A Rocky Year for Colleges ; Budget Deficits and Concern over Free Speech on Campus Mark 2002

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Student enrollment soared, state appropriations plummeted. Free- speech issues flared, affirmative action in admissions began to dominate headlines. Foreign students got better security screening, but more found themselves stuck in visa limbo.

If you look back at 2002, the record of American higher education is as jagged as a stock market chart, with leaps into positive territory countered by dramatic plunges and plenty of red ink.

The year will be remembered as the big reversal: After a long stretch of public largess, states slashed higher-education budgets, sending tuitions soaring at public institutions.

With at least 29 of 43 states facing budget crises this year, the 2002 recession has created huge deficits and put big multi-year cuts into the higher-education pipeline, says Travis Reindle of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

"It's a perfect storm," Mr. Reindle says. "If low-income students can't afford to attend, I don't know what consequences this holds for social cohesion in this country."

The University of Virginia, where students saw a 20-percent drop in tuition in 1999, is planning a midyear "surcharge." At Ohio State, tuition jumped 18 percent for new students, 9 percent for returning students.

At private institutions, meanwhile, analysts expect more budget cuts after another tough year for the stock market. Last year's 3.6 percent drop in college endowment value may be easily surpassed this year - the first time since the 1970s that endowments have dropped two years in a row.

Academic ideals dented

An important theme cropped up in education stories this year: the sense that even long-cherished academic ideals - campus diversity, academic freedom, and freedom of expression - were open to challenge.

Harvard University President Lawrence Summers made headlines when, at a prayer meeting with students and faculty on Sept. 17, he warned of an "upturn in anti-Semitism" around the world.

But what really grabbed people's attention was his strong criticism of people on a number of campuses who support a divest- from-Israel petition aimed at changing Israeli policy toward the Palestinians.

"Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect, if not their intent," said Dr. Summers, Harvard's first Jewish president.

With Harvard often leading on emerging academic issues, the idea that thoughtful signers could be unintentional supporters of anti- Semitism rattled many in higher education.

Some say Summers's comments seemed aimed at damping down free speech. "There is nothing anti-Semitic about the petition, neither in effect nor in intent," says Daniel Fox, a linguistics and philosophy professor at MIT who is also Jewish and who helped organize the petition drive.

Israel and freedom of expression were not the only issues coming up for review. Laws to tighten national security have increased scrutiny of foreign visas, backing up lines of would-be graduate students from Beijing to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

The USA Patriot Act and the Bioterrorism Act also prompted concerns about limits they might impose on academic freedom.

This is also the year that campus racial diversity - supported by decades-old affirmative-action admissions practices at most selective colleges - has gone toe-to-toe with legal claims of reverse discrimination. …