A case for dollars for higher education, landing with a thud

Statesman Editorial board
January 31, 2010
Idaho Statesman

One by one, college and university presidents appeared before the Legislature's Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee last week in a series of bleak hearings. College of Western Idaho President Bert Glandon appealed for an extra $1 million to handle increasing enrollment, recommended by Gov. Butch Otter. Boise State University President Bob Kustra said the universities are "losing ground almost every year."

The universities lamented cutting staffs and gutting programs. They described a drain on reserves - and a strain on students and parents who pay tuition.

The reaction is shocking. A collective shrug from taxpayers. Open skepticism from some budget-writers. Even though JFAC co-chair Sen. Dean Cameron praises the collaboration on community college campuses, he said CWI should not count on an extra $1 million.

Does Idaho believe in higher education's power to change lives and drive economic growth? Or is that cheap talk in a legislative session defined by tight budgets?

Idahoans are incensed at the prospect of (some) budget cuts.

The biggest furor of the 2010 session surrounded Otter's tin-eared bid to wean the Department of Parks and Recreation from the general fund. Rep. Maxine Bell, a Jerome Republican and JFAC co-chair, says she has been inundated with e-mails urging her to save Idaho Public Television. A bipartisan who's who of advocates and politicos, including two former governors, came to the Human Rights Commission's defense.

There has been no similar outcry about higher education - even though the universities' constituency includes tens of thousands of students, alumni and staff.

Granted, by proposing to zero out agencies, Otter has stirred up visceral emotions. State parks is synonymous with family picnics, says Bell; public television is synonymous with watching "Sesame Street" with a son or daughter. For Idahoans who remember the Aryan Nations movement, and its stain on Idaho's image, maintaining the Human Rights Commission is a serious matter.

But where is the public outcry - or even public heartburn - over higher ed? Otter wants to cut $19 million from the four-year schools' general budget for 2009-10 and another $6.6 million in 2010-11 - cuts that far exceed the general fund dollars for Parks and Recreation, public TV, the Human Rights Commission and the other small agencies on his chopping block.

On JFAC, the reactions are mixed - even among leaders who represent the same legislative district, crunch the same numbers and generally reach similar conclusions.

The universities have absorbed "tremendous cuts," Bell said, and she is worried about saddling students with burdensome tuition increases. Cameron, R-Rupert, says the universities are collaborating too little, competing too much and complaining too loudly. "I think there's a little too much crying there," Cameron told the Statesman editorial board.

A case in point: When President Duane Nellis testified Monday, he said the University of Idaho is down to about $2.5 million in reserves - unfettered dollars available for any use. That means the school is one fire or flood away from being tapped out. Cameron believes the universities can use reserves set aside for future bond payments.

The idea of draining reserves in a short-term jam is hardly new; indeed, state schools superintendent Tom Luna is pushing a $53 million withdrawal to help cover K-12. Our bigger concern is higher ed's credibility problem with one of the state's most powerful decisionmakers.

Academicians by profession, university presidents have not always been politic in articulating the problems on the campuses. Many of their moves - eliminating unpopular programs, freezing hires or contemplating furloughs - draw little sympathy, since many private sector employers took similar steps long ago. In an editorial board meeting last week, Idaho State University President Arthur Vailas appealed for time, as universities adjust to budgets that rely less heavily on state dollars. He undercut his case, however, when he could not cite specific cuts already in place at ISU.

The universities can't afford to make a less-than-convincing case. Last week, they made their pitches. But they didn't change the dialogue.

Originally posted at http://www.idahostatesman.com/editorial/story/1062566.html

The Opinion posted here is provided by permission of its original publisher and does not necessarily reflect the views of Idaho Public Television.

Return to Idaho Public Television in the News