Perhaps it seemed Michigan’s higher education system needed to be kicked a little more while it was down.
Suffering underneath a burden of recurring state budget cuts and slashes to federal student aid programs, Michigan’s public education institutions are now bearing criticism for perceived inefficiency and misallocation of resources. In a Jan. 26 article titled “Big waste found at state universities,” the Detroit Free Press used findings from statewide audits of public universities compiled over the past seven years to suggest that many of these institutions should be held to a higher standard of accountability with taxpayers’ money. These audits demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of the educational system by those outside of it, but likely sound appealing to state legislators eager to take on the supposed “ivory tower” of higher education. This perception is not only wrong, but it could set universities up for further cuts, putting the quality of higher education at additional risk.
The audits cited student repetition of classes, half-time teaching among full-time faculty and undersized classes as a few examples of ways in which state universities have used money inefficiently. Although the basis for this argument may have risen from a genuine concern for making sure taxpayers’ money is used well, the conclusions it posits regarding the state’s universities – and its suggestions for improvement – are off base.
One audit asserts, for example, that 35 percent of professors at Western Michigan University are teaching half-time or less while being paid full-time salary, suggesting a misallocation of funds. Given that Western is one of the state’s research institutions, many of these “part-time” professors more than make up for this time doing research. Another example of misplaced criticism is the article’s discussion of numerous small classes with 10 or fewer students, which may be viewed by outsiders as wasteful. As any student at one of these universities knows, however, the opportunity to receive individual attention in a small classroom is as fundamental to a strong education as it is uncommon.
Years of declining state appropriations have already forced the state’s universities to take a hard look at their budgets. The implication state legislators are likely to take from these audits – that the state’s universities could withstand further cuts safely – will ultimately endanger educational quality. With a broad and increasingly aggressive attack on higher education taking place at both the state and federal level, the need to defend Michigan’s institutions of higher learning stands more urgent than ever. It is through creative, active policy-making and thinking – not oversimplified accusations of mismanagement – that this defense will best be maintained.