Rawlings on CHE Recommendations

Hunter Rawlings, former Chair of the Governor’s Commission on Higher Education, recently wrote about the status of his commission’s recommendations, which were delivered to the Governor in June of 2008.

Time to make New York great at university level

New York State has, yet again, lost an opportunity to start building world-class public universities. The combination of the debacle in the governor’s office last March and the current crisis on Wall Street has killed the latest attempt to put this state on the higher education map at a time when others have made public research universities the cornerstone of their strategies for cultural and economic development.

How long will it be before New York, which depends so heavily on one industry, the financial sector, can muster the will to try again?

In May 2007, then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer signed an executive order establishing a State Commission on Higher Education, which he asked me to chair. He said at the time, “Excellence in higher education is a key to our state’s future. … This new commission will help identify innovative, cutting edge ideas and necessary improvements that will … make New York’s higher educational system a world-class institution.”

The membership included education leaders from throughout the state, the dean of the Harvard Law School, and key members of the Assembly and Senate. In June 2008 the commission produced the “bold and actionable” recommendations Spitzer had requested, warning that “the powerful position that New York State once enjoyed in national research standings has faded. Whereas the State captured 10 percent of the nation’s academic research and development spending in 1980, today that number stands at 7.9 percent. … Using just this one measure … more than $2.2 billion and over 27,000 jobs have been lost in the State.”

SUNY and CUNY (the City University of New York, the other public university system in the state), the commission concluded, have a chronic problem: too little revenue, too little investment and too much regulation. Among the serious detrimental effects: a “backlog of critical maintenance of more than $5 billion and increased hiring of part-time, less expensive faculty. Failure to invest in a strong base of full-time faculty poses the single greatest threat to academic quality. Equally troubling is the dramatic rise in mandatory fees – student charges that are not covered by New York State’s Tuition Assistance Program – imposed in an effort to maintain an adequate level of resources.”

The recommendations? Increase differentiation among campuses, focus upon creating a few top research institutions, reducing bureaucracy, and improving access for students wanting to transfer from community colleges. We also proposed a new investment in full-time faculty to make up ground lost in repeated reductions over the past two decades, and the hiring of some academic superstars to help win research funds that would attract outstanding graduate students, drive scientific discoveries and assist in the vital process of technology transfer. The commission also called for enhanced opportunities for members of ethnic minorities, the fastest growing communities in the state, to attend and graduate from college.

Today, less than one year after the Commission’s preliminary report, where are we? I am tempted to say, “nowhere.” SUNY and CUNY have begun to act upon a few of the proposals that don’t cost money, such as streamlining administration, refocusing the SUNY board to concentrate on research and graduate programs, and improving articulation with community colleges. For the most part, however, the report has been, like so many of its predecessors, put on the shelf.

SUNY and CUNY and Cornell’s land grant colleges have just endured their latest round of severe budget cuts. Gov. David A. Paterson and Mayor Michael Bloomberg have plenty else to occupy them, given the state’s and city’s economic woes. The rest of the state, like most of the country, is transfixed by dramatic events in the financial sector. Why pay attention to a report rendered “academic” by today’s giant headlines?

Here’s why. New York State has for too long placed almost all its bets on one industry – the financial sector. That industry has been remarkably successful, but it has meteoric ups and downs, and the state budget goes up and down with it, to the long-term detriment of education and the good of its citizens. It is time for state leaders to take a long-term view of New York’s future, and to recognize, as Michigan and California and North Carolina and Georgia have done, that higher education, particularly top research universities, is the key to the intellectual and economic future in a knowledge economy. Those states understand what great research universities do: They win hundreds of millions of dollars worth of federal grants and contracts, make discoveries that lead to new patents, and help create new businesses and attract other businesses from out of state.

Look at what the Research Triangle in the midst of UNC Chapel Hill, Duke and North Carolina State has done for North Carolina, or what Silicon Valley, in proximity to Stanford and Berkeley, has accomplished in California. Top research universities also attract excellent students, especially graduate students, from other states and countries around the world. Those students bring with them brainpower as well as tuition dollars, and many of them stay to become scientific and business leaders in their adopted homes.

To put it simply: in today’s competitive global economy, intellectual talent wins, and great research universities import and develop intellectual talent generation after generation. China and India have figured this out; it’s time New York did the same.

New York is fortunate to have Cornell, Columbia and NYU, three great private universities that bring huge influxes of talent and research to the state. But New York has neglected its public universities shamefully. The Commission on Higher Education recommended steady, long-term investment in SUNY and CUNY – consistent, predictable appropriations rather than raising and cutting budgets on a completely unpredictable schedule.

The same goes for tuition: Don’t hold it down for years, then allow big, one-time increases to make up the ground. Instead, provide for reasonable annual increases that enable administrators to plan ahead, develop long-term strategies, and implement them with some degree of confidence.

We recommended a focus upon a few graduate campuses to enable them compete for top faculty and student talent.

Even with such investment and attention, it will be a long time before New York can claim to have built a Berkeley or University of Michigan. But it had better start sometime. Perhaps it takes a crisis to muster the will to begin.

Hunter R. Rawlings III is professor of classics and history and president emeritus at Cornell University.

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