Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Should universities be this vulnerable to State finanical probelms?

The report of the chairmen of Arizona's Joint Legislative Budget Committee proposes what amounts to an over 20% mid-year cut in the budgets of the University of Arizona and ASU. This is too much, too abruptly, and students and faculty are right to be agitated even if the report is merely a starting point in the discussion.

But cuts do have to be made in the State's budget, and maintaining infrastucture, staffing the prisons, and meeting obligations set by ballot initiative must come before providing nearly free higher education to Arizona's teenagers and discount higher-ed to slouching, mumbling California brats.

The question nobody seems to be asking right now, as most are caught up in the moment, is should the State even be able to cut 20% of the universities' budgets. That is to say, should a 100% cut of the State's subsidy even amount to 20%

The U of A and ASU are both megauniversities with hundreds of thousands of alumni apiece, and are both over a century old. There is no good reason for either to rely so heavily on the State--and we are now seeing that heavy reliance on the State is not a sustainable model for a university. Among others California, Illinois, and, most famously, Michigan went through similar periods of cutbacks precipitated by State financial crises and all responded with long-term institutional reform. It would be foolish for Arizona's universities to not transition to a more sustainable model.

As is detailed in a Goldwater Institute whitepaper, after several rounds of crisis-induced cuts, the University of Michigan underwent an orderly transition to being a privately financed public university. In 1965 the State provided 70% of its funding; by 2003 the State provided less than 10%. It is impossible for a Michigan budget shortfall to result in a 20% mid-year cut to the University of Michigan's funding! This is a model that Arizona's three universities, especially the research megauniversities ASU and U of A, would do well to emulate.

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