Editorial: Maximum Interference, Minimum Support for Higher Ed

Editorial: Maximum Interference, Minimum Support for Higher Ed

Detroit Free Press/June 6, 2012

You'd never know that Michigan's universities have constitutionally guaranteed autonomy based on the way lawmakers are behaving. No nit is too small to pick if it sets off an itch in the Legislature.

In this year's budget bill, lawmakers have attached what appears to be a record number of strings and aspirations to university funding. And that's not even including the accountability hoops the Legislature and governor set up for universities to jump through in order to get more money than they did last year. The education budget bill got House approval last week, and moved through the Senate Tuesday morning.

Universities may well ignore many of the Legislature's instructions, from reporting on stem cell lines to dropping benefits for domestic partners. Another legislative dictum, religious exemptions for students who serve as counselors as part of their course work, is already subject to litigation.

The final overreach comes in an attempt to ban university collaboration with "a nonprofit worker center" that protests or demonstrates against a Michigan business. This not only interferes with universities' autonomy in making their own decisions about what groups they work with, but also appears to violate First Amendment protections in the U.S. Constitution.

However the universities respond to these seeming edicts, they still will have to go through the process of setting up assessment metrics to gain additional funding this year -- and some may decide even that's not worth it.

Higher ed funding is supposedly growing by 3% in the new budget. But the increases vary considerably by university, and part of the money is restricted to schools that hold the total annual increase in student tuition and fees to 4%. Other funding hinges on performance data such as degrees completed, the six-year graduation rate and emphasis on research and science, engineering and math graduates.

Some of these accountability measures were among those promoted earlier this year by Business Leaders for Michigan, so that at the least students and parents could compare universities' graduation rates. But Business Leaders for Michigan also urged the governor and Legislature to embark on a multiyear plan to beef up university funding, at a rate far better than the cost of living, so tuition increases could be slowed considerably.

Instead, Lansing has delivered maximum interference and minimum funding. Relief from the escalating costs of college apparently isn't coming soon, unless voters deliver a very pointed message in November.