Money casts a shadow over a campus spring
May 13, 1982
To be a freelance public issues journalist in Illinois is to write often about the chronic funding crisis of the state’s colleges and universities. This reflection was occasioned by a visit to the main campus of its flagship public university, the University of Illinois. The dispute then underway about how to pay for the new student spa-like fitness center raised questions about the core functions of a public school like the U of I.
It has been just about exactly fifteen years since I've spent more than a few hours at a time on the Urbana campus of the University of Illinois. I was a boy then, just concluding an academic career of singular brevity and futility. I go back often for concerts and things, of course, but it was not until lately, when my profession required more extended visits, that I had a chance to gauge the distance both of us had traveled since 1967.
It was happy duty. There are few places more seductive than a campus in the spring. On the last of my recent visits, the dogwoods were in bloom, classes were nearing an end, the air above the quad was filled with budding leaves and Frisbees in nearly equal numbers, and all about me was earnestness and youth.
The campus scene had changed, inevitably, but not much. It was disheartening to see the signs posted everywhere warning students not to leave their backpacks unattended because of theft, but I was familiar enough with school loan default statistics among medical students not to be surprised that the campuses have become havens for petty thieves. There was a raucously rude debate in progress on the quad between evangelical Christians and a gaggle of mocking undergrads which might have been heard on the same spot in 1967, except that now it is the Christians who are cast as the weirdos. Successive bands of revelers celebrating under my window into the early hours reminded me that the principal difference between youth and middle age is that the young need no particular reason to get drunk.
I might have sustained this reverie for days had not I stumbled across a maintenance man at 6:30 one morning outside the Union. He was chugging from wastebasket to wastebasket aboard his Cushman lawn truck, dully retrieving the effluvium of the previous night's gaiety and pitching it into his truck. He reminded me of that unseen world outside the campus which sustains this pleasant idyll and for the sake of whose broader good universities were endowed.
That world, invisible as it was, was to intrude again and again upon my conversations in subsequent days. The sun was shining on the quad, all right, but shadows were gathering in the faculty offices, research institutes, and laboratories I visited. The cloud in this smiling sky was money. Increases in higher ed spending in Illinois have not kept pace with costs. Faculty salaries are slipping compared to other states, while enrollments, presumably because of unemployment, are pushing toward record high levels.
I knew all that, and had arrived prepared to ignore it. We have come to treat the young much as we treat hazardous industrial wastes. Unsure what to do with them, certain only that they pose threats to our well-being if left unattended, we warehouse them temporarily and at great cost in the hope that either 1) we experts will find some place to get rid of them permanently, or 2) they will gradually turn harmless with age. Too many of the people who are in college shouldn't be there; much of what colleges teach should be taught not in colleges but in trade schools or on the job. Much of the schools' current fiscal crisis is the result of the spurious accreditation of a hundred "professions" from journalism to psychology, whose functions are essentially clerical, but which have attached degree requirements to their practitioners largely in order to justify higher salaries. Warehousing unemployable adolescents in colleges during recessions is more expensive than putting them on welfare, even if welfare is a less congenial form of idleness than liberal arts study.
However, there is a money crisis in higher ed. Among the places being cut are the loftier reaches of academe, research and graduate programs like the U of I's research into water quality, pollution control, and weather. These are realms both arcane and familiar, where scientists are grappling with questions that are as remote from the public attention as they are central to its well-being. What are the health effects of mutagens in drinking water? How can they be detected and removed? How may we protect groundwater resources from contamination by chemical toxins? Can we modify the weather to increase crop production or ameliorate drought?
And so on. The General Assembly has funded less and less such work in recent years. Much of it is paid for by grants from agencies such as the U.S. EPA or the National Science Foundation or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, contracted out to campuses like IIlinois's. Such project grants have gradually come to constitute a large part of the university's budget for advanced work in certain fields. At the Institute for Environmental Studies, for instance, the state pays only about 25 to 30 percent of the bills.
This federal money is being cut, and the state is, or claims to be, unable to make it up. Unlike cuts in student loans or general operating funds, cuts in research funds go largely unmourned. Much of the work such money finances is done by odd-looking people who talk an unintelligible argot, and who dabble on the murky and slightly menacing perimeters of knowledge. No alumni charter buses visit a cloud laboratory; no legislator has proposed a state lottery to fund research into advanced pollution control techniques. Yet such work is at the heart of what a good university does. That this fact is slow to sink in among a public which equates universities with won-loss records is regrettable but hardly surprising.
In the January issue of Illinois Issues magazine, a spokesman for the American Association of University Professors is quoted as saying, "How on earth are we going to cope with the incredible problem of toxic waste if we don't have people who can understand it?" How indeed. The director of one of the U of I's environmental research units agreed that cuts in research funding bode ill for both the public and the institution. About water quality, he said, "We've got problems we didn't know we had.
"Research," he explained, "is how we train our graduate students. If we don't have research, we won't be able to turn out people who are trained to answer these questions."
We have never figured out how to adequately fund scientific research. Scientific research—which is long-term and speculative, and whose benefits (and thus whose constituency) often do not become apparent for years afterward—is at odds with budget-making, which is short-term, volatile, and bent by special interest claims. Some people, including the president of the U of I, Mr. Stanley Ikenberry, are calling for increased corporate involvement on campus.
There is certainly ample precedent. A significant chunk of the applied atmospheric research done at the Illinois State Water Survey in recent years was financed by an insurance industry eager for ways to mitigate crop damage due to hail storms. The risk of subjecting basic research to what are essentially market criteria is that, instead of paying to do the work that needs to be done, the university may be forced to do only the work that it can get someone else to pay for.
So far in Illinois the debate about higher ed funding has centered on schemes to enable our universities to do what they have been doing—on means rather than ends. Budget cuts—even those in most research fields—have so fat been only an annoyance. i what if we reach a point, next year or the year after, when it becomes necessary to think about some basic restructuring of higher education? The yahoos will continue to see the university crisis in terms of the Illini's win-loss record in football. That's okay; one of the valuable things about a university is its ability to accommodate both the trivial and the profound. But what if those in power do not understand the broader purposes of inquiry? What if they (to recite the present example) do not understand science, or how it is done, or why it matters, and thus apply to research the principles of cash accounting? Will we be reduced to running rent-a-colleges for corporate underwriters? Is it the function of a university to teach the most with the least? Or in an era when it can no longer afford to do both, should it devote itself to teaching the most to the best?
It was at about this point in my ruminations that I began wishing I'd brought my Frisbee with me. ●