In a push to hold colleges and universities accountable, the state Legislature has threatened freezing construction funds for the state’s 15 universities and 28 community colleges unless they pass a resolution promising to comply with current state funding guidelines. Schools already must get approval from the state for expensive construction projects. This state oversight on the University’s construction funding is unnecessary and misguided to begin with, and there is certainly no need for a further, largely symbolic resolution. The state should respect the University’s right to determine its own spending priorities and abandon this threat.

Sarah Royce

Currently, the state Legislature’s Joint Capital Outlay Committee must approve all building projects worth more than $1 million. Concerned that colleges and universities may ignore this requirement, the state Legislature established harsh funding penalties last April for those that bypass the committee. But legislators, unconvinced that universities are really being held accountable, have required that each college and university pass a resolution stating its commitment to state oversight.

State legislators will meet today to determine what to do about the three universities that have not complied, including the University of Michigan, and could jeopardize $193 million in the University’s construction funding.

It is inappropriate for the state Legislature to threaten to withhold so much money for universities over what is only a symbolic gesture. Only state legislators, looking to earn votes for keeping supposedly wasteful universities in line, have an interest in the resolution itself.

Because the University has constitutional autonomy, it is odd that it must submit to direct government oversight of its construction spending. With an elected Board of Regents that approves all building projects, the University is already subject to public oversight of its spending. The University rightly fears that signing the resolution to commit to this legislative oversight will infringe upon this autonomy and open the door for more requests from the state.

Threatening the University with freezing construction projects and making schools get “parental approval” from the state for all spending is unjustified. When state legislators are more concerned with their re-election prospects than higher-education policy, decisions regarding the University’s construction projects are best left with the regents.

Impressive building projects may be a sign to critics that tuition dollars are going to waste. But for the University pays for the bulk of its construction out of capital outlays and private donations – separate from tuition. This misunderstanding could jeopardize large-scale projects that are necessary to stay competitive with other top schools.

The state has as much an interest in the quality of higher education facilities as the universities themselves. With relationships already tense due to state cutbacks in higher education, the state should be trying to work with the University, not intimidate it.

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