Saving higher education, step 1: Listen to what Iowans want
As a child of the University of Iowa — literally and figuratively — its current financial woes are troubling.
Frankly, I don’t think the Iowa Legislature can pass the laugh test when it awards $12 billion in tax breaks while fashioning a $7 billion state budget and then says it “can’t afford” to adequately fund its “state” universities. The truth? It just has other priorities.
What to do?
The American Academy of Arts & Sciences recommends its Lincoln Project’s “An Educational Compact for the 21st Century”. It’s not the first proposal for our plight, and won’t be the last — but it’s coherent and data driven.
On March 9, the academy organized a powerhouse panel in Iowa City (and later Des Moines) to discuss this Compact. It was headed by the project’s co-chair, Mary Sue Coleman, president, Association of American Universities, and former president of the Universities of Iowa and Michigan. Joining her were UI President Bruce Harreld and former University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise.
Our multifaceted Jim Leach added to the panel his experience as our former member of Congress, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and currently UI’s Senior Scholar, Chair in Public Affairs, Professor of Law, and interim director, Museum of Art.
It turns out that Iowa’s woes are part of a national trend. States’ support of research universities declined 35 percent the last 17 years (per full-time student, in constant dollars). Private universities have three-to-four times state schools’ funding per student. We can hope for a brighter future, but as President Harreld said, “Hope is not a strategy. We may need a ‘Plan B.’”
There’s more to the Educational Compact than a column can hold: the impact of research universities’ discoveries on Iowa’s (and the world’s) economic growth and job creation (the mere purchases of eight schools put $2 billion into 1750 counties one year), their research that corporations can’t or won’t do, their advances in medical science, their innovative cost-cutting efforts, the economic as well as personal value from arts and humanities (Jim Leach’s HUMANISTEAM), or their financial aid for low income undergrads, among many others.
The tuition-free college programs of California and New York — and the one in the post-World War II GI Bill — were a major reason for those states, and our nation’s, spurts of economic growth.
But if that evidence isn’t enough, how can legislators be persuaded?
President Harreld came the closest with his insightful, joking (and illegal) proposal for a vote-buying, pro-education PAC.
There’s another Politics 101 approach that never came up; something I’ve been harping on for years and was reminded of Nov. 8, 2016.
In 1936 President Roosevelt won by over 24 percent (61 percent to Alf Landon’s 36 percent). The coalition that made that victory possible — the unemployed, working poor, working class, and ultimately union members — held for 40 years. When the Democratic Party started turning to Wall Street and corporations for the money, and the East and Left coasts for the voters, it lost its natural constituency along with its soul — a constituency that, had it been served, could have assured victories in every election from school board to White House.
For higher ed to restore its state funding it needs the support of legislators; to have the support of legislators requires the support of their constituents. Higher ed has been as neglectful of its constituents as the Democrats have been of theirs.
Historically, Iowans’ enthusiasm and generosity for education has been overwhelming. It still could be.
In the 1800s they paid for 12,000 one-room schoolhouses for their kids. In the 1900s they were rightfully proud of funding a K-12 system ranked among the nation’s best. Iowa State University began in 1858, was aided by President Lincoln’s Morrill Act of 1862, and “focused on the ideals that higher education should be accessible to all.” But it, the University of Iowa, 1847, and University of Northern Iowa, 1876, were primarily built with Iowans’ dollars, further evidence of Iowans’ continuing financial commitment to these educational ideals.
It’s clear why businesses in Ames, Cedar Falls, and Iowa City, should support the Regents’ universities. But why should the residents of Iowa’s 96 other counties? How can we answer their question, as President Harreld posed it, “What have you done for us lately?”
We have answers: Where do you think your agricultural research, doctors, nurses, and teachers come from?
But what if they don’t have those doctors, our graduates aren’t their kids, and our astrophysicists’ discoveries haven’t touched their lives?
Let’s start by asking, “What do residents of each county most want?” Then let’s shut up and listen, rather than telling them how great we are. As President Harreld said, “We can’t just wait for the people to come; we need to reach out. We owe the public something back.”
We’ve taken baby steps in that direction. I went on two of what are now called the University of Iowa Engagement Tours — Iowa professors traveling by bus, discovering our beautiful state, meeting with local leaders.
OK. But what we most need is at least a tenfold expansion of what the UI calls our “Outreach” program. Listening to the legislators’ constituents, then surveying the universities’ resources to see what we could do, as their responsive partners, to help solve their problems or flesh out their proposals.
Iowa Public Radio, the multimillion-dollar statewide radio network, licensed to Iowa’s universities, could be a big assist with this effort.
We don’t need another bus ride. What we need is a “full Grassley” of 99 counties with an army of listeners.
The rule in Washington is that you do 10 favors for a politician before you ask for one in return. The same applies to universities’ constituents. What collaborative favors have we done for Iowa’s communities lately?
This political approach will take time, yes, but it’s legal, will cost a lot less, and produce a lot more than that PAC.
• Nicholas Johnson of Iowa City is a retired member of the University of Iowa College of Law faculty, one-time Democratic primary congressional candidate, and three-time presidential appointee. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org