The Wrong Rescue Plan

Public universities need help, but that doesn't mean the values of the Morrill Act should be discarded by favoring a few institutions over the rest, writes M. Duane Nellis.

December 15, 2009

In recent weeks, several of my colleagues have asserted that bold steps are needed to return America’s public research universities to prominence, following decades of disinvestment and continued, difficult cuts. They suggested lawmakers consider a consolidation of sorts and proposed federal operating support and matching opportunities for a limited number of public research universities in a new, federal-state university system. This system would, in essence, make the largest and most well-funded public universities larger still and ensure their preeminence through federal investment. It would offer more spots for out-of-state students, who would be granted their home in-state tuition rates at these elite national publics.

Bold action is certainly needed. But the premise for this proposal fails to take into account two powerful notions that the Morrill Act built and that bind our nation’s land-grant and other leading public research universities: the inextricable link between public research and teaching universities and their home state’s economic development – and, even more fundamentally, the power of the big idea.

Public research universities and, most certainly, land-grant research universities are, at their core, state partnerships. By design, they provide research, teaching and extension services statewide, bringing the innovation, scholarship, and knowledge production of the university to practical use to support businesses, industry – in engineering and agriculture historically and now, as our lives and economies diversify, in many arenas. In many states, public research and teaching universities also serve the majority of the state’s first-generation college students – a now imperative cause as our country’s higher education attainment rate continues to decrease compared to much of the developed world and jeopardizes our country’s capacity for global competitiveness.

To assume that these roles would not be diminished or could be subsumed in a consolidation more focused on national and international research and teaching needs is to view our college-bound citizenry through a narrow lens. It does not take into account geographic, socioeconomic or even the family and professional circumstances that the Morrill Act sought to address by opening access to high-quality higher education in every state, large or small, and thus for all Americans more than 100 years ago.

Any solution to the financial problems facing public universities must acknowledge one fundamental truth: that the power of the big idea is bigger than any one university system or one type of university. The collaborative and creative work of our nation’s professoriate is world class and world-changing. We compete with one another – and with the world – to earn the federal and private funding to develop our best ideas. Often those ideas begin with a local problem and bring the world’s knowledge and collaborators together toward a solution. At the University of Idaho, for example, a program led by water resources engineer Rick Allen recently won the prestigious National Innovations in American Government Award from Harvard University. His was one of six innovations selected, out of 700 worldwide entries, for his development of a methodology to employ satellite imagery to track water usage down to the level of individual agricultural fields. More important than the award is the fact that his work is helping the Idaho Department of Water Resources become the first agency in the U.S. to develop and use satellite imagery to monitor and enhance public understanding of water usage. This is a significant advancement for a world with shrinking water resources and for a state in which more than 90 percent of the water is used for agricultural irrigation.

Like his colleagues nationwide, Dr. Allen is a competitor, a collaborator and a state partner. Perhaps we should consider a solution to our fiscal challenges where his and all other public research university professors’ earned extramural funding is matched, dollar for dollar, as part of a federal operations and infrastructure incentive program for public research universities. This would motivate administrative support for growing the research and creative enterprises at all public universities and ensure that they grow at a pace matching their scholarly capacity and the state populations they serve. In addition, a federal incentive program to match philanthropic contributions toward student scholarships and retention programs at public universities – modeling successful matching programs implemented in some states – would most certainly begin to address affordability and success rates at all of our institutions.

To invest only in a select few institutions is to do so at the expense of the work of many. The Morrill Act was bold because it sought higher education for all Americans – regardless of economic, social, ethnic or geographic circumstance. The result was a highly educated, innovative, and prosperous society, with each state building both its own destiny and that of the nation.

Bold action is needed. Surely we can pool our leadership to develop the biggest idea yet – one that reaffirms our state partnerships, our commitment to student access and our commitment to serving all of our state’s citizens through America’s preeminent public research and teaching university system.


M. Duane Nellis is the president of the University of Idaho.


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