A two-year Congressionally mandated assessment of financial threats to the nation's research universities ended on Thursday with the offer of a grand bargain: Cut costs and form more partnerships with communities and industry, and expect increased revenues and fewer regulations.
A report on the study, coordinated by the National Research Council at the request of four Democratic and Republican lawmakers, begins by affirming a widespread sense that years of steep budget cuts at the state and federal levels are endangering American research universities' global pre-eminence.
Its authors, a 22-member panel of university and business leaders, propose averting such a disaster through a set of 10 recommendations describing steps to be taken together by the universities, governments, and industry.
"The basic recommendation is: We want the relationship to be a partnership," said the panel's chairman, Charles O. Holliday Jr., a retired chairman and chief executive officer of the DuPont chemical company. It should not be universities' just saying, "Give us more money," Mr. Holliday said.
For universities, the recommendations include raising graduation rates among science and engineering majors and halting runaway growth in costs by keeping annual budget increases to no greater than the nation's overall inflation rate. States would be expected to fully reverse cuts in support to higher education that have ranged from 25 percent to 50 percent in recent years.
The federal government would meet a longstanding commitment to double the basic-research budgets of its main science agencies, reduce regulations governing university research, begin a program of matching state and private donations for facilities and endowed faculty, and fully cover overhead costs associated with grants. Corporations would restructure relations with research universities to meet broad educational and economic goals that extend beyond narrow job-training objectives.
And total public and private support for research and development would be increased to 3 percent of the nation's gross domestic product, up from levels between about 2.5 percent and 2.8 percent in recent decades.
It's a big list of commitments, potentially costing each of those main categories of partners as much as $15-billion to $20-billion a year over all, said James J. Duderstadt, a panel member and former president of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
As such, Mr. Duderstadt said, the plan could be tough to sell to universities, despite their eagerness for more state and federal support. "The universities are only going to benefit if they also come with commitments of comparable scale," he said.
Following the 'Gathering Storm'
Universities are largely responsible for the process that led to the report. The Congressionally chartered National Research Council embarked on the study at the request of the four lawmakers, including the chairmen of the House and Senate science panels, after the Association of American Universities suggested the idea.
It was intended as a follow-up to the National Academies' "Gathering Storm" report of 2005, in which a similar panel warned that the United States was risking its economic future by cutting back on education spending, particularly in the sciences, just as other countries were realizing the long-term value of such investments.
The "Gathering Storm" recommendations included doubling federal spending on the physical sciences over seven years. Congress took some steps toward carrying out that panel's ideas, driven in large part by the forceful personality of its chairman, Norman R. Augustine, a former president and chief executive of the defense-technology company Lockheed Martin.
But Congress has fallen short of the doubling goal in recent years, as the nation's economy has worsened and lawmakers have emphasized a fundamental desire to cut government spending. The panel led by Mr. Holliday, who served on Mr. Augustine's commission, was conceived as an attempt to revive the momentum, particularly as it concerns university-based research.
The image of industry support is critical to winning support for such ideas in Congress and in state legislatures, said M. Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, who was not a member of the panel. "To have a major corporate guy talk about what the country needs from the universities is a wonderful complement to the universities' saying that themselves," Mr. McPherson said.
Lawmakers constantly need reminding of the value of research universities, said Barton J. Gordon, a former Democratic member of Congress from Tennessee and one of the four lawmakers who requested the study. Even if many of the recommendations are based on ideas that have been proposed in some form in the past, Mr. Gordon said, there's real political value in packaging them together.
Nevertheless, the ultimate success of Mr. Holliday's panel appears far from certain. Its report, despite covering 250 pages, has left even advocates describing shortcomings, such as its avoidance of some tough questions that precipitated the study, and its lack of any clear path toward carrying out its recommendations.
A Missed Opportunity?
In his original proposal for the study, back in 2009, the then-president of the Association of American Universities, Robert M. Berdahl, said he'd like an evaluation of whether the country might simply have too many universities competing for its federal research dollars.
Among the programs that have raised questions for some lawmakers is the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, or EPSCoR, through which the National Science Foundation sets aside money for institutions in states with historically low rates of success in winning grants. Its defenders include Paul W. Ferguson, president of the University of Maine at Orono, which has a niche expertise in offshore wind turbines. Programs such as EPSCoR have allowed Maine researchers to become more competitive, he said, with the idea that they eventually will be weaned off it.
With universities themselves divided on such programs, Mr. Berdahl's successor at the AAU, Hunter R. Rawlings, who served on the panel before taking the AAU post, said he didn't want to touch the subject of potentially limiting the number of research universities.
It may have been a missed opportunity, said William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland. "There might have been an opportunity there to address that very point more explicitly," Mr. Kirwan said, "and I think that would have strengthened the report."
Mr. Kirwan, who serves as chairman of the Business-Higher Education Forum, an organization of senior business and higher-education executives, said the report also left him wanting more-explicit strategies for realizing its goals. Without that, he said, "I'm just afraid that this will be another very well written and well intended report that won't really move the needle."
Mr. Holliday, however, said he was determined to see the report gain traction. Although a lobbying strategy may not appear in the report, he said he had learned much from watching Mr. Augustine persuade Congress and others following the "Gathering Storm" report. Mr. Holliday's main method of winning allies is a planned series of regional forums around the country where he hopes that commission members will make clear to local business leaders, policy makers, and university officials the importance of jointly contributing to its success.
As a corporate leader himself, Mr. Holliday said he recognized he had a special responsibility to help other business executives understand the depth of benefits they receive, either directly or indirectly, from a strong national base of university research. He said he rejected any suggestion that the nation's political environment was too toxic to deliver such a message successfully. "I categorically disagree" with such a notion, he said. "We approach this with a lot of optimism."
Needed: Paradigm Shifts
Mr. Duderstadt was less willing to predict success in selling the idea to his fellow university leaders, many of whom he sees as still having trouble making deep structural changes in their spending habits, even as government support collapses around them.
"That requires paradigm shifts," Mr. Duderstadt said. "It requires sharing equipment in laboratories rather than giving every PI their own electron microscope. Maybe building one nanotechnology laboratory in the UC system and having everybody use it rather than build one on every campus.
"Maybe changing the ways that you teach, reducing the number of majors that you have, reducing the number of postdocs that can't find jobs anyway," he continued. "There are a whole series of things that have to be put on the table and seriously considered."
There's also uncertainty about what a new and deeper relationship with industry might look like. Mr. Rawlings said existing relationships were generally positive, though he said he was wary of deeper corporate involvement in undergraduate education.
At the same time, Mr. Rawlings and others endorsed a project of the Business-Higher Education Forum in which companies work with faculty to design undergraduate curricula. The group announced this past week an expansion to a total of 12 projects across the country. They include one, championed by Mr. Kirwan, in which the government contractor Northrop Grumman will spend $1.1-million at the University of Maryland, hoping to generate a steady flow of students trained in cybersecurity.
In general, university leaders said they were confident they could manage such expanded partnerships without compromising their educational mission. The key safeguard is vigilance to ensure faculty fully control the curriculum, said Robert L. Caret, president of the University of Massachusetts system, which is also participating in the Business-Higher Education Forum program.
Mr. Caret, who was not a panel member, said he drew a lesson from the experience of the polytechnic institutes in Europe, which lost their innovative edge after growing too close to industry. Many of those institutes are now fixing the damage by reviving attention to the liberal arts, Mr. Caret said. "I'm a little concerned" about repeating such a mistake, he said.
Top Down, or Bottom Up
Universities are right to be wary, Mr. Holliday said. But companies also value workers with a broad education, and the balance at most universities still favors liberal-arts training, he said. "I think we're a long way from being in trouble on that yet," he said. Brian K. Fitzgerald, chief executive officer at the Business-Higher Education Forum, endorsed that sentiment. "We don't want to turn America's great research universities into proprietary training programs," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "But there is a way to do a better linkage."
Other key goals identified by Mr. Holliday's panel include the passage of legislation that would allow U.S. residency to foreigners who graduate with science degrees, the greater encouragement of women and underrepresented minority students in science, and the permanent extension of a federal tax credit for research and development.
Over all, the panel's goals for changes by universities, businesses, and governments may be too optimistic, said Lou Anna K. Simon, president of Michigan State University, who was not a member. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, Ms. Simon said. A truly worthwhile goal, she said, is "never viewed as realistic."
The panel's members included Teresa A. Sullivan, who was forced out on June 8 as president of the University of Virginia, in part because of her disagreements with the university's governing board over how to handle the tougher financial environment.
During a briefing on Thursday with panel members about the report, Ms. Sullivan said U.S. research universities were stronger than their foreign competitors in large part because they tolerate a diversity of opinions. "The only advantage we have right now in that competition is that other countries have not yet figured out how to do it—they believe that the way to build a great research university is from the top down," she said. "That's not right. A great research university is far more distributed and networked, and many ideas are allowed to bubble up, some of which will be successful."