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Turmoil In Academe

by A. Maureen Rouhi
July 2, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 27

The Washington, D.C., area has been riveted by the furor sparked by the news on June 10 that Teresa A. Sullivan would step down as president of the University of Virginia (UVA) after just two years in the job. The cause, according to Sullivan, was a “philosophical difference of opinion” between her and UVA’s governing board concerning the pace of change at Virginia’s flagship public research university. Faculty and students demanded the popular president’s reinstatement. In a June 22 letter, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell ordered the governing board to resolve the leadership crisis by June 26 or resign. On June 26, the governing board reinstated Sullivan.

Before her reinstatement, Sullivan issued a statement in her defense, saying: “Clearly we have financial challenges. Our net financing from the state has been steadily cut for two decades … Both political and market forces limit the tuition we can charge. We are addressing these challenges in multiple ways.”

UVA is not alone in grappling with deep financial problems, as C&EN reports this week. “From South Carolina to California, state funding for higher education has been declining for decades,” writes Senior Editor Celia Arnaud (see page 28). So severe is the funding crunch that, according to Arnaud, a National Research Council report characterizes “the underfunding of U.S. public universities as a grave threat to the global leadership positions of U.S. academic research institutions.”

Meanwhile, in California, “the state’s three tiers of higher education have grappled with billions of dollars in cuts as they educate some 3 million students, more than any other state in the country,” Senior Editor Jyllian Kemsley reports (see page 32). Unless California’s voters pass a tax increase in November, according to Kemsley, the state’s public colleges and universities face a $1.1 billion cut for 2012–13. “Another round of cuts,” she writes, “will break the promise of higher education for all Californians.”

Uncertainty of funding now bedevils U.S. public universities and raises questions that weren’t pressing during times of plenty: Is higher education a private benefit or a public good? Should public higher education be promised to all who seek it? Should representatives of external funding sources participate in the governance of public universities? At the same time, uncertainties in the job market and new technologies are putting under scrutiny the value and role of a liberal arts education and of the brick-and-mortar edifices where students have traditionally gathered to learn from scholars.

As both Arnaud and Kemsley report, public universities have exhausted the usual options to bridge the growing budget gaps due to declining state funds. And no one has a crystal ball showing a sure path to sustainable public universities that would, as Arnaud writes, “provide broad access to education for a low cost to the student, while fulfilling their mission to expand society’s knowledge through research.”

Sullivan’s reinstatement as president of UVA may now quell the uproar in the institution President Thomas Jefferson founded. But it won’t quickly dispatch the root cause of the showdown: money, specifically the lack of it, as stated or implied in many of the challenges that UVA’s rector, Helen E. Dragas, listed in a statement belatedly explaining why the governing board forced Sullivan’s resignation in the first place.

Meanwhile, in a political environment where a dominant chorus is to cut spending, one would hope that ways could be found to ease the funding crisis of public universities. If not, we risk precipitating the decline of the U.S.’s much-envied public system of higher education and relegating those with few resources to a future with limited means to fulfill their potential as productive, creative human beings.

Also in this issue is C&EN’s annual compilation of the global chemical industry’s vital statistics (see page 37). Just as funding uncertainty is weighing down U.S. public universities, economic uncertainty has been a drag on the global chemical industry. According to this year’s “Facts & Figures of the Chemical Industry,” although 2011 was profitable for many companies, other data signal a slowdown.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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