The Midwesterner: Higher education faces reality

By Richard C. Longworth

Apparently it's no fun being a plain old garden-variety university, doing nothing except what universities are supposed to do, which is to teach students. Every self-respecting university, it seems, wants to be a research university, churning out research that changes the world, and, one hopes, bags a Nobel Prize or two.

It's not going to happen. Nor should it. Shrinking support for higher education will dash some of these ambitious dreams. As it does, it will give these schools — indeed, all Midwestern colleges and universities — an opportunity to rethink their real role in education and how they can best serve not only their students but the region.

A Heartland Paper published by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs earlier this year urged that major research be left to the existing big research universities, like the University of Michigan and University of Wisconsin, which have the culture, endowment and size to prevail. Indeed, the paper, A Master Plan for Higher Education in the Midwest, by James J. Duderstadt, implied that these big research universities should focus more on research and graduate education, leaving more undergraduate education to other schools, including other state universities with less capacity for research.

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education indicated that reality is moving Duderstadt's way.

The article was pegged to the experience of Cleveland State University, although it applied to many other Midwestern schools.

Cleveland State is a relatively young — founded in 1964 — urban school, with 17 000 students, a law school and nine doctoral programs, but little reputation as a temple of learning or as a home for world-class researchers. Five years ago, it decided it wanted more — specifically, $50 million per year in research grants, to be carried out by star faculty supported by more graduate students.

It hasn't worked that way, the Chronicle said. The money isn't there. Partly, it's the recession. Also Ohio, like almost all Midwestern states, is cutting back on financial support to higher education. Cleveland State lost more than 15 per cent of its state appropriation this year, the Chronicle said, while its research grants have actually declined, from $30 million per year to $23 million. Its existing researchers are generating 25 per cent fewer proposals for grants, and its success rate in landing grants is down from 70 to 51 per cent.

The result is some serious rethinking at Cleveland State. The Chronicle quoted the school's president, Ronald M. Berkman, as saying it needs to focus more on undergraduates and their education and face up to the fact that it can't afford ambitious research.

As the Chronicle said, Cleveland State is typical of "the mushy middle of higher education," more local than global, less selective, with students who are more interested in getting a good job after graduation than in attaching their name to a patent. Instead of going after "a bigger share of research grants and accompanying prestige ... many regional public colleges are trying to balance their aspirations with reality, focusing on the economic and educational needs of their regions rather than striving to compete nationally."

The "educational needs of their regions" means training students to meet the demands of the information economy and to enable both their employers and their cities to thrive in that economy. This is a big and important goal, and any university that achieves it is an asset to its region, whether it produces any research or not.

Cleveland State is typical of many striving second-rank state schools whose reach has exceeded its grasp. Others include Southern Illinois, Western Michigan, and similar schools, many founded as teachers' colleges that developed aspirations of greatness and are having to face financial and educational reality.

As Duderstadt and others have pointed out, the Midwest needs both trailblazing research, to help create the industries that will power the region in the future, and well-trained workers for that future economy. But this doesn't mean that the same schools should do both.

One school of thought holds that the big research universities, including land-grant schools, should do less undergraduate education — possibly admit no freshmen or sophomores at all or even get out of the undergrad business. Because of high costs and in-state tuition caps, universities lose money on these students, money that could be better spent on research. The students themselves are pitched into huge campuses and often taught by graduate students while the top faculty members concentrate on research and graduate education.

If the undergrads weren't there, these big universities could concentrate on what they do best, which is scholarship at the top end of the scale.

But what about the undergrads? They would be better served by other state universities or by smaller schools, both public and private, whose main mission — indeed, their only mission, once dreams of research greatness end — is education. Community colleges could play a big role, especially at the freshman and sophomore level.

James C. Garland, former president of Miami University in Ohio, in a comment on the Chronicle article, argued that "most students at these campuses ... want a job so they can support themselves and their families. Arguments about developing critical thinking skills, developing cultural awareness and the like to them seem disconnected from the reality of their lives. Their highest priority is to put bread on the table."

The liberal arts play a role in this. But this mandate to educate students to take their place in the economy is perfectly legitimate. Most students, from aspiring welders to future doctors and lawyers, are in higher education so they can get a better job and earn a higher salary.

In its Master Plan of 1960, California did just this — assigned doctoral programs and research to the University of California campuses such as Berkeley, mass education to the State University campuses such as San Francisco, and lower-cost two-year education to community colleges. This Master Plan powered California's post-war economic boom and is flagging now only because misguided caps on taxation have crippled the state's budget.

Some will argue that this violates the whole land-grant project, under which state colleges and universities promised to educate the state's students, with the state paying the bills. This argument no longer holds water. States, including Midwestern states, have stopped supporting higher education. Most big state universities get 15 per cent or less of their operating expenses from state governments. In essence, they've become private schools.

Once, Midwestern colleges and universities existed to serve their states. Today, they should serve their communities, which might be their states, or their cities, or their economic region, or the entire Midwest. This means every school doing what it does best.

Nobody gets short-changed here. Cleveland and its region already have Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic, not to mention Ohio State. If these institutions create the industries that will support Cleveland in the 21st century, and if Cleveland State educates the people who will work in these industries, the entire community will be better off.

This post was originally published at The Midwesterner.

10 November 2011