovery, and knowledge generated from our classrooms and research laboratories. It also established today’s paradigm, with the states responsible for much of the fundamental budget and policy regulation of public colleges and universities.
But as the sesquicentennial of this landmark law draws closer, instead of celebrating its legacy, the nation steadily is letting it slip away, and eroding a cornerstone of our democracy in the process. In state after state, fundamental higher education budgets are being ruthlessly slashed to a degree never seen before, compromising the fundamental operating basis of public higher education.
This current model is simply unsustainable. State by state, we are deconstructing a great American institution without the type of public debate and examination that rightfully must accompany a social policy change of this magnitude, and doing so in the utter absence of any realistic and coordinated overarching national strategy for public higher education. Moreover, the research universities, with the breadth of their sophisticated activities, more than other sectors of the public higher education enterprise, are disproportionately threatened by this instability.
The future of our nation’s public higher education institutions is too important to leave in the hands of individual states. As the framers of the Morrill Act forecast, and as the foundation of this new federal panel reaffirms, a strong public higher education system anchored by excellent research universities is key to building U.S. economic, intellectual, and technological strength, as well as to ensuring our national security and global competitiveness. We all have a stake in this, and we need public policy that advances our public research universities as an investment in our collective well-being.
The time is ripe for our nation’s leadership to take a fresh approach to this issue while pushing this policy discussion into the public arena, and the creation of the National Research Council Committee on Research Universities is a promising foundation for such a conversation. I hope that the committee’s deliberations will serve to frame a larger national debate about establishing a broad, overarching national public higher education policy. In place of the short-term, narrowly defined tactical fixes based on political trends of the day that our states have shown of late, we need a long-range, carefully considered national strategy to define the role of public higher education in our nation’s future, and to shape the long-term policies best equipped to support this role.
Such a debate should begin by affirming the basic notion of why we need a strong system of public higher education in this country, and proceed to explore how we can best achieve this objective. Several critical questions and proposals are already being raised within the national higher education community, and would help to frame this debate. Some of my colleagues, for example, have called for a new Morrill Act reaffirming federal investment in public higher education, with a focus on urban-serving universities. Others call upon states to resume the chief role in paying for public higher education systems, while others suggest creating a group of federally-funded super land grant universities. And as the global economic crisis makes such federal and state support increasingly more challenging, growing numbers are calling for universities to be empowered to generate revenue independently through entering into strategic public-private partnerships and introducing key elements of free market competition.
Whatever shape these conversations ultimately take, I hope they will urge a careful, strategic discussion at Congressional and Administration levels, as well as topping the agendas of major higher education associations such as the Association of American Universities and Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. The result? A clear and widely-understood national strategy shaped by broad-ranging, active public debate will help ensure that our campuses continue to contribute significantly not only to the advancement of education and research, but also to the economic strength and security of our communities, regions, and nation. Fueling an innovation-based economy in the 21st century by sustaining our research legacy will improve quality of life and maintain our healthy democracy. Our success in reversing the plight of public higher education would also mean the preservation of a positive U.S. economic and political impact globally.
Nationally, we need to return to the view that public higher education is a public good. And we need to recognize that for its critical and foundational impact to continue, maintaining a strong higher education system, guided by a long-range, strategic federal policy, must remain one of our highest national priorities.
If we succeed, we will be able to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act as the fulfillment of the foresight and value of our American public higher education system, just as its authors intended — not as an occasion for regret as we look back on the remarkable legacy we squandered in times of short-term financial difficulties.
John B. Simpson is president of the University at Buffalo, of the State University of New York.