State Can Benefit from Problems Facing Universities

Article excerpt

While we are struggling to bring Oklahoma higher education up to the standards of other parts of the country, it's important to realize new problems that are developing in universities across the nation.

The competition for outstanding professors will become more intense than ever, because colleges and universities are facing a massive wave of retirements during the 1990s. While this certainly is a problem for Oklahoma, it also can be an opportunity. We can help fill an increasing need for bright young Ph.D. graduates if we develop new graduate and research programs.

Developing new programs such as a Ph.D. in energy management through the University of Oklahoma Energy Center and College of Business Administration, for example, would come at just the right time, and it would help in Oklahoma's competition for outstanding faculty members and students.

The threat of retirements in great numbers was presented recently by Michael I. Sovern, president of Columbia University in New York. He sees it as a major problem for the United States in providing the quality education needed for global competition in the high tech information age.

"As more faculty vacancies occur, and competition for the most talented graduate students intensifies,'' said Sovern, "relatively few universities will be able to replenish their academic strength. The fate of the remainder - the majority of America's institutions of higher learning, including many important universities - is in doubt.

"If they are forced to grant tenure to the second-rate, the downward spiral could become irreversible. Many institutions will have little choice. Even as the supply of talent dwindles, the demand for college teachers will boom.

"In the mid 1990s, we will enter a period of sustained increase in the number of 18-year olds. Applications to colleges will soar."

However, Sovern points out that high quality graduate education is costly to provide, and that's one of the problems Oklahoma must face. Tuition pays only 25 percent of education costs in Oklahoma and 33 percent at some universities, but tuition is a major burden for students.

To earn a Ph.D. at an independent university such as Columbia costs considerably more than $100,000 for tuition and living expenses, said Sovern.

This gives state universities such as OU and Oklahoma State University an obvious edge, since the costs for students are much lower. The trick will be to invest in the quality programs to attract the students and market the lower prices.

All this stems from the national problem of universities having difficulty competing with industry for the best minds in the country and from a generation of top scholars lost to universities and colleges, Sovern said.

"When I graduated from Columbia Law School in 1955 and accepted an invitation to become an assistant professor of law,'' he said, "I considered myself very lucky. Not only would I fulfill my deepest aspiration, I would enjoy the prestige of a highly respected profession and believe it or not make more money that those who took entry level jobs at major law firms.

"Throughout the 1950s and well into the 1960s, Columbia's most sought-after graduates frequently chose law faculties over law firms."

However, the 1980s have been vastly different.

"My son commanded a higher salary when he began at a prestigious law firm than I did when I became dean of the law school," said Sovern. "When he later opted for an academic career, he took a one-third cut in pay. …