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Guest: Regionalism versus internationalism

BY GUEST OPINION | MAY 16, 2014 5:00 AM

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Recently the Iowa State Board of Regents appointed a blue ribbon commission (headed by David Miles) to evaluate the mechanism of funding allocation to the three regents’ universities: the University of Iowa (UI), the Iowa State University, and the University of Northern Iowa. The commission came up with the proposal of changing the current allocation of 40-40-20, respectively, to one based on the number of Iowa residents enrolled. The proposed allocation would result in $60 million slash in funding to the University of Iowa, while increasing those to the other two. My question is, what does the state gain from this reallocation?

On the surface, the plan is equitable, being based on the interest of Iowa residents. But we have to assess the long-term consequences. Land-locked in the middle of America, over the years Iowans have had less contact, compared to states on the two coasts, with other nations across the oceans. It is understandable that, consciously or unconsciously, Iowans are comfortable with a mindset of regionalism. But in this fast-changing world, globalization is taking place whether we like it or not, and the sooner one blends into the current, the sooner one rips the benefit, culturally, politically, and economically. Among the three regents’ universities, the UI stands at the forefront of this process.

The UI is a comprehensive university with more than 200 majors, ranking in the top 30 among public universities in the nation. It is a major research university that attracts over $400 million a year in funding from outside sources (bring in $16 for every $1 spent by the state). Most importantly, its academic reputation has attracted a great number of international visiting scholars and students, at the level of undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral. Such reputation builds up goodwill among nations, but also plants a favorable impression of Iowa in their minds. The name recognition will eventually promote commerce and economic exchange in the interest of Iowa.
I only have to cite two examples of how the UI puts Iowa on the international map. One is the space research of Prof. James van Allen in the 1950s that resulted in the discovery of the famous Van Allen Belt. Another example, less known to the Iowa populace, is the designation of Iowa City as the third UNESCO “World City of Literature,” mainly through the effort of the University of Iowa International Writing Program (IWP) director Prof. Christopher Merrill. IWP was co-founded by the late Prof. Paul Engle and Prof. Hualing Engle in the 1960s, and over the years serves as the hub of international writers, over a thousand from 140 countries as of to date, including two Nobel Prize winners of literature. Each participant spends three months on campus (at no direct cost to university budget), exchanging ideas while savoring a piece of Iowa life. Such glaring examples of international achievements in a sense bring Iowa to the world. They certainly do not provide immediate material reward, but in the long run the economic return will come, slowly and indirectly, benefiting all residents of Iowa. (One instant worth mentioning is the signing of an agricultural pact by President Xi Jinping of China during his visit a few years earlier.)

The state of Iowa does not have a private university in the rank of the Ivy Leagues, but Iowa can promote a state-supported university that can aspire to this goal. The UI is precisely this university. Furthermore, in addition to building an international reputation, the UI educates a great number of Iowa residents, and provides most of the practicing physicians, dentists, and pharmacists of the state. The university is currently in a win-win situation — promoting regionalism as well as internationalism. But now the reputation that the UI has arduously built up over decades is now threatened by the possible implementation of a new budget system, which tilts this precarious balance by sacrificing internationalism in favor of exclusive regionalism. This dreadful outcome may not be the intention of the commission, but we need to point out that the Iowa legislature should have the foresight beyond what is immediately on the horizon. Deferred gratification should be taken into consideration.

Lastly, let me propose a simple way to boost Iowa economy in a practical and effective manner: expand 2-year community college education. While we all want to be good citizens and to contribute our share to society, not everybody has the same aptitude and aspiration. Some are fit for a four-year liberal arts education, but others are happier to have a two-year vocational training that can bring in a decent income. Having our youngsters pursue a two-track college education (a system practiced in many nations) is effective and economical. On the other hand, encouraging our universities to take in as many resident students as possible regardless of their academic attainment (a likely outcome of the Miles recommendation) is not only costly to the state, but will also inevitably lower the standard of our top state universities — a lose-lose situation.

Ramon Lim, M.D., Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Neurology in the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine.


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