Higher Ed, Lower Expectations

Idaho is about to lose another high value educational asset. The loss is coming, in part I suspect, because the state has engaged in prolonged and systematic disinvestment in education at all levels and higher education has been particularly hard hit.

University of Idaho President Duane Nellis apparently will depart shortly for Texas Tech University in Lubbock; a 30,000 student, major research university that competes athletically in the Big 12. Nellis was named late last week as the “sole” finalist for the desirable Texas Tech job.

Nellis’ departure comes four years after University of Idaho supporters prevailed upon him to take the job at Idaho’s land grant university by sweetening the salary offer with private dollars above and beyond what the State Board of Education was prepared to pay. The Nellis move marks the second departure of a high value U of I president to a place where education is clearly a higher priority than it is in Idaho. Tim White, Nellis’ predecessor, left the Moscow school in 2008 to head the University of California-Riverside and since has since been promoted to head the entire 23-campus California State University system. Talk about a brain drain.

(Full disclosure: my firm has had a long-standing client relationship with the University of Idaho and know and admire both Nellis and White. I have also done volunteer work for years with the Andrus Center at Boise State University.)

It’s clear that Nellis was recruited for the Texas Tech job and White’s rapid rise in the huge Cal State system speaks for itself. Both men are quality leaders with national reputations who, in the whole scheme of things, had barely a cup of coffee as they passed through educational penny-wise and pound-foolish Idaho. One can hardly blame them for leaving for states where admittedly educational budgets have been whacked, but where higher education is still seen as the surest path to economic growth.

At California-Riverside White helped open the first new medical school in the state in four decades, while during his tenure in Idaho Nellis launched a major fundraising campaign and continued to grow the U of I’s research budget. Nellis moves to a Texas Tech system that boasts a law school, a health sciences center, a big graduate school and a national/international foot print in agriculture and trade.

(Political junkies will note that the Texas Tech system’s Chancellor is former U.S. Representative Kent Hance, a conservative Democrat-turned-Republican who holds the distinction of having beaten one George W. Bush in a congressional race in the 1970’s. Hance is a major player in Texas politics who, among other things, as a House Democrat, helped then-President Ronald Reagan pass the Reagan tax cuts in 1981.)

California’s bizarre budget and spending constraints required that Gov. Jerry Brown take a measure to the ballot last November to raise taxes, part of which he sold as a break with the state’s recent history of disinvestment in higher education.

As the New York Times recently noted, “Governor Brown holds a position on the board of trustees for both Cal State and [the University of California]. Since November, he has attended every meeting of both boards, asking about everything from dormitories to private donations and federal student loans. He is twisting arms on issues he has long held dear, like slashing executive pay and increasing teaching requirements for professors — ideas that have long been met with considerable resistance from academia. But Mr. Brown, himself a graduate of University of California, Berkeley, has never been a man to shrink from a debate.”

Like Idaho, spending on colleges and universities is down in California and in Texas, and enrollment is up. What seems different, however, is that some states in the post-recession period are finally starting, however tentatively, to invest again. And of equal importance these states actually demonstrate a genuine commitment to higher education by exploring real reform. For example, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber is pushing forward with a major reworking of the state’s university governance system that will likely lead to more independence and spending flexibility. Other states are linking state support to educational outcomes, hoping to change incentives from merely enrolling students to keeping them in school.

Idaho, on the other hand, seems content not even to discuss new models, while maintaining a top-down command structure enforced by a part-time board that generally sees it’s job as policing the higher education budget rather than growing it. A legislator who might be inclined to dust-off old ideas about a single university system, a chancellor for Idaho higher education or a higher education board devoted to policy would get laughed out of the Statehouse.

As the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) noted in a recent report 20 years ago the United States “topped the world in the percentage of adults age 25 to 34 with college degrees. Our elementary and secondary schools might have been cause for concern but, with students from around the world wanting to enroll, our colleges and universities were above reproach.” No longer.

“Today,” the NCLS report says, “the United States ranks 10th among developed nations in the percentage of young workers holding a post-secondary credential or degree. It’s not that today’s young people are less educated than their elders. Rather, it’s that other nations are doing all they can to boost college participation and attainment and have surpassed the United States.”

Another study, the Times World Higher Education study, concludes that elite United States colleges – Harvard, Stanford, etc. – continue to be among the very best in the world, but the rest of the world is catching up to the rest of American higher education and catching up quickly.

“New forces in higher education are emerging, especially in the East Asian countries that are investing heavily in building world-class universities, so the traditional elite must be very careful,” according to Phil Baty, editor of Times Higher Education. “In the three years that the World Reputation Rankings have been running, we have clear evidence that the U.S. and the U.K. in particular are losing ground.”

So place all this in this global context and recognize that the bean counters in the Idaho legislature have, after a decade of disinvestment, succeeded in downsized state government to a place many of them have long dreamed about. At the same time they seem entirely content to let higher education patch and scratch its way forward. This year there will apparently be no new money to allow the University of Idaho to expand its law school offerings in the business and government center of the state and no new money to work on critical programs to retain kids in school once they have gotten there. The vast majority of the extremely limited new money for higher education – so far the legislature has approved less than the governor requested – will barely allow the state’s colleges and universities to keep up with new enrollment and occupy a few new buildings. This hardly signifies a strategic view of how to apply the essential grease of quality higher education to the sticky gears of a still lagging state economy.

You have to wonder how Idaho will attract the jobs of the 21st Century when the state continues to have one of the most dismal percentages in the country of high school grads going on to college or skills education. Meanwhile, study after study shows the unmistakable connection between the level of educational attainment by Americans and how well they do on measures of economic security and income. It’s not difficult to conclude that while Idaho education policy in recent years has centered on various “reforms” that have often promised improvements without more money, the state’s per capita personal income has fallen from 41st in the country in 2000 to 49th in 2011.

 Most state policy makers seem entirely content with the steadily diminished status quo and they scarcely speak as another proven higher education leader leaves for a greener pasture. You won’t hear many speeches from Idaho political leaders about how the state should aspire to lead the nation (or even the region) in some academic area or find the resources to build a world-class research capability. Quite to the contrary the view seems to be that things in Idaho are just good enough and budgets and aspiration best be held in check. One doubts Duane Nellis or Tim White heard such sentiments in Texas or California when they made decisions to move on.

At the same time, new forces in higher education indeed are emerging. The Chinese, the Koreans and the Indians, just to mention the obvious, understand the links between robust, continually improving higher education and a growing 21st Century economy. Higher education shrinks income disparity, provides one sure path from poverty to a better life and, not insignificantly, creates better, critically thinking citizens. It’s one thing to be ideologically blind to the need for new investment in higher education that might require new resources. It’s quite another thing to be willfully ignorant of the way the world works.

 

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