Challenges for public higher education in the current environment

I’m a big believer in the public research university writ large. These institutions (of which George Mason is one) provide excellent affordable post-secondary education, act as economic engines to their regions, provide cultural enrichment and add to our knowledge through basic and applied research.

Currently, American public research universities are under real stress. This is a reflection of the economic challenges faced by the 50 states (to varying degrees) and is reflected in higher tuition, reduced financial aid, and salary stagnation for faculty. At the University of California, the enormous size of the State’s economic problems have led to faculty furloughs and a real threat to the overall health of what was for a time, perhaps the most prestigious public university system in the world.

One manifestation of the problem is that top professors are now routinely being “raided” from the publics by private institutions, especially those with historically large endowments. The issue is that the superstars, who once were teaching in the diverse affordable education environment of the publics are now, if they are teaching at all, applying their pedagogical skills in what might be considered a monoculture (this in spite of financial aid and diversity programs).

I fully recognize the critique that public research university superstars often don’t teach. But at Mason they definitely do. I’d also add that even where superstars aren’t teaching a full load, they often offer research and scholarship opportunities for undergraduate (and of course graduate) students as part and parcel of their own research.

What to do?

I’m not sure if I have a short answer, but surely there is a message here that the publics need to be appropriately valued by society.