From the Guest Editor: Rebuilding Public Universities

By Christopher Newfield

The articles collected in this guest-edited issue of Academe offer an overview of current conditions at prominent public universities in Arizona, Washington, Connecticut, and California as well as a perspective from a leading arts and social sciences university in Britain. Each of the contributors provides a brief sketch of budget conditions at his or her institution before describing the educational effects of those conditions. As a group, the authors provide a valuable account of the symptoms of the crisis through which public universities are currently passing.

The first article in the issue comes from Arizona State University provost Elizabeth D. Capaldi, who shows that cuts to public funding have materially reduced instructional and research capacity and that the already high efficiency of public universities needs to be widely recognized if the major social contributions of those institutions are not to be further diminished.

Bruce Burgett, writing from the Bothell campus of the University of Washington, describes the unusually severe budget cuts and correspondingly large tuition hikes that have afflicted higher education in Washington State. While noting the positive aspects of a customer-driven model for a new campus that serves many nontraditional students, he argues that the cynicism of the current crop of public-private alliances needs to be set against a social-justice vision of public higher education.

Brutal cuts to public support are occurring across the Atlantic as well. Les Back argues that the motivation for the massive cuts in teaching grants for British universities is not to save government money during a fiscal crisis but to turn higher education into a market good to be paid for largely through loans. He asks whether a redefinition of the importance of teaching could be an effective counter-response.

Gaye Tuchman extends her noted ethnographies of academia to study the effects of comparatively small budget cuts at the University of Connecticut. She finds that they have damaged the ability of UConn’s faculty to ground institutional decisions in their own professional standards. Tuchman offers valuable details on how the shift away from faculty authority has been put in place.

In the issue’s concluding article, Joel Norris of California’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography confronts the problem of unsustainable extramural research funding at public universities. Norris argues that the acute resource squeeze, diminishing returns, reduced research productivity, and growing subsidy requirements brought on by the entrepreneurial and “on-spec” approach to grant seeking undermine the conditions that supported the postwar golden age of American science. He calls for a change of course.

This issue of Academe makes clear that the public university’s funding crisis cannot be repaired within the present funding model—the crisis is not simply one of revenue decline but also one of revenue deployment. Where universities have shifted focus from educational goals to financial management, this has, ironically, not helped their finances. These essays suggest how clear instructional and research goals may help educational and financial outcomes at the same time. They also suggest that universities vitally need to refocus on their core mission of raising levels of educational attainment in a time of economic disorientation—to serve a society that critically needs its public universities to stand for it and stand by it.