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State House passes higher education budget

By Andrew Schulman, Daily Staff Reporter
Published June 2, 2012

On Friday, the state House of Representatives approved a $1.4 billion higher education budget, ending weeks of disagreement about how to distribute $36 million in additional higher education funding.

The budget plan, which is expected to be passed by the state Senate and signed next week, outlines a 1.6 percent increase in funding for the University. The increases under the plan would be tied to performance metrics such as holding tuition hikes below 4 percent per year, offering degrees in “critical skill areas” and reporting on embryonic stem cell research — with the University being the only public university in the state to conduct such work.

University officials, including Cynthia Wilbanks and President Mary Sue Coleman, as well as state lawmakers have clashed over performance metrics in the months since Republican Gov. Rick Snyder introduced his budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year on Feb. 9.

In testimony to a House subcommittee in March, Coleman said she would prefer the Carnegie Classification, a framework for recognizing an institution’s range of prowess, to the metrics Snyder had originally proposed, which includes the number of Pell Grants a university is awarded.

“The metrics compare the state’s universities against each other, rather than against their Carnegie Classification peers,” Coleman said in her testimony.

The plan approved by the joint committee yesterday adopts the Carnegie Classification.

In an interview Saturday, Wilbanks said that she thought the implementation of the classification was an improvement from past versions of the budget.

“This budget does take a step forward in recognizing the Carnegie classification as an appropriate peer comparison group rather than comparing the universities to each other just within the state,” she said. “We were very pleased to see the recognition that the Carnegie classification was used in part to distribute funding.”

The budget also adjusts the University’s reporting requirements for its embryonic stem cell research, another major point of contention between the University and state lawmakers.

In April, the University sent a packet of press releases and scientific journal articles to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education instead of the specific figures the subcommittee requested. The subcommittee then threatened the University with funding cuts, but Wilbanks, the University’s vice president for government relations, said the University does not collect that data.

The new plan drops the requirement of data, like the number of embryonic stem cells the University stores, and instead asks the University to report the number of stem cell lines it maintains.

In the interview, Wilbanks said she found the new stem cell obligations, which she drafted with state lawmakers, to be more feasible for the University.

“I was certainly pleased to see that the House, Senate and the governor were willing to have a discussion about stem cell reports,” she said. “The outcome was a very reasonable solution.”

The budget plan also drew criticism from Democratic legislators who said they believed that it unfairly favored some state universities or was not a sufficient investment in education.

State Rep. Joan Bauer (D–Lansing), vice chair of the subcommittee, said in a statement yesterday that the budget chooses winners and losers among the state’s 15 public universities.

“The budget doesn’t make up for deep cuts made to college funding ... in previous years,” Bauer said in the statement. “Rather than making college more accessible for Michigan families, it ensures that a college education will be put further out of reach for many of our kids.”

State Rep. Jeff Irwin (D–Ann Arbor) also criticized the budget, calling it an inadequate investment for the state’s institutions.

“The higher ed. budget is an embarrassment to the state of Michigan,” Irwin said. “It’s an outrage, and it’s a slap in the face to academic freedom and the success of the University and the contribution of it to our state.”

Irwin also accused state Republicans of rushing the budget through the House in an attempt to come as close as possible to the June 1 deadline the Michigan Legislature self-imposed.

“Republicans struck a compromise, amended the budget and voted on it all in the 11th hour, so no one actually read the budget before they voted on it,” Irwin said. “There were a ton of changes made, and they presented the Legislature with really no time to review it.”

State Republicans, who have supported metrics as a way of quantifying the impact of the state’s public universities, have accused state Democrats of not actually wanting to devote more resources to higher education in the state.

In a statement, House Speaker Jase Bolger (R–Marshall) said House Democrats had turned down a proposal to increase funding to community colleges and higher education by $46 million.

“The House Democrats consistently voted against more money for higher education and K-12 classrooms,” Bolger said in the statement. “Unfortunately, responsible budgeting that puts taxpayers first earned a solid ‘no’ vote from the House Democrats.”