Challenges for Higher Education Funding

Prepared Remarks to the Consular Association of Washington

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Thank you for that introduction, and for inviting me here today to speak with you. Definitely, "speak with" rather than "speak to," since this is an opportunity for me to learn from you.

It is almost axiomatic: learning requires leaving our zones of comfort. There are serious matters to consider; I will speak with candor; and I expect you will find some of my observations to be as disconcerting as do I. I do want to leave time for your questions in the hope that you will take me outside my zone of comfort.

I was asked to talk about the funding challenges facing higher education in the current economic climate. These are challenges transforming public higher education in Washington and, perhaps, beyond. Permanently so for all signs are that this is not a fiscal storm we can simply wait out.

Will the transformations be for the better or for the worse? There is the central question for my remarks.

Actually, American higher education has been undergoing major transformations for at least the last 15 years. In my view, they have been for the better. There are the more obvious changes: in the students we serve, in our relentless attention to effectiveness and efficiency, in accountability for results, in pedagogical delivery methods, in getting off our campuses to be where people are in their lives, in their careers, and in this state.

There are also changes less obvious but more fundamentally transformative: in our shift from a culture centered on teaching to an ethos focused on learning; in a fundamental advancement in our very understanding of how learning takes place. And, as I will argue, in a new understanding of what it means, today, to be a public university.

Today's universities most certainly are not the places you and I experienced. At least not leading universities like Western.

Something to remember about times of transformation: hard to spot when in the middle of it. Harder yet to forego obstructionism and, instead, lead the change.

I like to remind myself of the two periods of earlier, major transformation in American higher education. First was the Morrill Act of 1862, that legislation creating the land grant university system. Second was the G.I. Bill of 1944, that legislation providing, among other benefits, access to higher education for returning soldiers.

Today, we pat ourselves on the back for these visionary acts and trace a century of ever improving prosperity directly to them. Yet, the higher education establishments of the time actively opposed both bills. Transformations, by definition, threaten the status quo and both bills were seen as threatening the vested higher education interests of the day.

How do we avoid that trap? By aggressively leaving our zones of comfort. Yet transformations can be for the better. Or, for the worse. As to the transforming forces of today: will those who follow look back and find positives in what many of us see as seriously threatening? Or, decades from now, will they trace a relentless decline in American prosperity to a failure of leadership and vision in many of today's state capitols?

Here in Washington, the disappearance of public support has been precipitous. Until 1994, Washington taxpayers supported about 72 percent of the costs of instruction at Western. Over the next 15 years, that percentage eroded to about 60 percent. Then, it dropped off a cliff. From 60 percent state support to 30percent in the 2 1/2 years I have been at Western.

To put this in perspective, the cuts proposed for the next biennium come on top of cuts to higher education larger than any of us have seen. These new cuts are yet larger and, net of tuition increases, are still equivalent to the combined budgets of three of our seven colleges – they are nationally renowned: the Woodring College of Education, the Huxley College of the Environment, and the Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies. Three of seven colleges! Or, the net cut is equivalent to laying off 20 percent of our faculty.

When state support plummets past 50 percent, we do have to rethink just what being "public" really means. First is the realization, and this is transforming in its own right, that what makes us "public" isn't a matter of where the money comes from; it's about our purposes, the public good we provide.

And, who defines those public purposes? The public. We recently held "100 Conversations" with people from all walks of life and asked tough questions about what Western's purposes should be. Among the purposes the public had for Western, one was paramount: Help the people of this state prepare for, and capitalize upon, the changes that are transforming America society and the global community.

You all know better than I that the world is not only becoming smaller, but flatter, as communication becomes less expensive and capital becomes more mobile. The diversity of cultures, races and ethnicities has always been there, but now we know, more than ever in Washington, that brighter futures for everyone will depend on how well we develop the talent of all our people. And public higher education is one of the most powerful ways to do that, and the single most powerful means to that end available to the legislature in Olympia.

Our state has enormous natural advantages in that global competition—our location, our cultural diversity, the existing investment of private industry, … and highly regarded public universities that, also, are the most cost effective and efficient in the nation.

Here, universities need to step up and help the citizens of our state leverage these advantages, give them the tools they need to succeed in the global economy. Western is doing just that, in numerous ways, both on our own campus, and through strategic partnerships and collaborations. Here are just a few you might appreciate:

  • We are collaborating with a consortium of six 2-year colleges in our region to increase the numbers of international students on our campuses, facilitating their route to a 4 year degree with trailblazing concurrent admissions agreements.
  • That same collaboration is also increasing opportunities for students at all our campuses to study abroad; last year, just over 500 students went abroad to 46 countries.
  • Western is bringing its distinctive reputation for excellence to this endeavor, nearly doubling every year for the past 4 years our intensive faculty-led, for-credit study abroad programs.
  • Faculty across our campus are currently engaged in internationalizing our curriculum, adding international competencies and learning outcomes across academic divisions, to majors and minors, including, for example, the program recently approved in Islamic Studies.

Of course, this international focus is not new at Western. We have had an international business curriculum and exchanges in our College of Business and Economics for some time now. Our multi-disciplinary Border Policy Research Institute is widely recognized as being among the best in the nation. And, as in so many things, our students have been out ahead of us, pushing themselves to be adventurous, and committed to living a purposed life not only in the classroom, but in service to the local and global community.

Recently, Western was honored with a special recognition award from the Peace Corps, acknowledging the more than 800 Western alumni who have served over the past 50 years (many more in actual, absolute numbers, incidentally, than far larger schools like Arizona State or Penn State). Western has long been recognized as a place where active minds change lives, where service, community engagement and an adventurous spirit run deep.

(As an aside I must also note that, as with any university with a global reach, rarely is there an international crisis in which we, as a university, are not directly affected. As with you, our hearts are with all of Japan, today. As a university, we also have in our thoughts the members of the Western family now affected, including those with a Western connection currently unaccounted for.)

But, back to the demands of a changing world and the implications if universities are to lead rather than follow. We are pushing ourselves beyond our zones of comfort, doing business in new ways, controlling costs, improving returns on investment and looking at a broader range of potential funding sources to fuel longer-range plans.

We have been doing our part, leading rather than being reluctantly pushed along. I have noted the significant advantages we have to build upon here in the state we proudly call home. But, there's another statistic that hobbles us: we trail most of the rest of the nation in state support for public, four-year education.

That statistic comes from data collected before the current economic downturn. Today, we are heading for unprecedented cuts the magnitude of which I have already suggested. Can we continue to transform in order to effectively serve that paramount purpose which defines Western as publicly purposed? We are running the models and trying to figure out what might work.

And, no matter how we dice the data, the answer seems unequivocal: we will no longer have the capacity to apply Western's many strengths to building a more robust Washington. In essence, we are being confronted with the choice of becoming an elite-serving university, a smaller public arts university, or regressing to become just another mediocre regional school.

Earlier I noted the preceding two major transformations in higher education. A century of resulting prosperity can be traced to this simple fact: those transformations each dramatically expanded access to higher education.

And, the pending fiscal challenges? They reduce access.

What we heard in the "100 Conversations" for Western was, protect quality first. That we will do, but it means reducing access in a variety of ways: restricting enrollments in more expensive programs, closing more and more programs, relying more on out-of-state students, and substantially raising tuition.

This all comes in a state where we currently rank 48th out of the 50 states in the percentage of our population provided access to baccalaureate education.

This comes at a time when, looking at educational attainment by age group, and looking around the world, there is a very clear pattern: younger age groups are better educated than are older age groups. Country after country. For rapidly developing countries – China, India, Brazil – the differences are particularly dramatic; these societies are making major investments in the younger generation and, consequently in their nation's well-being for generations to come.

There is only one significant outlier I spotted in the data. It is the United States and, for us, the younger generations are less well educated than are the older generations that preceded them. Compared to the rest of the world, we have it backwards.

You asked me to speak about current fiscal challenges. It is not just that higher education budgets are being drastically cut. It is that we are simultaneously failing to seize the opportunity to expand opportunities for the most rapidly growing segments of our population: young people coming from homes where parents have not gone to college.

The fiscal challenges are compounded, I fear, by a failure of vision, a failure of will.

We are at a watershed moment. This third period of major transformation could, for Washington, perhaps for much of the United States, mark a long slide in domestic prosperity, global competitiveness, and international leadership.

If we allow it to be so.

I spend a lot of time in Olympia. This morning, I began my day there. In Olympia, the danger in this watershed moment is being increasingly recognized, the message is being increasing heard. From leaders in our state, from parents, from alumni, from students. That is hopeful.

But the talk in the back rooms is, still, of cuts to higher education even greater than what I have outlined here.

At Western, we will continue to protect the quality we are known for. But, the steps we may have to take to do so will, I fear, undermine the proudly publicly purposed transformations we have, to this point, been aggressively about.

I welcome your comments, criticisms, and ideas.

Page Updated 11.27.2013