Leadership & Governance

Public-University Leaders Plan for More Hard Times Ahead

November 14, 2011

At a gathering here of leaders of public and land-grant universities, the talk is of navigating the "new normal."

The normal, that is, where budgets have been cut with little hope of bouncing back, where families are balking at escalating tuition rates, and where lawmakers show minimal appetite for increasing state support.

The chancellors, presidents, provosts, and deans assembled here for the three-day annual meeting of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities have been swapping stories about how they responded to the downturn that has walloped higher education over the past several years. And, on a sobering note, few university leaders are talking about brighter prospects ahead—instead, in formal sessions and hallway discussions, the conversation has focused on how to deal with continued upheaval.

"I believe we are at fork in the road right now," said Ric Porreca, senior vice chancellor and chief financial officer of the University of Colorado at Boulder. Speaking at a session on economic transformation and public universities, he posed the question: "Are we serious about new models?"

But Kim A. Wilcox, provost of Michigan State University, said working within the existing system is precisely what helped his institution cope with a sustained economic crisis. Rather than appoint a special committee to deal with budget cuts, Michigan State went through its normal academic and governance channels to reduce its spending and restructure its programs—and the university began the difficult work even before the State Legislature slashed state support there.

As a consequence, said Mr. Wilcox, who spoke on a Monday-morning panel, Michigan State was able to be more deliberative, making changes on its own terms and spreading reductions over time, rather than bearing the brunt in a single year. Four years later, some departments and programs are actually growing, he said.

William R. (Randy) Woodson, chancellor of North Carolina State University, said he learned the hard way it's not just campus constituencies that have a stake in university restructuring. After the university posted information online about majors, minors, and courses with low enrollment—including 703 that hadn't even been taught in a decade—Mr. Woodson heard from professional groups, like golf-course managers, worried that areas of study they value could get the budgetary ax.

It's important, said Mr. Woodson, who shared a podium with Mr. Wilcox, to have clear guidelines to drive tough choices, and to share those principles with all stakeholders.

"Making change is exhausting, and it's disruptive, but you've got to do it," said Mr. Woodson, whose institution was hit with cuts in state financing of more than 15 percent.

Change From Within

When Barbara Couture took the helm of New Mexico State University, in January 2010, she immediately had to deal with budget reductions of nearly 10 percent. As a veteran of cutbacks and reorganizations at three other public universities, Ms. Couture said she had clear ideas of what she did not want to do, like make hasty restructuring decisions that would only be undone a few years later. Instead, she made public institutional data about programmatic effectiveness and asked each department to propose its own reductions and changes.

Still, Ms. Couture said, her university and others face tough challenges, like how to rein in college costs. New Mexico State is working more closely with local community colleges to allow more students to begin their degrees at less-expensive two-year colleges and started the state's first "early college" high school, which allows students to finish high school while earning credits toward their college degree.

In exchange, she said, universities need to push students to do better to earn their degrees more quickly. Right now, institutions do little to require that students "stay on the path to graduation, and we don't dock them when they don't."

Such efforts may be an anathema to many of her fellow presidents, Ms. Couture said, but "we need to ask more of our students."

Speaking on a later panel, Mr. Porreca, of Colorado, expressed concern that few institutions are making difficult and uncomfortable choices. Crisis is supposed to lead to innovation, he noted, but thus far, the recession has mostly "put pressure on old solutions" to balance budgets, like increasing tuition, mounting aggressive fund-raising campaigns, and attracting full-paying international and out-of-state students.

At the same time, he said, lawmakers and the general public may not appreciate the full depth of the dilemma facing public universities. Outsiders see that classes continue to get taught, and even that new buildings get built, and they don't understand the extent to which universities are facing financial strain.

Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, agreed. It's not that the public doesn't support higher education, he said—it's that voters don't see colleges working hard enough to ensure that a degree remains affordable and accessible. Those problems, he noted, along with the declining performance of American students on global standardized tests, predate the recession.

"For us to have the conversation with ourselves about how we 'done good' isn't going to cut it," Mr. Callan said.