Virginia Issues & Answers Cover - Vol. 21, No. 1, Winter 2016-17

By Mary Sue Coleman

The President of the Association of American Universities argues that aggressive action is needed by many sectors of society—state and federal governments, the private sector, and universities themselves—to ensure the long-term financial resilience of our public institutions of higher learning.

Public universities are the backbone of American higher education. They are responsible for America’s knowledge security—an intellectual wellbeing that advances health and medicine, business, social science, the arts, public policy, and national defense. Higher education helps raise incomes and build communities. But public higher education is threatened by shrinking financial support from federal and state governments. Fundamental challenges confront all of us: Will public universities remain truly open to the public? Can high school graduates afford to attend our public institutions, and will they graduate carrying heavy burdens of debt? If they do attend, what is the quality of education that they will receive? State and federal governments, the private sector, and universities themselves all must act aggressively to address these challenges and ensure the long-term resilience of these critical institutions of learning.

Virginia, Michigan, and the Birth of American Higher Education

The nucleus of two of our remarkable public institutions of higher education, the universities of Virginia and Michigan (where the author served as president), can be traced to the outskirts of Charlottesville, Virginia. It was there in the splendid rooms of Monticello that Thomas Jefferson sat and talked with his friend and colleague, a man named Augustus Woodward. Historians agree that the two friends were united in their passion about the necessity of public education in the new republic. They were inquisitive about science and the natural world. They believed human knowledge could and should be catalogued and classified. Most significantly, they understood that democracy required an educated citizenry.

Of course, Mr. Jefferson was the father of the University of Virginia. But he was also expansive in his vision of model public universities. As president, Mr. Jefferson appointed his friend to be the first chief justice of the Michigan Territory, a largely untamed area. Inspired by Jefferson’s vision, Judge Woodward conceived of the idea of a bold, public university in his new home state and the result, in 1817, was the University of Michigania, based in the village of Detroit. President Jefferson followed, in 1819, with a Charlottesville institution that today is still known, with reverence, as “Mr. Jefferson’s university.”

The Lincoln Project: A Vision for Excellence and Access in Higher Education

The universities of Virginia and Michigan now stand on the verge of their respective bicentennials, in 2017 and 2019. These archetypal institutions and all public universities also owe a tremendous debt to another American president for his advocacy of public higher education. Abraham Lincoln’s historic signing of the Morrill Act in 1862 led to our extraordinary system of land-grant public universities, including Virginia Tech. The Morrill Act, which donated federal land for states to establish universities emphasizing agriculture and mechanic arts along with liberal studies, made higher education available for the first time to farmers and working people who had previously been excluded.

The signing of the Morrill Act was the inspiration for the Lincoln Project, an initiative of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which is issuing a clarion call for a 21st century compact—one with federal and state governments, nonprofit organizations, business leaders, philanthropists, and families—to revive, stabilize, and ultimately build strong and resilient public research universities.

Public universities have a contract with society, and especially with the citizens of our states, to work on their behalf and promote the greater good. They prepare students to contribute to their communities and complete in the global economy. The vast majority of students who receive Pell grants (federal need-based financial aid, typically for students whose families earn less than $30,000 a year) are enrolled in public universities. Because earning a four-year degree substantially enhances lifetime earning potential, a college education offers one of America’s best mechanisms for addressing income inequality. Public research universities also play a significant role in regional and national economic development. The biotech industry originated almost entirely from our universities. Countless start-ups and patent grants in a number of industries have sprung from research clusters that formed around our great universities. Public research universities have contributed to the development of antibiotics, the Internet, ATMs, bar codes, computing devices, smartphones, and so much more.

Does Your State Spend More on Universities or Prisons?But public higher education is threatened by shrinking financial support from federal and state governments (with average funding declines of more than 30 percent per FTE student over the past 15 years) and by waning public confidence and those skeptical of our value and our contributions. Many factors, including increased demand for higher education access and the Great Recession, have created the current environment where higher education spending lags significantly behind elementary and secondary education, Medicaid and, in some states, prisons. Even after recovery from the recession, state spending on higher education remains at a historic low because of intense pressures on state governments to cover medical and retirement benefits.

Public higher education is not a luxury; it is the foundation of our nation’s competitiveness in the global economy. To fulfill our institutions’ commitment to providing accessible, affordable, high-quality undergraduate education in a climate of fiscal restraint, many actors have an important role to play. State and federal governments, the private sector, and universities themselves all must act to address these challenges and lift up these vital institutions of research and learning.

State and Federal Investments

It is essential that states reinvest in their public colleges and universities. State governments must find alternative strategies besides cutting university funding to balance the state budget. Higher education cannot continue to be the “balance wheel,” receiving only what remains after other state funding priorities are met. State lawmakers should think deeply about incorporating financial resilience concepts into higher education budgeting, setting long-term funding goals to stabilize, support, and assist universities in their long-term planning.

States must also do more to make college education financially accessible for students and families. Providing comprehensive financial aid to low-income in-state undergraduate students will guarantee equity and inclusion for all young people. In addition, states should offer incentives for corporations to support scholarships at public research universities, since corporations draw heavily upon the talent pool and research generated by these institutions.

At the federal level, it is essential that Congress recognize that our intellectual infrastructure is critical to our nation’s future. The United States can claim 31 of the world’s top 50 research universities, but we face intense competition from other nations that see the economic advantage of strong research universities. We are the most dominant country in terms of R&D performance. But that dominance is fraying at the edges. The U.S. share of global research spending declined from 37 percent in 2001 to just under 30 percent in 2011, according to the National Science Foundation. Contrast that with the R&D spending by Asian countries: Led by China, spending has grown from 25 to 34 percent.

As a nation, we should provide incentives for corporate and philanthropic contributions to public higher education, while also encouraging partnerships—through challenge programs—between state governments, federal agencies, private philanthropists, and public research universities.

And what a bold and powerful statement it would make about our values as a democratic society for federal lawmakers to consider a national endowment for public higher education, including public research universities. Consider: U.S.-based multinational corporations generate income from an estimated $2.1 trillion invested outside the United States. A one-time tax of 1 percent of this amount, set aside for the nation’s intellectual infrastructure, could generate tens of billions of dollars for higher education—a transformational sum for public research universities across the country.

The Private Sector’s Role

America’s private sector, to remain globally competitive, has a vested interest in the talent and research embodied in public higher education. As employers of our graduates, business leaders must advocate at the state and federal levels for strong, consistent funding of colleges and universities. Business and industry must acknowledge the importance of public research universities to the American workforce by supporting scholarships, career planning centers, and internships. And they must cooperate with universities to develop simplified licensing policies that help accelerate the transfer of knowledge and research.

Public Universities Must Do More, Too

Finally, universities themselves are obligated to seek out and build partnerships and collaborations, while also being as efficient as possible in their operations as major organizations. In the mid-Atlantic region, for example, three academic institutions—the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech, the Wake Forest School of Medicine, and the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine—offer a joint graduate program in the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences. This unique collaboration between public and private institutions gives students access to a wide spectrum of opportunities on three campuses, including courses, faculty and facilities.

Philanthropy has always been a cornerstone of America’s private universities; the culture of giving back to one’s alma mater is ingrained in students from their first days on campus. Public universities must also look more to alumni and friends for support. Private support for public universities no longer is a luxury, but rather a necessity. Fundraising must be part of a public university’s infrastructure, from the credentials of presidents and deans to the culture of student life. Universities have an obligation to ask, and alumni should feel equally obligated to give back.

At the same time universities turn to alumni and philanthropists for their support, we have an obligation to control costs. This obligation is imperative, regardless of state funding scenarios. And it is challenging, because research—which demands experimentation and exploration—is expensive. Research universities are people-intensive and high-tech in their work, yet must be willing to constantly assess processes to ensure quality and value in expending resources.

Looking Forward

Clark Kerr, the former president of the University of California who did so much to define public higher education in the latter half of the 20th century, rightly observed: “As society goes, so goes the university; but, also, as the university goes, so goes society. The progress of knowledge remains so central to the progress of civilization.”1

It’s quite simple: Our collective progress and prosperity hinge on higher education. It is the strongest argument for lifting up our research universities. The onus is on all of us—citizens, elected officials, faculty, university presidents, business leaders, philanthropists, and parents—to collaborate on effective answers. In so doing, we work to ensure that American’s public research universities are powerful, productive, globally relevant, and financially resilient for the 21st century.


1. Kerr, Clark. The Uses of the University. Harvard University Press, 1963.

Author Biography:

Mary Sue Coleman is President of the Association of American Universities. She previously was president of the University of Michigan and the University of Iowa. She is co-chair of the Lincoln Project, serving alongside Robert J. Birgeneau, chancellor emeritus of the University of California-Berkeley. She holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of North Carolina.

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