AS MANY UNIVERSITY ADMINISTRATORS are painfully aware, the economic struggles facing much of the nation are beginning to take their toll on higher education.
Lower sales and property tax revenues, an uptick in the inflation rate, and a weakening dollar are having a chilling effect on higher education and on public colleges especially, as across-the-board budget cuts by state legislatures force taxpayer-supported schools to cancel or delay new or expanded programs and equipment purchases, reduce course offerings, and even lay off staff and faculty.
Meanwhile, tuition increases continue at a brisk pace. For example, The California State University system raised its tuition by 10 percent for 2008-2009 and the University of California system bumped it up by 7 percent for most students. No doubt you know of more extreme examples elsewhere. Every day brings new stories of budget crises.
What is at stake for colleges and universities trying to cope with this hostile financial environment? Nothing less than the very quality of education they offer. As stewards of accumulated knowledge and as sources of tomorrow’s leaders and educators, higher education leadership has an obligation to set and maintain the highest educational standards.
Especially at this critical time, it is imperative that our institutions of higher learning resist the urge to sacrifice their standards at the altar of fiscal expedience.
The not-too-distant past offers a parallel to today’s financial and educational challenges. In the late 1970s, the nation’s economy was in a funk. Inflation soared into the double digits, tax revenues were down, unemployment was rising, and spikes in energy, food, and housing prices battered the wallets and pocketbooks of nearly every American family.
These economic obstacles did not deter the founders of what is now Western University of Health Sciences (Calif.) from soldiering on in their mission, which they developed in 1977, a scant year before the economy turned. “Pressures nationally are causing severe deficits for many institutions of higher education,” noted Philip Pumerantz, founding president of what was then the College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific in his President’s Message of 1978-1979. “The result is that many colleges raise tuition and fees, while at the same time they cut educational services to students.”
Pumerantz continued: “We cannot afford to gamble with the quality of our program. The choices we have are to be intimidated—to draw back and wither away—or to resolutely grow in spite of these external negative economic forces. ... We cannot stop growing at a time when growth is life itself for our College.”
This message—its call for sustained excellence, sustained achievement, and sustained growth—rings as true now as it did in 1978. Just as what Western U’s founders did three decades ago shapes what the university is today, what we do today shapes what our schools will be 10, 20, or 30 years from now. The philosophy and culture that guided us in the beginning drives us today. The product of today’s educational experience will be the leaders we will count on when this generation has passed the torch.
To paraphrase Newton, those who follow us will look to the horizon because they stand on the shoulders of giants. All of us who serve in the realm of higher education, public and private, are charged with a grave responsibility: ensuring that the view from those shoulders remains as bright, vibrant, and full of opportunity as possible. It behooves us as managers to take the difficult path of doing more with less—maximizing efficiency to achieve our goals—rather than reducing our quality.
This can only happen if we all work together to preserve, indeed improve, the quality of the higher education experience for all who pursue it. They, and we, deserve no less.
Benjamin Cohen, a doctor of osteopathy, is provost and chief operating officer of Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, Calif.