The same week in October that The New York Times reported Harvard’s plan to cut cookies from faculty meetings to save money, University President Mary Sue Coleman gave a speech that would have sounded ambitious in the best of times.

Coleman said that in less than a decade, the University could double annual research to $2 billion. She also discussed the development of a massive new research facility on North Campus, reaffirmed plans to hire 100 interdisciplinary faculty in addition to regular hiring plans and announced a forum that will focus on a new transportation system between North and Central campuses. These plans will be debated on campus, but the fact they are even possible is impressive.

The University continues to grow, hire and expand, despite the state’s collapse.

The state has cut funding to the University by 13 percent in the past eight years, according to University statistics. As the state shrinks and runs out of stimulus money, the cuts will accelerate. The governor is already talking about 20-percent state budget cuts next year. In the past 50 years, the state’s proportion of the University’s general fund has gone from 78 percent to 22 percent.

What is needed now – either in Coleman’s next few years as president, or from her successor if she retires – is to take advantage of our relative strength and develop a creative vision for the University’s future.

As Coleman said in her speech, now is a time to be aggressive and attract faculty who, not long, ago would have looked to the Ivies or the University of California. Because of a state meltdown, the University of California will now see tuition increases of 32 percent over two years and cuts to faculty salaries.

But let’s not kid ourselves.

The University of Michigan’s administration has long been coy about admitting to decreases in quality of education, but University of California President Mark Yudof reports larger class sizes and “rapidly diminishing” course availability in his system. At our University, between 2003 and 2008, student credit hours per full-time faculty and staff member increased 5.3 percent, according to University statistics. If I were a student, I wouldn’t be shocked to be running into more adjunct professors in larger classes.

The University could continue on its current path, trudging through the budget process every year. It could continue asking students and their families to pay higher tuition to make up for a portion, but not all, of the state cuts — which basically asks them to pay more for an education of declining caliber. But as quality erodes and the cuts make the University poorer, there won’t be enough money available to fulfill the dual aspiration of providing what the University’s longest-serving president, James Angell, called “an uncommon education for the common man.”

At some point, it won’t make sense to come here — even at in-state tuition rates. And not long into that decline, the private universities’ endowments will recover. Will a University of Michigan that charges a bunch of students from wealthy families even higher tuition rates for a lower-quality education be worth it? Why not just go to Northwestern or Columbia?

After writing the first history of the University in 1875, Andrew Ten Brook said of the University, “May those who have its management never allow it to lose its prestige by standing still to contemplate and proclaim the wonderful successes which it has already achieved.”

The University’s leaders have followed that advice in the past. The University’s first president, Henry Tappan, envisioned the University as the nation’s first research university. Angell explained the connection between access and excellence. Marion Burton, president during the 1920s, envisioned a massive university that combined size and excellence.

The University needs a strong vision now, and the stakes are high. What’s at stake is whether a high caliber education will be reserved for a small number of people at private schools or whether the public deserves access to an education of similar caliber.

What’s needed is a pioneering academic vision that is supported by a new financial model, not just a funding mechanism that balances the books every year. Such a vision will take years to develop, but it should be based on the school’s historic strengths: broad access, size, diversity, social engagement and the connection between research and teaching. Without more public support, one plan might include a marriage between higher tuition, higher quality and more financial aid.

The proximity to Detroit and the potential explosion of green technology makes the environment a logical area of focus for the University, a point Coleman recognized in her speech. The University could also be a leader in the future of information with its support of Google Books and its role in the development of the Internet. It is also time for an intense focus on academic quality: lowering full-time, tenured faculty-to-student ratios, shrinking class sizes and setting high academic standards for both faculty and students.

The University has long been a trailblazer in the world of higher education. It must now innovate again, or it will find itself in a funk in which the books balance but quality goes down, tuition goes up and a national treasure becomes just good.

Jason Pesick is a Law student and a former editor in chief of the Daily.

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