How to Fund a Major University

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A serious challenge faces all of us at the UW.  What are we going to be?  How do we attract new, young faculty  competitive enough to eventually win a federal grants or stimulate their students to greatness?

The desperate reaction to Washington state’s cuts to higher education have led, rightly, to a focus on our undergraduate students.  The rise in tuition and decreases in availability of critical classes, is a disaster to college age students who only get one chance at the gifts of higher ed. State responses seem always to be the same .. how to trade efficiency … more degrees in less time … for quality.

Look at what we have done over the last ten  years. We have built two branch campuses that intentionally emphasize “teaching” over research. While the state has fallen to near the bottom in funding for its major research campuses, we also rank near the top in offerings at the community college level. We have even gone so far as to endorse Western Governors University, essentially a faculty-less program for awarding degrees based on a student’s ability to pass competency exams.  The implication is that the legislature thinks the degree is more important than the education.

What we fail to do is to explain to the citizens of this state that the UW is much more than a typical state university.  Leaving the Huskies aside, the academic side of the UW “also” ranks as a premiere, world-class institution in fields as divers as political science, computer science, nursing, genetics, and economics. That rank means huge opportunities for Washington state kids.

Much more than size, the world-class status of a university does matter.  The economy of Washington State, its prominence in the Pacific Century, opportunities for our businesses to excel … all these reflect the quality of the UW.  The UW student has a huge advantage over her compeers at lesser state schools.

A good comparison is between Washington State and Massachusetts.  While the University of Massachusetts is an impressive place, the economy of Massachusetts depends hugely on the private schools in Cambridge.  Harvard and MIT, not U Mass, are the direct competitors for the UW.

The best indicator of this competition is probably our ability to attract young faculty. Harvard Biology professor Richard M. Losick recently wrote about the importance of Harvard’s support for junior faculty:  “The issue of funding in the science, he said, extends beyond Harvard.”  “I think most people would agree that the U.S. doesn’t have anything if it doesn’t have innovation.” He continues, “It’s my impression that (Harvard) makes very competitive offers when we hire junior faculty, and we are able to meet their needs with generous start-up packages,”  “It’s often the case now that since the bar is so high for junior faculty, they need start-up packages that can carry their research program for several years before they are competitive enough to win a federal grant.”

I suspect the UW faculty, with many of us so underpaid, as well as the legislators in Olympia would have little motivation to funding UW start-up packages.

readmore at the Harvard Crimson

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