|Universities aim to maintain excellence|
July 5, 2009/The Detroit Free Press
BY MICHAEL BOULUS
The Detroit Free Press seems to have given up the vision of Michigan as a great state, capable of reclaiming its position of leadership and prosperity in the United States and the world.
How else to explain the recent editorial demanding that the state's most important economic development engines, our public universities, resign themselves to becoming second- or third-class institutions ("Universities blind to Michigan's misery," June 29).
The facts of the matter are clear: The only way out of Michigan's current economic malaise is by joining the knowledge economy. In today's world, factory work is increasingly the business of Third World nations, or states that wish to compete with them in lowering their standards of living. There is a growing consensus that prosperity can be found only in the knowledge economy, which includes the parts of the manufacturing sector that require a four-year college degree, such as marketing, legal affairs, finance, design, engineering and management.
Young people around the world and Michigan get it. Public university enrollments are at or near all-time highs; applications this summer are swamping most campuses.
Ignoring these facts, our elected officials have cut state higher education spending throughout this decade. In Fiscal year 2001, the state spent $1.615 billion on Michigan's public universities. In Fiscal Year 2008, that figure was $1.581 billion. If we had just adjusted the 2001 figure for inflation, the state would have spent $1.954 billion on higher education last year. Adjusted for the influx of students that Michigan universities have encouraged, and state funding should be well over $2 billion today.
The decrease in state funding has left public universities struggling with two choices. They can become mediocre and lose the luster that has kept our best and brightest here and attracted the best minds in the world to our state. Or they can raise tuition.
Our universities, each an independent institution competing for students, have talked with their students, their faculty and staff, the businesses that rely on them for research and graduates, and decided that second, third or fourth best isn't good enough. So they have raised tuition, by differing amounts, to make up for cuts in state funding.
The tuition increases, combined with state funding decreases, mean university budgets have increased by just over 3% annually over the decade -- hardly evidence of profligate spending. Indeed, cuts have been continual, across all universities.
Western Michigan University closes its entire operation over the Christmas holidays to save on sky-high and increasing energy bills. Oakland University has announced a salary freeze. Michigan State University is eliminating 600 positions. The University of Michigan has reduced its share of employee health care support and closed its television station.
Michigan's university boards are showing themselves to be responsible stewards of the institutions that they manage -- the only institutions that are adding to Michigan's share of young talent that is the raw material of today's knowledge economy.
The alternative is to have university leaders preside over the decline and collapse of Michigan's public universities -- much as the managers of our public transportation system have been presiding over the decline of our state's highway system.
It is indeed disappointing to see the Free Press join others in insisting that university boards cave in to the increasingly prevalent mind-set that Michigan can no longer be a great state with a great future.
Michael BoulUs is executive director of the Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Link to The Detroit Free Press editorial.