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Federal Universities?

30 Sep Posted by in Academics, Business | Comments Off on Federal Universities?

The op-ed piece in last Sunday’s Washington Post, from two leaders of the University of California at Berkeley, was intriguing, for it revived some musings I’d pondered over the summer. The idea is that, given the huge and undeniable problems major state universities are facing in state-based funding, not just in the current crisis but over a longer term, we need a federal input at least for a few leading centers.

First reactions are probably obvious. The altruism of the Berkeley approach — let’s apply this to a few outstanding institutions — is obvious. My own reaction was to favor the idea so long as a major public university within twenty miles of the nation’s capital, and in a state not beginning with the letter M, was clearly designated from the outset. The battles over who would be included, and the resulting increase in disparities among public institutions, may doom the idea from the outset — and perhaps it should. I also worry about yet another easy call on the national purse, at a time when the federal ability to print new money is probably, no pun intended, being dramatically overtaxed. And always there would be concern about the regulatory string attached to any new federal intrusion — already the federal enthusiasm for imposing bureaucratic requirements seems to rise with each passing year.

But there are reasons to open up the topic. Federally-sponsored discussions of the funding issue are warranted. These could include adoption of selected universities. They could include fuller coverage of federally-funded research expenses, so there would be less indirect burden on tuition. They could include a clearer federal effort to free up state monies by imposing fewer unfunded mandates. They could include some direct support to states for higher education purposes, perhaps with direct access of qualified, lower income students to top institutions as a core component.

So, while I found the Berkeley effort rather nakedly self-serving (at about the same level as the idea being floated last summer, also from Berkeley, that the State of California should sell the UCLA campus to generate funds for other centers), the idea of encouraging some federal-level discussion is abundantly warranted. The public university system (granted, I can be self-serving too) is vital to the national interest in all sorts of respects, from sheer educational access to research to regional outreach to global competitiveness. Problems are accumulating that clearly burst beyond state boundaries. Let’s find a way to encourage some new conversations.