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The end of the public university as we know it?

BY STEFFEN SCHMIDT - GUEST OPINION | DECEMBER 04, 2009 7:30 AM

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As winter approaches and budget cuts are implemented, it all seems so calm around the Iowa City campus. The panhandlers are at work. Too much alcohol is being consumed. Football fever is in the air. The Coral Ridge Mall is bulging with holiday shoppers. The Old Capitol Town Center still has the worst website I’ve ever seen.

There is no sign that a Force 5 Budgetary Hurricane is about to hit.

We want to enact these cuts without disrupting services, but you really can’t do more with less. In fact, you can’t even do the same with less. We will do less with less. It’s the law, like gravity. When a hurricane hits, you get damage and lots of beach erosion. We are about to experience that fury.

The financial storm will be fully felt when students can’t get classes because they’ve been canceled or can’t get into a class because of overbooking like an airline at Christmas. Graduating in four years, never easy, will be that much harder.

Want to talk to your academic adviser? Get in line. And you may be talking to a general adviser, not someone who is familiar with your major.

Then you’ll want a letter of recommendation for that internship, graduate school, or job. Good luck.

For public universities these budget cuts are putting them “at a competitive disadvantage to top private universities in retaining faculty and academic rankings,” as the Washington Post put it in a Sept. 12 article titled “Funding Cuts Leave Area Colleges Gasping.”

Dan Hurley of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities said the long-term effect of public budget cuts is a gradual shift in state-supported higher education “from a public good to a privately purchased good.”

University of North Carolina President Erskine Bowles recently said about budget cuts, “It takes generations to build a university system like we have here. And you can destroy it in a second if you don’t nourish it and sustain it.”

Public universities have become much more like fancy private schools, so in the future they may need to cater to those who can afford the price.

With a potential increase in tuition and fees at Iowa’s universities, that future is closer than we may think.

What does this all mean?

I believe that we may be witnessing the end of the public university as we know it.

After all, American and Iowa leaders are afraid to raise revenue because they fear the anti-tax movement. We are in the midst of an anti-big-government movement as well. State universities are painted as big government by the anti-tax Tea Party folks. So capitalism and the market seem to be finally hitting public universities.

A friend of mine — who is an entrepreneur — said to me, “I guess this means no more drinkin’ and partyin’ at my expense.” If that’s the way you want to look at it.

If you want a Cadillac or a BMW, you pay the price.

Get out your credit card, kids.

Steffen Schmidt is professor of political science at Iowa State University and a chief political and international correspondent for insideriowa.com.


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