June 6, 2011/Crain's Detroit Business
Last month, Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law the two-year budget that cut the state's appropriations to public universities 15 percent across the board -- under the caveat that the institutions keep tuition below the average five-year tuition increase.
The losses range from about $47 million at the University of Michigan to nearly $13 million at Oakland University.
Universities and colleges strongly opposed the funding cuts, but inevitably lost as the Republican-led House and Senate passed the budget bill before Snyder signed it in May.
Crain's higher education reporter Dustin Walsh chatted with Michael Boulus, executive director of the Lansing-based Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan on the bill and how the state's 15 public universities will manage the funding cuts over the next few years.
What's the tone among university presidents now that the bill is law?
The tone is, "When is it (cuts) going to end?" Obviously, there's an overall concern, and there's this belief that they can cut us disproportionately and know that we'll raise tuition to cover a portion of the cuts, hence the incentive to keep tuition low.
We're discouraged. We, as a state, are going to continue in this path as a race to the bottom in the nation. And we're upset over the lip service politicians give to the importance of higher education while slamming us with cuts.
We are losing because we don't have a presence in every district. We're an easier target to hit because leaders in most districts (those without a public university) won't catch a great deal of criticism when they go back home from Lansing.
Other than the cuts, what in the bill is most worrisome?
The big issue is how the dollars will be distributed. They put language in the bill for the second year of the budget that there will be some type of performance-based funding formula. That's with existing dollars, not new funding, which creates all sorts of conflicts.
There's nothing wrong with incentivizing accountability -- but it needs to be done with new dollars moving forward.
Is there anything universities can do to fight against future cuts?
I don't know what we can do except crisscross the state and talk about who we are and our story on cost efficiencies and the dual role between the state government and its universities, which are gems.
We are acknowledged as a state with some of the best public universities in the county. To abandon us, like government has over the last decade, leaves us questioning whether they have thrown in the towel on higher education.
University presidents testified in March regarding a number of budget issues, including benefits, pay and operations. Does this feel like micromanagement?
There's definitely concern over this unprecedented intrusion and the government's questionably flawed process of trying to manage us. Not only are they a junior partner, but they now want to manage our budget.
Despite declining state support, we have autonomy, which allows us to do most things the state can't.
They want state employees to cover 20 percent of their health benefits. We don't want an 80/20 mandate. University of Michigan is already at 30 percent. Our average is already above that 20 percent figure.
We act in a more fiscally responsible manner than they do and it's because we're flexible. That's what our independence and autonomy is all about.
Michigan's research universities strongly oppose the provision in the budget forcing them to report all stem cell research done on campus. Gov. Snyder seems to agree after his legal counsel deemed the provision unconstitutional. Is this a win for universities?
The provision is part of a terrible trend of government to manage on political and religious beliefs. This is just about a right-to-life endorsement.
They (legislators who added the provision) have an understanding that the governor will strike it down and they will get their right-to-life vote from constituents. Endorsements like this are what carry these legislators in local elections.
But the governor gets it. I don't know if he can line-veto the provision, but we know he doesn't support it.