Monday, December 15, 2008

Tight State Budgets Are Top Concern for Higher-Education Lobbyists


Monday, December 15, 2008

San Diego

Some 170 lobbyists for public colleges and universities met here last week to prepare for upcoming state legislative sessions and to discuss how to protect their institutions from severe budget cuts in a nationwide economic crisis.

The Higher Education Government Relations Conference, "Making the Case," featured several sessions on how to frame higher education's economic-development mission favorably for the public as well as state lawmakers.

At least a dozen states have already made midyear cuts to higher education. And the economy affected attendance at the annual conference as well: 18 states were not represented at all at this year's meeting largely because of travel restrictions at many public higher-education institutions.

The three-day conference is a joint effort of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, the American Association of Community Colleges, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges.

Doing More With Less in Ohio

Eric D. Fingerhut, chancellor of Ohio's Board of Regents, had tough advice for higher-education lobbyists at the conference.

Mr. Fingerhut drew a lesson from the lives of the Wright brothers, the bicycle-shop owners from Ohio who are generally credited with building the first successful airplane. The chancellor pointed out that they created their flying machine without government grants, a subsidized research laboratory, or even college degrees.

“I think about them a lot of when we talk about our scarce resources and lack of needed funds because I know that didn’t stop two bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio, who revolutionized the world," Mr. Fingerhut said. "And I know it’s not going to stop us today.”

Lawmakers, who must listen to scores of appeals for money every year, are less inclined to support higher education if the only message is that the institutions will fail if they don't get adequate state support, he said. Instead, he said, college and university advocates need to show how they can succeed even in difficult times.

Mr. Fingerhut, the former ranking Democrat on the Ohio Senate's finance committee, has been a driving force behind an effort to overhaul his state’s higher-education system to bolster colleges' roles as economic engines for Ohio. The state is struggling financially, not only from the current nationwide economic crisis but also from the long-term decline of its manufacturing industry.

Ohio’s plan moved the state's 14 universities, 24 regional campuses, and 23 community colleges into a single system and will require institutions to meet some 20 benchmarks to streamline operations, improve graduation rates, and keep more alumni in the state.

Mr. Fingerhut said higher-education institutions across the nation need to do more to demonstrate their worth even as they face cuts. At least 40 states have shortfalls in their budgets.

"If we can only perform as an economic engine when the economy is good, they don’t need us,” Mr. Fingerhut said.

California's Economic Dilemma

The leaders of California's three public higher-education systems detailed for lobbyists the effects of budget cuts on their institutions. They said the cuts will force them to turn away tens of thousands of students from their college classrooms, and they called on state and federal lawmakers to help them through the economic crisis.

The Golden State is facing an estimated budget shortfall of $28-billion through the 2010 fiscal year, and it has already cut hundreds of millions of dollars from higher education in the previous and current fiscal years.

Lawmakers trying to patch the fiscal hole should limit reductions for higher education and other state programs by passing a package of both spending cuts and tax increases, even though doing so could be politically unpopular, said State Sen. Jack Scott, a Democrat, who must leave office because of term limits and will become chancellor of the state’s community-college system in January. He said that an estimated 260,000 students will not be able to enroll in courses at the state's community colleges, which will not have adequate funds to hire enough faculty members to meet those students' needs.

The majority of California's Democratic legislators and the governor have agreed to a package like the one Sen. Scott described, he said, but the idea has been blocked by Republicans who oppose any tax hikes.

Charles B. Reed, chancellor of California State University, said the state’s fiscal situation is “sick” and won’t get better until state lawmakers swallow their medicine and increase revenue (The Chronicle, November 18). Mr. Reed, who has announced that his system would cut next fall’s enrollment by 10,000 students, warned that the impact of that measure would fall hardest on students from low-income families and those from underserved minority groups. As those groups become the majority of the state's population, they need to be better educated to sustain the state's economy, he said.

Mark G. Yudof, president of the University of California system, said it was time for students, faculty members, and administrators to “go over the heads of legislators” and do more to clearly explain to members of the public that “if we don’t do well, they won’t do well.”

Mr. Yudof also said that he and the other higher-education leaders nationally are looking for help from the federal government. They have drafted an economic-stimulus plan for higher education that they will pitch to Congressional leaders and President-elect Barack Obama.

Fights on File-Sharing Legislation

The recording, movie, and computer-software industries are likely to once again next year press state lawmakers for laws that would require colleges to help monitor and punish illegal file-sharing by students on their campuses, said a panel of speakers at the conference (The Chronicle, May 9).

Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, signed a bill earlier this year that will require the state's public and private colleges to try to prevent illegal file sharing. The measure comes with an estimated cost of nearly $10-million for the first year and continuing costs of $1.5-million annually.

A similar measure failed in Illinois this year, and another is being debated in Texas. The measures require colleges to install software filters on campus networks to prevent people from downloading songs and movies from file-sharing Web sites without paying for them, said Steven L. Worona, director of policy and networking programs at Educause, a higher-education technology group.

Colleges don’t condone such file-sharing behavior, but the prevention measures are too expensive, are easily circumvented, and will simply push students to do the same thing off campus, Mr. Worona said.

Brian E. Roberts, vice president for information technology at the University of Texas at Austin, said the state bills are "the death throes of [the recording industry's] failed business model." He and Mr. Worona said there was no doubt that new measures would be introduced during the coming legislative sessions, especially in states like California and Florida, where the entertainment industry has a strong presence.

Mr. Roberts argued that lobbyists for the entertainment industry often exaggerate the amount of illegal downloading that happens on campuses. One of the biggest obstacles to reining in illegal downloading, he said, is that the method entertainment companies use to identify file sharing only searches for content that has been uploaded to a folder where others may have access to it. It does not distinguish whether those files are illegally downloaded, he explained. Because of that, colleges and students could be unfairly identified even if no actual illegal downloading occurred, Mr. Roberts said.

Copyright © 2008 by The Chronicle of Higher Education

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