The fight for higher education

BY SHAWN GUDE | MARCH 04, 2010 7:30 AM

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The David Miles I spoke with Wednesday morning was not the David Miles the public is used to hearing.

“I’m not throwing in the towel at all to make the case over and over again to the Legislature, to the state, and to citizens about how important it is to fund higher education,” the president of the state Board of Regents told me.

It was a swift break from his speech last week at the Iowa City Noon Rotary Club, in which he spoke about “the need to do more with less.”

“If we consider the long-term trends, 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,” Miles said.

The troubling long-term trend of declining state funding is undeniable. The state has gone from funding 76 percent of the UI’s budget three decades ago to just 41 percent this school year. As the Editorial Board discussed last week, this has profound implications for education accessibility, democratic citizenship, and the survival of departments with less affluent alumni.

I came away from my Wednesday talk with Miles thinking that while he cares deeply for higher education in the state, he has too readily accepted the relative paucity of funding allocated to state universities year in and year out.

Miles defended his comments, saying, “I would hope that no one has misinterpreted that, to think that we’ve re-evaluated and said, ‘Well, we’re not that critical in terms of our contribution to the state, and so don’t worry about investing in us.’ Because that’s not true.”

It would be unfair to blame Miles for decades of incessant defunding; he has only been on the board since 2007. But his voice has been conspicuously silent in those years. It’s clear he cares. But does he have the chutzpah to speak out and fight against years of financial neglect?

A look at his statements and speeches over the past couple years suggests he may not. It’s not to say that Miles welcomes this lack of funding. But his emphasis has been on adapting, rather than questioning. Even when he has negatively appraised the long-term funding decline, he has stopped short of imploring the Legislature to restore previous funding levels.

“Our immediate fiscal challenges aside, there is reason to be concerned about whether the state of Iowa is continuing to make the level of investment in Iowa’s public universities and special schools to continue the quality that we have come to expect,” he said in a January 2009 statement in reaction to Gov. Chet Culver’s fiscal 2010 budget.

He then bemoaned long-standing funding shortages and the stress they put on universities — but he didn’t castigate the Legislature, Culver, or past governors for their actions. And he didn’t call on elected officials to build up public funding when the economic recession waned.

As the regents’ president, he has the stature and authority to bring attention to this troubling issue. Insulated from the political pressures of an elected official, he should be an unbiased, yet passionate advocate for the state’s higher-education system. Instead, he came off last week as a docile supplicant, thanking the Legislature and governor for what little funding they’ve appropriated and seemed to view this funding decline as inevitable.

It would be naïvely atavistic for me to assume appropriations could return to the levels of, say, 50 years ago. In the 1959-60 school year, state appropriations accounted for a whopping 80 percent of the UI’s budget. After two decades of funding undulations, that number had dropped a few percentage points. But just one decade ago, even after years of steady allocation drops, state appropriations made up 63 percent of the UI’s general-education budget.

For the sake of our state’s economy and citizens, we need to return to that allocation percentage. Tuition, private dollars, and research grants can’t take the place of strong state support for our public universities.

In order for that to happen, we’re going to need prominent people such as Miles to be determined pugilists, rather than pliant adapters in the face of gradual privatization.

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