In the media’s continuing coverage of how the economy is ruining all the best laid plans of higher education, the New York Times asks, how many public research institutes does the nation truly need?

Have universities like Arizona State, in their drive to become prominent research institutions, lost focus on their public mission to provide solid undergraduate education for state residents?  What can public universities do to weather these economic conditions, and at what cost?

Historically, public universities have been at the mercy of state funding, cutting back or spending more depending on whether it’s been a good year or not.  In drought years like this one, universities are faced with increasing tuition across the board while reducing faculty and staff and implementing enrollment caps.  But while these measures are designed to fix immediate budgetary problems, public universities are unlikely to survive intact if they fail to change their underlying funding structures from an untenable system of competition for limited resources to one of broad, cross-disciplinary collaboration. 

The financial mess that public universities find themselves in has been building steadily over the last 10 years. After unprecedented growth during the 1960’s of the state university system, by the 90’s those same systems began to topple under the weight of their own enormity as the increased number of universities within state systems was forced to compete for declining state funds.  In 1998 former UC-Berkeley chancellor Robert Berdahl sounded the alarm on the peril large state systems would find themselves in if they tried to build too many expensive flagship universities. 

Berdahl argued then that, “The competition for resources and the criticism directed at research universities have combined to create a political dynamic that puts many of the best public institutions at risk.” Berdahl acknowledged the failings of large public universities whose desire to become top ranked institutions had led to devaluation in the quality of undergraduate education, advising, and public service.

Berdahl’s predictions have all but come true for most state universities, and especially so for the University of California system.  As the state of California reports an $8 billion budget shortfall in addition to the existing $41 billion deficit, the University of California system must find a way to eliminate $450 million from its budget.  With ten campuses statewide—compared with eight campuses in 1998—the University of California system must inevitably contract to survive this budget nightmare. 

How can public universities wean themselves off of reliance on state funding?  Necessary changes have already been implemented as individual departments and faculty members compete for more stable sources of funding through organizations like the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). But not surprisingly, these funding opportunities are highly competitive and alone cannot account for university budget shortfalls.  Likewise, while external funding is being more widely invested in profitable fields like biotechnology or pharmaceutical research, more traditional fields like History or English are faced with even fewer funding options as existing funds from limited sources like alumni donations dry up. Under the existing system of survival of the fittest, the public university may potentially look much more like a corporate sponsored research laboratory in the near future. Comparative Literature departments may very well be a thing of the past.   

But it hasn’t come to that—yet. President of Ohio State University E. Gordon Gee believes state systems can weather the storm not by hunkering down, but by radically reforming the fundamentals of higher education. Gordon calls for increased cooperation among various state system schools and communities, creating local and global research partners and encouraging collaboration instead of competition. He sees it as the responsibility of higher education “to seek new kinds of collaborations – with business and industry, government, and advocacy groups of all kinds.” I think Gordon is onto something, especially as more and more public universities have opened dialogues allowing students, faculty, and staff alike to have a potential role in creating this change. But Gordon’s plan also face enormous challenges—business, industry, and government don’t always have the community’s best interests at heart.

Is it pure idealism to hope that by investing in community partnerships, public universities can transform into the new University 2.0? Can more localized funding in the form of collaboration with local businesses create a sustainable university?