Given Michigan’s economic woes, now might not seem like the best time for the state’s three research universities to ask the legislature for special treatment. Yet the presidents of the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University did just that last week. They made their case to the state House appropriations subcommittee for funding the state’s three research universities separately from its other 12 public universities. Their research plays a unique role in the economic future of our state, and though it may seem unfair, they deserve to be treated accordingly.
The state’s legislators, many of whom lack experience thanks to term limits, are bound by the state constitution to pass a balanced budget every year. Crippled by a weak state economy and a structural budget deficit, the state’s budget in four of the past five years has included cuts to higher education appropriations. Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s proposed budget contains such a funding mechanism which might shield these three universities from these kinds of appropriations cuts.
Cutting higher education funding inevitably leads universities to make up the difference with tuition and fee increases, hurting students across the state. But slicing away state support for universities particularly hurts the research institutions. These three universities receive 95 percent of the state’s spending on research and development and are the only schools in the state that grant medical degrees and nursing doctorates.
The environment these schools create is essential to attracting the knowledge-based and high-tech jobs that will make Michigan competitive in the global economy, even as its manufacturing base continues to erode. University President Mary Sue Coleman made an apt analogy before the subcommittee to North Carolina’s famed research triangle, where a long-term commitment by that state to its research universities eventually grew into an economic base far more reliable than textile mills – or auto plants.
Funding the state’s research universities separately would not guarantee that they’re spared from further funding cuts. It would, however, ensure that the governor and the state legislature would have to think about what they were doing before settling on future cuts. Separate funding would also protect the state’s research institutions against more harebrained funding schemes. One such flawed proposal includes making the core of state appropriations an equal per-pupil grant to each state university. That would likely benefit schools like Central Michigan University and Grand Valley State University at the expense of the research universities.
The state of Michigan is facing a budget deficit for the next year of more than $900 million, and Granholm’s proposal to offset cuts with a service tax has received a cool reception in the legislature. The state doesn’t face many easy choices these days, but providing separate funding for the research universities is a simple one. At worst, doing so would add a layer of accountability to further cuts to these vital institutions. At best, a separate funding stream might be the start of a greater commitment by the state to the research universities that are crucial to its economic future.