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Government Relations Pro Guides MMA in Hard Times

by Eric Freedman
July 16, 2009

Could higher education get much lower?

Legislators want to chop state spending on higher education — including politically popular student aid. Michigan’s 15 state universities are cutting their own personnel and budgets while hiking tuition. Parents — hard-pressed by layoffs actual and threatened, torpedoed retirement and investment funds, fringe benefit cuts and overall economic uncertainties — struggle to send their children to what historically have been affordable public universities. And some policy analysts have proposed closing one or more campuses and even privatizing prestige-plus University of Michigan.

The numbers underscore the grim situation. In 1992–1993, state appropriations provided 59 percent of the universities’ general operating revenue, with the balance from tuition and fees. By 2007–2008, the state’s share had dropped to one-third and continues to shrink.

In fact, during the last five years, Michigan has dropped to 50th place among the states in higher education appropriations. And using 2000-2001 as a baseline, per-student appropriations dropped from $6,869 to $5,705 — and if inflation is factored in, that original $6,869 would be $8,557.

But there’s still good news for much-beleaguered public higher education, insists Michael Boulus, executive director of the Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan, which lobbies on behalf of the state’s public universities.

“The good news is what they’re doing and what they’ve accomplished,” says Boulus. That includes innovation and job creation, entrepreneurial research and development of a “talent pool” for an “information economy.” Beyond that, enrollments are up at most campuses, and universities are attracting more international students who pump millions of dollars a year into the local economies.

Capitol challenges
The Granholm administration and the legislature haven’t been making things any easier for the universities, but that’s nothing new. As the figures show, their reliance on tuition and fees rather than state largesse has been increasing since at least the early 1970s.

But the latest Lansing moves to deal with a bloodbath of red ink in the state budget threaten even more. One is the recent Senate vote to wipe out $140 million in scholarships under the much-vaunted Michigan Promise program, a proposal that’s drawing heavy fire from campus presidents and the administration.

Yet, on the positive side, Boulus sees little sign that lawmakers are trying to intervene in universities’ curricula or policies, a periodic problem in the past.

“There’s a genuine respect from policymakers for the independence our universities enjoy,” he says.

For Boulus, who runs a three-person advocacy operation with an $800,000 annual budget a block from the Capitol, one challenge is presenting the collective views of 15 bosses who don’t always agree. Unlike many other states, Michigan doesn’t have a coordinated “system” of public universities. Instead, there’s a collection or group of largely autonomous institutions, three of which have elected boards and the others with trustees appointed by the governor. And the boards appoint the presidents who, in turn, are accountable to those boards.

They compete for state aid, grants, donations, faculty and students. For instance, there has been a longtime split over allocations for the big three — U-M, Michigan State and Wayne State, which present themselves as research-intensive and deserving of more money on a per-capita basis — and the other 12, which heavily emphasize undergraduate teaching while still awarding graduate degrees and promoting faculty research.

“Mike has a really tough job,” says Saginaw Valley State President Eric Gilbertson. “He reports to 15 bosses, none of whom suffers from a lack of self-esteem, and all of whom have unrealistic expectations as to what he is supposed to accomplish on their behalf. The key issue in this regard is to protect the constitutional autonomy of the universities against political intrusion. Institutions as diverse as the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and Lake Superior State University — as different as any public universities on the planet — can find common ground on that issue.”

Rivalries among the universities are inevitable, especially about money, notes Gilbertson, chief executive at Saginaw Valley since 1989 and currently the state’s longest-serving president, so Boulus must help “maintain a certain calm and civility in their disagreements. Inasmuch as there is no money to go around, that peace has been easier to maintain in the past few years.”

Michael Flanagan, the state superintendent of public instruction, describes another area of disagreement among campuses that’s now attracting attention: his Department of Education, which wields authority over Michigan’s 32 public and private schools of education, is looking for alternative ways to certify teachers, especially professionals who want to make a mid-career change into the classroom but are stymied by existing curriculum and other requirements.

“I can’t have engineers laid off at Ford and empty math classes in Detroit,” Flanagan says. “That same person could teach at the University of Michigan without any credits in education but can’t teach seniors in Detroit? That’s nuts.

“A number of the deans are freaked out about it,” Flanagan says of resistance on some campuses to change. Boulus is, “in the sprit of his job, trying to make their case, but what I like about Mike is he’s not just going to roll over because he works for them.

“He’s beyond lobbyist at this point. He represents them but he’s at a big-picture level,” Flanagan said. “He understands we need to change.”

Douglas Drake, the former associate director of the now-defunct State Policy Center at Wayne State and currently a senior policy consultant at Public Policy Associates in Lansing, rates Presidents Council lobbying as “historically, pretty effective,” but adds that he’s uncertain about whether it’s equally effective “now that we’re well into term limits and have a significant turnover at every election.”

Boulus wonders aloud, “How do I say this publicly?” then describes the toughest part of his job as “the general education of term-limited legislators and getting to know new faces every two years.” On the other hand, he credits the new class of representatives who arrived at the Capitol in January for showing a bipartisan commitment to working together.

For his part, Boulus prefers to highlight areas of agreement — not division — among his 15 bosses, saying, “The only way I can succeed is to respect the voice and opinion of each individual institution.”

He portrays the presidents as “more unified than in a very, very long time,” speaking “with a common voice on policy and strategy,” with a “guiding principle” this year that any appropriations changes “should be uniform across the board.”

And he pulls out a Presidents Council report issued earlier this year that lays out collaborative cost-savings and quality-improvement efforts. On the financial front, it cites self-insurance, health benefits administration and Internet networking programs, as well as a multistate compact dealing with property insurance, computer hardware and software.

On the quality front, the report discusses collective review of new academic programs, initiatives to promote entrepreneurship and commercialization of life sciences research, a faculty recruitment consortium and the web-based Michigan Transfer Network that makes it easier for students to move among public and private community colleges and four-year institutions.

Boulus also cites the work of the Lt. Governor’s Commission on Higher Education and Economic Growth — the Cherry Commission — which laid out a series of recommendations in a 2004 report and its call to make higher education universal. The commission, he says, “put the value of higher education on the front burner.”

Some of its recommendations have been implemented in whole or in part, including rigorous new standards for high school students, the Michigan Merit Exam to replace the oft-criticized MEAP and commercialization of more university-generated research.

Other report recommendations face serious financial obstacles, especially in these hard times, including a proposal to increase the number of students who complete graduate degrees with significant financial support from Michigan foundations and businesses. Its top goal — increasing the number of graduates — is “lofty and probably not achievable,” Boulus acknowledges, but the universities are working hard to raise that number.

Personal notes
Raised in Dearborn Heights, Boulus did his undergraduate work at the University of Notre Dame, where Flanagan was a classmate. He and Flanagan did their graduate work at the same time at Eastern Michigan.

But they didn’t know each other until about 20 years ago, when Flanagan was superintendent in Farmington Hills and Boulus was deputy executive director — and chief lobbyist — of the Michigan Association of School Administrators. “Then we started connecting the lines and realizing we probably were in classes at the same time at Eastern,” Flanagan recalls.

Incidentally, both were candidates for the Eastern Michigan presidency left vacant by the 2007 firing of John Fallon for covering up information about the on-campus rape-murder of a student. The job went instead to then-Provost Susan Martin of U-M Dearborn.

Boulus came to the Presidents Council in January 2003 after a year and a half as Gov. John Engler’s deputy state treasurer. Earlier, he spent more than a decade as executive director of the Middle Cities Education Association, a consortium of 30 urban school districts, and taught graduate courses at MSU’s College of Education.

Shalt thou kill?
“Start doing some serious surgery on the budget and it’s hard not to hit higher education,” says Drake of Public Policy Associates. “Then you have to consider what that’s doing to the future of the state.” Will the public continue to support higher education spending? “Myself and probably some small percentage of professors at these universities are the only ones willing to pay higher taxes to do that.”

Politically unpalatable as it may be, Drake has suggested shuttering at least one of the smallest universities or converting it to a community college. It’s not the first time such an idea has been floated. In the 1980s, for example, a commission recommended closing Lake Superior State, which was originally a branch of Michigan Tech.

Yet Drake concedes that there’s little likelihood decision makers are willing to take his idea seriously. “At least the first time anybody raised it seriously, as opposed to just putting it on a list, it would drop of its own,” he says. “This is checklist stuff to get people to talk about how serious it is. It’s not well-thought-out policy analysis.”

Meanwhile, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy has thrown the idea of privatizing U-M into the budget-cutting mix — something that would require a constitutional amendment. “The notion of the university system we have today doesn’t have to stay that way,” argues the center’s fiscal policy director, Michael LaFaive.

LaFaive notes that the state provides only about 10 percent of U-M’s operational budget, placing it in “the best position” among the state universities to go private or at least quasi-private. He says more than half its students have family incomes of at least $100,000 a year, placing them “in a better position to pay full freight for their education.”

And privatization “would give it more freedom, more latitude to impose diversity requirements on its student population” — remember Proposition 2, the 2006 anti-affirmative action Michigan Civil Rights Initiative? — “without meddling by the state,” he says.

“My disagreement with the Presidents Council is that they have a mission to obtain more resources — or at least maintain them — from the government, which means the taxpayers, in even the most difficult times, and they’ve sold this as a way of stimulating the economy,” LaFaive says. And he cites research suggesting that the link between higher education spending and Michigan’s economic wellbeing may be “moderately negative.”

Boulus bristles at such proposals, arguing that savings to taxpayers would be minimal in light of the shrinking proportion of university budgets that come from Lansing. Also, privatizing U-M would mean doubling tuition, and “why would you deny middle-class students the opportunity to attend a world-class school?” In fact, he asserts that the state should be investing more — not less — in higher education because cuts will hurt Michigan’s economic future.

A 2007 Presidents Council report disagrees with a Mackinac Center study that suggested a negative relationship between the growth rate of the economy and state and local appropriations for higher education.

“There are essentially two mechanisms by which universities contribute to the economic growth of the state beyond the employment of faculty and staff — the generation of research and the training of students for gainful employment,” the Presidents Council report says, citing research that education has a positive impact on degree holders’ income and that all incomes increased as the percentage of degree holders increased. It acknowledges, however, “Higher education plays an important role, but, in and of itself, cannot reasonably be expected to turn around a declining state economy.”

Saginaw Valley’s Gilbertson emphasizes that past and present political leaders have generally espoused support for public higher education. “It’s pretty hard to argue that what the state really needs is less of what universities provide — whether the preparation of an educated workforce or the fruits of research.”

But Gilbertson sounds glum, saying, “At the same time, political leaders face a vengeful and tax-resistant public and a host of powerful lobbies for other good causes — K–12 schools, what we euphemistically call ‘corrections,’ health care and mental health care, and so forth. In many ways this creates a cruel conflict between needs and opportunities — and opportunities, of which higher education is key, generally are losers in the short term. And the short term quickly becomes the long term.”

As for Boulus, he says that despite the pressures, obstacles, criticism and challenges, “we’re still considered one of the best groups of state universities in the United States.”

Looking ahead, he foresees that the universities will grow even as state population declines. He bases that prediction in part on the Michigan Model curriculum, which he says will result in a higher proportion of better-prepared high school graduates, and on a growing public awareness of the need for four-year degrees to find jobs in the “knowledge-based economy” of the future.

Eric Freedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is associate professor of Journalism and director of Capital News Service at Michigan State University. He and Dome columnist Stephen A. Jones are co-editors of African Americans in Congress: A Documentary History (Congressional Quarterly Press).

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