Universities serve as important sources of both power and opportunity. Millions of students and families dedicate time, money and support to their academic communities, which in turn serve as gateways for students to break into their professional fields. Unfortunately, budget cuts that have decreased funding for public universities have increased universities’ reliance on philanthropy, forcing university presidents to serve as fundraisers and money managers rather than leaders of educational institutions. University presidents best serve their schools when they spend time enacting academic and institutional visions; states can help them do this by reversing the trend of budget cuts to higher education.
In Michigan, budget cuts have decreased University funding by 13 percent since 2002. The University of California suffered a 6 percent budget cut this year. The Ohio State University saw a 4 percent cut. As state funding for these schools decreases, their presidents must continually devote time and energy toward balancing school budgets. According a Chronicle of Higher Education survey, 60 percent of university presidents admit to spending a “good deal of time on money matters,” while only 41 percent said that they dealt with “educational leadership” on a daily basis. This alarming trend toward prioritizing monetary concerns over student issues raises a problem for universities. The new emphasis on finances forces presidents to serve as money-managers; the Chronicle survey found that they meet more often with their chief financial officers than with academic provosts.
The survey’s results are understandable. Maintaining and improving education and the quality of student life directly relates to managing university budgets. But the situation remains frustrating. Presidents should not have to dedicate large amounts of their time to ensuring the financial stability of their schools.
In the past, leaders have risen to realize the opportunities and responsibilities that come with such a prestigious position. Former University President James Angell brought about a five-fold increase in University enrollment. His goal was to make the University a flagship school, and he had the freedom to pursue that vision. Most presidents of the past used their time to further their personal visions for the University, and by using the University as a tool to advance the interests of students, each individual president found a way to leave a lasting legacy. In contrast, most presidents today do not enjoy that opportunity, as they are bound by financial obligations and restrictions.
Rather than pursuing a personal interest in directly helping students, Coleman dedicates a large amount of her presidency to her fundraising campaign, The Michigan Difference, which seeks to raise $2.5 billion. Although this worthy campaign will undoubtedly help the University maintain its quality in the face of budget cuts, Coleman had few other options in determining her vision. Financial pressures necessitated a large fundraising drive.
The opportunity to preside over a powerful school invites room for ambition. This ambition, however, is stifled by the demand for money. University presidents are not elevated to serve as cheerleaders. Their positions evoke power and prestige, and a president can set a direction for his university to take. Unfortunately, university presidents today must focus their tenures on resolving money issues.
Furthermore, the need for universities to please potential donors drives presidents to maintain political neutrality in controversial situations. At times, presidents may wish to take a stance to help further a cause or to criticize corporate policies. Former University President Robben Fleming, for instance, famously came out against the Vietnam War. Yet today, fundraising concerns too often stifle presidents in their role as public intellectuals. The necessity of money forces university presidents to cater to corporations and ever-present financial burdens rather than working in the interests of students and social justice.
Until state governments across the country realize that reducing funding for higher education ultimately only leaves their states with less educated and less competitive workforces, university presidents will remain, in essence, CEOs with doctorate degrees.