Charles R. Pruitt is a board member and vice chairman of the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities and was a member of the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents from 2003 until this year.
For generations, public universities have been seen as great equalizers in the United States, especially for the middle class. In many states, a high-achieving student could go to a “Public Ivy,” a land-grant, flagship university in Michigan, Wisconsin or California, among others, and receive a Harvard- or Yale-caliber education at an affordable price.
But this model depends on another that stands in sudden danger of collapse: bipartisan — indeed, nonpartisan — political support. There always have been politicians willing to assail the so-called ivory tower, but elected officials have almost always unified across partisan lines in not merely support of but also pride in their public universities. Increasingly, however, they are retreating behind those lines to attack the schools.
This trend, which threatens the fundamental promise of the Public Ivies, is evident in deep and ongoing cuts in state support, renewed political attacks on faculty and the tenure system that protects their freedom, and a growing focus on the economic rather than the humanizing role of education. That those lobbing the attacks are increasingly identifiable by partisan labels is perhaps the most discrete cause for alarm.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that states have slashed per-student spending at public colleges and universities by 17 percent since the Great Recession, while tuition has shot up by a third.
We’ve certainly seen it in Wisconsin, where I recently completed 13 years of service on the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin system. The “Wisconsin Idea” — that the university system serves not just students but also the state as a whole — once bound even intensely divided political leaders in the belief that the public university was both a point of pride and an anchor of opportunity.
Between 2003, when I joined the regents, and 2010, aid declined precipitously while tuition rose by 71 percent. In 2000, almost 10 cents of every tax dollar in Wisconsin went to the university system. Today, it is close to 6 cents. Meanwhile, the same elected officials slashing aid are now forbidding any tuition increases that might compensate for continued cuts.
Such policies compromise the historic promise of the Public Ivies: excellence and affordability, made possible by robust state support. Now, having made incompatible promises to slash funding and freeze tuition, politicians have set aside leadership and chosen the course of attack instead. In my state, they say the university is “out of touch,” its business model “broken.” The idea is to set up a partisan debate between largely Democratic defenders and largely Republican critics of the university.
This process of partisan polarization surrounding universities has occurred in other states as well, from Virginia and North Carolina to Colorado and Arizona. In North Carolina, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory said the state should only subsidize university classes that would “get someone a job.” Elsewhere, more in-state students are losing their places to “full pay” students from other states or countries as universities desperately search for new revenue to offset budget cuts. A recent “discovery” of “billions” of dollars held in reserve at the University of Virginia stirred legislative criticism even though, as university officials tried to explain, most of these dollars came originally from sources other than state aid or tuition and, in an era of declining state support, a reserve fund is an essential component of sound fiscal management.
At a meeting not long ago between state legislative leaders and regents of the University of Wisconsin, for example, the Republican speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly, Robin Vos, told the regents we had a choice: be “cheerleaders for the university or advocates for the taxpayers.” The once-unifying “Wisconsin Idea” had held that to be one was to be the other. Meanwhile, in his 2015 budget, Republican Gov. Scott Walker simultaneously proposed slashing a record $350 million from the university while removing tenure protections for faculty.
Walker also proposed rewriting the institution’s mission statement — which focuses on “the search for truth” and improvement of the human condition, the traditional and noble role of the university — so that it focused on training workers instead.
In the face of criticism, Walker called these changes a “drafting error.” An error can reveal a great deal about one’s underlying values, and this one did. The governor and his allies spoke of “modernizing” the mission statement. But the search for truth and the sifting and winnowing of knowledge in its pursuit are not out of date. They are timeless and, indeed, they have never been more urgently relevant.
There are lessons in this for policymakers across the country. The implicit dichotomy between a humanizing education and a lucrative one is false. Employers consistently say they seek graduates who can think independently and analytically. Students learn to do so by means of technical skills, of course — which public universities teach — but also by learning the great and timeless ideas an education at a Public Ivy conveys.
That used to be a unifying idea. But to say the Public Ivies used to unite the parties is to say too little. They used to transcend such divisions. That they are now being used to inflame them bodes ill — not just for the Public Ivies, but for public discourse, too.