IOWA CITY — A panel of higher education leaders made a pitch Thursday afternoon for renewed state support of higher education, noting public research universities have saved the nation, advanced technology and changed the world through intentional and accidental discoveries that have — for example — led to the sequencing of the human genome.
“The sciences that come out of here have saved America,” University of Iowa political science instructor and former Iowa congressman Jim Leach said during the afternoon discussion in collaboration with the American Academy of Arts and Sciences-backed Lincoln Project.
“It was the digital computer discovered at Iowa State, based on University of Illinois work to begin with ... that allowed us to break some codes in World War II,” Leach said during the discussion at the Pomerantz Center.
“It was (the late UI scientist) Jim Van Allen in World War II who developed a fuse for our long guns on ships and then a fuse that became a proximity fuse,” he added. “It was one of the four great inventions in military development in wartime ever. And this came out of a public university.”
Mary Sue Coleman, former UI president and co-chair of the Lincoln Project, returned to Iowa City for the Thursday event, which also featured Leach, UI President Bruce Harreld and Phyllis Wise, a University of Illinois faculty member who has contributed to the Lincoln Project.
Coleman, who became president of the University of Michigan in 2002 after leaving Iowa, first laid out the need. She cited the corporate partners that have benefited from public research university discoveries and hires.
“I don’t have any trouble talking about the benefits of research, and corporate America will back me up,” she said. But, she said, failing to continue funding the institutions “is an existential threat for the nation.
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“It’s a global threat, if we’re not willing to support these universities,” said Coleman, current president of the Association of American Universities, who, through the Lincoln Project, helped survey the challenges facing public research universities — namely financial pressures affecting the institutions’ ability to educate, conduct research and serve the greater community, state, nation and world.
The panelists were speaking to the choir in their pitch for renewed state support of higher education, as Iowa lawmakers recently announced a cut of $20.8 million to the universities’ base funding in the current budget year, warning more reductions could come. Those cuts meant a loss of $9.2 million for the UI, about $9 million at Iowa State University and $2.5 million at the University of Northern Iowa.
‘Cut the strings’
Harreld and Coleman went back and forth during the discussion about the need to get lawmakers back on board in funding higher education and the reality that that might not happen.
“I’m not so sure, from our state, that we need more money, as much as predictability,” Harreld said, adding he’d also like lawmakers to “cut the strings.”
“There are a whole bunch of restrictions — things that are limiters — and it keeps us from really soaring and building the next 21st century institution,” he said.
Harreld talked about the need to shift the culture from “one of dependency, with our hand out back to the state ... As opposed to saying, ‘No, we’re world-class, let’s go earn our research grants, let’s go build new businesses, let’s go create new programs and new courses.
“We know how to do that. We just need to get on with it.”
Coleman agreed but redirected pressure back on lawmakers.
“I think the state has an obligation — a firm obligation — to provide some base level of support for its public universities,” she said to applause. “So I worry about saying you can walk away from that. Those resources are golden because they are unrestricted funds.”
Harreld vowed to continue that advocacy but countered, “Hope is not a strategy. And so, at some point, we need to have a plan B.”
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The Lincoln Project has produced strategies aimed at propelling public research institutions toward success in the future. Beyond renewing a call for state support, the project advocates for improved efficiency and new revenue streams.
It also recommends creating public-private partnerships to sustain and strengthen both research and education. And then it encourages simplifying financial aid, better tracking student performance and improving transfer pathways in hopes of increasing student access and performance.
“We have got to increase the success rates,” Coleman said, noting students don’t experience the financial benefits of a college education “unless they complete the degree.”
Coleman on Thursday listed additional strategies her project has produced including:
• Advocating for lawmakers to set long-term goals related to the percentage of public university budgets they’ll be funding years down the road and then “try to achieve that goal.”
• Getting corporations on board in lobbying lawmakers.
• Making it easier for students to apply for need-based aid.
• Coordinating philanthropic matching programs and even urging corporations to give back to the universities a third of the salaries of the new graduates they hire.
“Think about the change that would have on our society if a corporation was willing to step up,” Coleman said.