Among the many controversies in Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s budget, her proposal to separate funding for research universities from that of other public colleges is meeting unexpected resistance. A coalition of Michigan’s smaller public universities that fear the change could threaten their funding recently chimed in. Whether or not their fears are grounded, the debate highlights both the vital role of all state universities and the necessity to reward universities that contribute most to the state’s economy.

Sarah Royce

The state’s three major research universities – Michigan, Michigan State and Wayne State – have recently lobbied the state legislature for separate funding than that of other universities. They argue that they deserve additional funding because they play a very different role than that of smaller universities. Separating the funding would also, as University President Mary Sue Coleman recently said, “set incentives for us” and increase accountability.

The remaining public universities are not pleased. All of them except Northern Michigan and the University’s Dearborn and Flint campuses have joined forces as the Education Alliance for Michigan. Their goal is to stop the change in budget appropriations. They fear that splitting up the funding will result in cuts at small universities to finance the larger universities.

The Education Alliance does make a point worth considering. While smaller institutions lack the research capabilities of the largest universities, they nevertheless play an important role in Michigan’s educational system. The fact of the matter is that education will be key in any economic recovery of the state. The three research universities will not provide most of the educated workforce; it will come from the remaining colleges.

However, it is also clear that research universities play a very different role than the smaller public colleges. Not only do they turn out large numbers of skilled graduates, they conduct research central to an economic recovery. They supply the cutting-edge technologies and new perspectives that help to drive innovation in the region.

For example, the University’s Tech Transfer program generated more than $20 million in revenue last year. Also, research coming from the big three universities generates more than $1.3 billion annually for the state. These programs also form much-needed partnerships with businesses and draw high-tech industries into the area. Ultimately, research universities are the “base” of the state’s ideal knowledge-based economy.

Obviously, it is important that all public universities receive funding. All universities have vital functions and a significant effect on the state’s economic well-being. In an ideal world, each college would receive all of the funding that it needed. Legislators claim that education is important but are often quick to cut this funding. To produce real results, they should increase financial support for all state universities. Resources are limited, of course, but adjusting priorities and backing up empty rhetoric can go a long way toward ensuring all universities get what they need.

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