Quotation of the Day
Published: Monday, February 3, 1992
"A decade from now, we're going to look a lot like the way we look now. Maybe we'll be a bit leaner, maybe a little poorer, maybe the elbow patches on our tweed jackets will be a little more patched, but essentially we'll be what we are now." -- HERBERT A. SIMON, professor and trustee at Carnegie-Mellon, on the future of American universities. [ B9:1 ]
Bad Times Force Universities To Rethink What They Are
By ANTHONY DePALMA
Published: Monday, February 3, 1992
Tough economic times are forcing so many colleges and universities across the country to cut costs and adjust their ambitions that the shape of higher education may be significantly changed as the 21st century dawns.
In these days of uncertainty, Yale University is planning major cuts to close a projected gap in next year's budget; Columbia University is laying out a strategy to meet deficits that could reach $87 million in 1993, and Stanford University has imposed cuts of up to 13 percent on administrative and academic expenses to trim its budget $43 million over the next two years. Challenge to Excellence
The cuts at most universities would be so severe that they would reach deep into classrooms and research laboratories, challenging the institutions' commitment to excellence, yet presenting both opportunities as well as obstacles.
Students and scholars in 2001 are likely to see large research universities like Yale and Columbia shrink and become more specialized, experts say. Teachers at elite private institutions and state-supported ones alike will be handling more courses. Tuition will be substantially higher and financial aid scarcer. This combination will push a college degree further out of reach for high school students from poor minority families, whose ranks will have grown faster than those of white students from middle-income families.
In all, the academic scene of the early 21st century will be slimmed, transformed not in evolutionary ways but under the lid of a financial pressure cooker. Some changes may be for the better. A few educators say they believe the tough times may even alter the basic academic structure of the university.
"I think we're into a decade now that will be tougher than any we've had since the 1930's," said Richard F. Rosser, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. His organization is convening a two-day conference in Washington beginning Wednesday at which more than 450 presidents of private colleges and universities will discuss the future of higher education with Federal officials, including Education Secretary Lamar Alexander.
It will be by far the largest such gathering of college presidents ever, which is evidence of their concern.
"What we're witnessing is the death of the 19th-century research university," said David S. Kastan, chairman of the department of English and comparative literature at Columbia, referring to the old Germanic model of a rigidly structured university with a multitude of academic departments divided on strict lines, the mold for most American universities. That system is withering, Professor Kastan said, as universities are forced to consolidate departments.
For instance, Yale, facing a deficit of more than $8 million in its $799 million budget for next year, plans to eliminate almost 11 percent of its faculty positions, merging three engineering departments, while combining physics and applied physics and eliminating linguistics.
While such actions save money, Professor Kastan also pointed to an unintended benefit: they may remind universities that much contemporary knowledge crosses traditional boundaries.
Others see the current troubles as potholes in a long road of change. Herbert A. Simon, the Nobel Prize-winning economist who is a member of both the faculty and the board at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, says: "A decade from now, we're going to look a lot like the way we look now. Maybe we'll be a bit leaner, maybe a little poorer, maybe the elbow patches on our tweed jackets will be a little more patched, but essentially we'll be what we are now." Coast to Coast, Money Is Foremost
While there are exceptions, most of the nation's 3,400 colleges and universities are struggling to balance income and spending. From elite institutions like Stanford, Brown and Smith, to meat-and-potatoes places like Glassboro State College in Southern New Jersey, campus debate is dominated by administrative bloat, faculty productivity, student demographics, both racial and economic, and increasing costs for medical benefits, deferred maintenance and financial aid.
Administrators accustomed to such economic problems find that the heat has suddenly been turned up. Students find that their brief stays on campus have become more unsettled. But for teachers, the climate of crisis is new. Like composers suddenly forced to worry about the price of brass, professors find themselves diverted from their books and studies by the details of state spending and endowment yield.
How professors see the issue may be colored by where they stand. Dr. Simon is at Carnegie-Mellon, which underwent a reorganization several years ago and has so far managed to avoid major turbulence.
On the other hand, Columbia, where Professor Kastan teaches, is beginning a restructuring effort to deal with a deficit projected to reach $87 million, or 9 percent of the annual budget, by 1993 unless substantial changes are made. Professor Kastan and the chairmen of 25 other departments recently told Columbia administrators they would not cooperate with any further budget cuts, even if that meant resigning as chairmen.
But this may be just the start of hard times. "My message on the rubber-chicken circuit," said Robert H. Atwell, president of the American Council on Education, "is that things are not going to get better for a long time." A Financial Vise Pinches Students
One way to understand the forces at play is to look at universities as nonprofit, labor-intensive businesses that must balance their annual budgets. For much of the last two decades, that way often has been to raise tuition, and many universities stand accused of having been spendthrifts.
Tuition now exceeds $20,000 at several elite universities, and administrators fear that additional tuition increases will drive away students.
On top of that, universities have been hard hit by rising costs for employee fringe benefits. And on some campuses, Yale being one, aging academic buildings need expensive maintenance.
Also, whether public or private, universities are paying more for faculty salaries, library books, high technology equipment and student financial aid. Most administrators expect that the policy of many elite colleges and universities to admit students without regard to their financial need and then to cover the gap between tuition and a student's ability to pay -- a process called need-blind admissions -- will come undone in the next few years.
At Brown, for instance, financial aid increased 220 percent over the last decade, while employee benefits rose 210 percent. The cost of books, periodicals and other library materials rose several times faster than inflation.
At the same time, the universities have lost income. Public universities get their money from state legislatures and must compete with hospitals, prisons and primary and secondary education for it.
Last year for the first time in more than 30 years, the money the states gave to higher education was less than in the preceding year. The total for last year was $40.1 billion, a drop of about $80 million, according to a study by the Center for Higher Education at Illinois State University. As a percentage of overall state spending, the amount given to colleges and universities has been shrinking since 1982.
And the pain will continue. In his budget message, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York proposed tuition increases of $200 to $800 at the State University of New York campuses. It would be the third year in a row that tuition has gone up.
Public support is essential for public and private universities to exist, a reality repeated often by Derek Bok, the longtime president of Harvard University who retired last year.
"Unless society appreciates the contributions of its universities," Mr. Bok said in his last commencement address in June, "it will continue to reduce them to the status of another interest group by gradually stripping away the protections and support they need to stay preeminent in the world."
Congressional hearings have documented how some universities exploited that support over the last decade. Last year after Stanford was charged with overbilling the Federal Government millions of dollars for research costs, most research universities -- institutions that combine instruction and research -- lost stature and good will, and eventually support, from government and private sources.
The health of universities is linked more strongly than ever to the health of the national economy. In boom times, endowments, which act like gigantic savings accounts generating interest for universities, grow more rapidly and legislatures appropriate more money for public universities, keeping tuition stable. The opposite holds for private universities, which feel that large increases in tuition are more acceptable when people's salaries are growing quickly.
When the economy turns sour, private universities try to hold down tuition but public universities raise it. Last year tuition at four-year public universities rose 12 percent and at two-year public colleges 13 percent. Private tuitions went up 7 percent.
With tuition expected to continue increasing, students with disadvantages confront more obstacles to attending four-year colleges. Increasingly they turn toward less expensive two-year community colleges, where tuition averages $1,022 without room and board. Some students go on to complete their degrees at four-year colleges, having saved thousands of dollars. But many who could make the transition academically cannot do it financially.
Enrollment at two-year colleges already is growing faster than at four-year colleges. Last year community college enrollments rose 8 percent, to 5,334,000 out of a total of 14,157,000 college students. Growth at public and private four-year institutions was less than 1 percent.
Community colleges have grown so integral that there have been calls for them to be incorporated into the public school system, like an extension of high school. "It's consistent with the demands of the work force," said Fred R. Sheheen, the head of the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education. He added, "After the year 2000, half of all jobs will require some post-secondary education." The Need to Rethink Basic Assumptions
To cut costs, universities are forced to re-examine their mission, their ability to be all things to all people and whether they can afford academic excellence in all fields.
Washington University in St. Louis has phased out its department of sociology and School of Dentistry. Glassboro State plans to eliminate its major programs in dance, speech, French and industrial technology, although non-degree courses will still be offered.
Experts say the next few years will bring demands for more administration and faculty accountability. Lawmakers in at least three states, North Carolina, South Carolina and Ohio, want legislation to study how hard professors work and how efficiently colleges are run.
Professors will be hard pressed over the next few years to keep their teaching schedules of two or three courses a semester, as legislators turn to community colleges, where professors do little research but teach as many as five courses a semester, as models of efficiency.
Even so, because of cutbacks, students will find that the courses they need are less readily available.
Other changes are coming independently of financial conditions. There is likely to be more attention to curriculum, especially to reflect the needs and interests of minority students. Census figures show that by midpoint of this decade, the number of teen-agers is likely to increase, reversing years of decline. But a larger portion of those students will be from minority groups, those who have been the most difficult to get through college.
Experts say there will inevitably be a squeeze as these students, with their greater needs for counseling, tutoring and financial aid, fill classrooms while budgets have been tightened.
William H. Gray 3d, president of the United Negro College Fund, said the American people would have to show, with money, how much they believed in the dream of college as a path to a better future.
"Who's going to win out?" Mr. Gray said. "I'm not sure I have an answer."
Photos: David S. Kastan, Chairman of the department of English and comparative literature at Columbia -- "What we're witnessing is the death of the 19th-century research university." (Lee Romero/The New York Times); Herbert A. Simon, Nobel Prize-winning economist and trustee of Carnegie-Mellon University -- "A decade from now, we're going to look a lot like the way we look now. Maybe we'll be a bit leaner, maybe a little poorer, maybe the elbow patches on our tweed jackets will be a little more patched, but essentially we'll be what we are now." (Terry Clark for The New York Times) (pg. B9)