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Regent president addresses the sustainability of Iowa’s public universities

BY DAVID MILES - GUEST OPINION | FEBRUARY 22, 2010 7:30 AM

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As the governing board of Iowa’s public universities and special schools, it is the responsibility of the state Board of Regents to protect and enhance the outstanding quality of our fine institutions and their commitment to teaching, research, and service for all Iowans. We have been sorely challenged in meeting our responsibilities over the past 18 months because of unprecedented reductions in state funding totaling approximately $162 million, or nearly 25 percent of the regent institutions’ fiscal 2009 general-fund appropriations. While the institutions have done an outstanding job of managing through these difficult times, the magnitude of recent budget cuts has made it impossible to hold students harmless.

Class offerings have been reduced, programs have been eliminated, and class sizes are larger. Unsurprisingly, these steps negatively affect our efforts to preserve the quality educational experience that Iowans expect from their public universities. We recognize that we are not the only ones affected by the global financial crisis, and we have and will do our part. The Board of Regents and the presidents of the University of Iowa, Iowa State University, and the University of Northern Iowa, along with their faculty, staff, and students, have all worked diligently to preserve the availability of a world-class educational experience for present and future generations. Together, we have reduced costs and focused on our priorities. We have worked effectively across the enterprise and with numerous state agencies. And we have, without fail, made students, and their access to an affordable, high quality education, our first priority.

But the challenge to do more with less is not new to our institutions. This latest round of cuts follows many years of reductions in state funding to Iowa’s public universities. In fiscal 1991, 68 percent of our general-education funds came from state appropriations. In fiscal 2010, for the first time, the state’s contribution to the general-education budget for Iowa’s public universities fell below that paid by students (41 percent versus 53 percent, respectively). In fact, measured in current dollars, fiscal 2010 state support to Iowa’s public universities and special schools ($467 million) had dropped to the same level as that of fiscal 1997. During that same period, however, student enrollment increased 7.6 percent. The net result is that our students are paying more and getting less.

We know that Iowans and our elected leaders take pride in our state’s commitment to education at all levels. Each and every year our governor and Legislature must balance a growing list of competing priorities. And they have made special efforts in the last fiscal year to leverage federal funding to minimize expense cuts to Iowa’s public universities. As a result, the news for our institutions is by no means all bad. In the midst of these trying times, our institutions have achieved record enrollments (71,353 in fall 2010) and record external funding ($774 million in fiscal 2009).

Tuition increases have remained moderate — 2.4 percent in fiscal 2009, 4.2 percent in fiscal 2010, and 6 percent for fiscal 2011. And Iowa’s public universities continue to be a vital engine of economic development and quality job creation.

In fiscal 2009 alone, our universities generated a more than $6.4 billion economic impact for the state of Iowa. But the realities are clear: The future of Iowa’s public universities will necessarily be one of increasing self-sufficiency, not just during this global economic crisis but for the foreseeable future. As the financial crisis ebbs, Iowa’s economy will continue to improve.

However, it is unrealistic to expect state funding to Iowa’s public universities to return to the levels of 20 years ago. As demands for state funding continue to proliferate, Iowa’s public universities will increasingly need to look to their own ingenuity, innovation, and resources — all qualities that have been demonstrated in abundance by our university personnel and students over the past 18 months — to ensure the future of these outstanding institutions. Together we can, and will, take the necessary steps to protect the quality, accessibility, and affordability of Iowa’s public universities in the years to come.

David Miles is the president of the state Board of Regents.


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