Public Universities Face Funding Crisis

By Gwynne, Peter | Research-Technology Management, September/October 2010 | Go to article overview

Public Universities Face Funding Crisis


Gwynne, Peter, Research-Technology Management


The financial trauma of the past two years has had a serious effect on public higher education, as state governments required by law to balance their budgets have reduced support, cut programs, and raised tuition for their state universities and colleges. But the overall problem is not a new one. According to Forging a Foundation for the Future, a report released in March by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU), public universities in general-and those that carry out significant amounts of research in particular-have suffered a steady decline in support over the past two decades, with the greatest fall-off occurring in those institutions that carry out the most research. "It's a problem of great magnitude," says David Shulenburger, APLU's vice president for academic affairs and a co-author of the report.

It's also a problem that has an obvious impact on the technology industry. While private research universities such as Johns Hopkins, MIT, and Stanford account for a significant proportion of federal R&D funding and produce streams of highly qualifi ed science and engineering graduates, public universities receive more funds and produce more grads. "This country depends on public research universities, which educate 85 percent of the undergraduate students and 70 percent of the graduate students enrolled in all research universities," the APLU report notes. "Public research universities perform 62 percent of the nation's federally financed research. . . . If public universities should fail to be competitive for research grants or have to shrink the size of their student bodies due to budget restrictions, private research universities are unlikely to have available capacity to replace the lost output."

Industry profi ts both from the ability to buy or license research advances created at public universities and from the stream of knowledge graduates bring into their labs. A recent report by The Science Coalition highlights an example of public research universities' capabilities. Supported by a $250,000 grant from the National Cancer Institute, two researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison developed a core technology for tomotherapy, an advanced system that targets radiation precisely at cancerous tumors while minimizing exposure and damage to surrounding tissue. The researchers then founded a company, TomoTherapy Incorporated, to commercialize the advance. "That original investment generates many times its value in salaries and taxes returned to both the U.S. and Wisconsin governments," said Rock Mackie, the company's cofounder and chairman.

A growing salary gap

How serious is the public research universities' situation? By almost any criterion, the decline is serious and ongoing. One key criterion is the growing salary gap between faculty members in private and public universities. "Salaries for private and public universities' faculty were about the same 25 years ago," Shulenburger says. "Now, salaries for full professors at public universities are about 80 percent of their private university colleagues' and assistant and associate professors' salaries are about 85 percent."

In addition, student-faculty ratios at public universities have risen and capital budgets to build new facilities and state spending on individual students have both declined. Between 1987 and 2007, a period that saw an increase of 43 percent in student enrollments, per-student support at state universities fell from $6,896 to $6,538.

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