August 22, 2010/The Saginaw News
By Andy Hoag
Business Leaders for Michigan, a private, nonprofit executive leadership group, has suggested the state’s higher education system is too costly and inefficient. The Saginaw News asked Saginaw Valley State University President Eric R. Gilbertson what he thinks about the organization’s suggestions and how the system compares nationwide. He responded Friday in an e-mail with his thoughts.
Eric R. Gilbertson
Q: Is Michigan’s higher education system inefficient and costly, as the Business Leaders for Michigan group claims it is?
A: Higher education is costly, of course, but the evidence is pretty clear that its value greatly exceeds that cost. As someone once said, if you think education is expensive, try ignorance. There also are efficiencies that can be achieved, but too often the savings from them are illusory and centralized efforts to achieve them yield even greater expense.
Q: The business leaders group suggests the state should share some administrative functions, like human resources and information technology. What would the effect be on Michigan public universities and colleges?
A: There are already a number of cooperative initiatives under way among Michigan’s public universities. We have achieved tremendous savings, for example, from our self-insurance cooperative. But many of the other functions really require local, institutional control in order to best serve that university. It’s hard to imagine, for example, a human resources or information technology system that would adequately serve both the University of Michigan and Lake Superior State. These two institutions are so very different, serving very different needs and markets.
Q: Could Ohio’s hybrid system work in Michigan? What are some positives and negatives?
A: Of course some other system could work in Michigan; the question is whether it would work better than what Michigan now has. I would argue that Michigan would be foolish to trade its system of public universities for those in Ohio — or any other state for that matter. The autonomy of Michigan’s universities enables these institutions to develop in ways that serve important and very different missions; it also provides them the flexibility to move quickly in response to changing needs and opportunities. Universities caught up in centralized state systems are too often stifled in this regard — as evidenced by the ineffectiveness and inefficiencies of those systems in other states.
Q: Ohio officials feel their hybrid system would make the state more competitive globally. Do you agree with those sentiments, or would the institutions be more competitive individually? Would Michigan’s institutions be more or less competitive with such a system?
A: Again, and with all due respect to Ohio (the state from which I came), I don’t think Michigan would be wise to give up its public universities for those of that or any other state.
Q: Are there positives to a one-system approach like New York? Should Michigan explore that option?
A: Michigan should first determine whether it has a problem that needs to be addressed. The best starting point for that is to ask whether it has a first class set of public universities and then whether these universities are absorbing an inordinate amount of state funding. I strongly believe that Michigan has a first rate set of universities, and the data is very clear that Michigan provides substantially less state funding for higher education than its sister states. So, my advice is that “if it ain’t broke, then don’t fix it.”