Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

March 4, 2010

Dwindling support threatens public universities, provost says

History demonstrates that American public research universities always have been drivers of the U.S. economy and benefactors for humankind, but those roles are threatened under the strains of dwindling support, Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor James V. Maher told last week’s honors convocation.

Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor James V. Maher

Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor James V. Maher

“American public research universities have always been wildly contentious places that tend to get themselves in trouble in any number of ways, but also they manage to enliven the society that plays host to them and serve that society,” said Maher, who gave the keynote address at the Feb. 26 convocation.

“At their worst they can be very hidebound — and it is worth annual reflection to make sure that that doesn’t happen — but at their best they’re marvelous. At their best they really make the lot of humankind better,” said the provost, who is stepping down from his administrative post after 16 years to return to the physics faculty.

Reflecting on his nearly 40 years at Pitt, Maher acknowledged his own bouts of pessimism, including about the current state of affairs. “I think it’s fair to say the last couple of years have seen difficulty — economic, social, military, diplomatic — [that] can stack up against some of the worst times that humanity has encountered,” Maher told the audience of faculty, staff, student and alumni honorees and their families.

From their beginnings in the Middle Ages, when their primary mission was educating clergy, universities  have  evolved  based  on the needs of society, Maher said.

A watershed moment in this country, he said, was the 1862 passage by Congress of the Morrill Land Grant Act, which awarded each state a large parcel of government-owned land to develop public universities.

“Up till then, the American universities had essentially all been private. But that act didn’t just found those universities, it defined their mission for them: that the universities were not only to educate young people to become drivers of the economy of the state, but it also charged those universities to do what today we would call outreach, to better the life of the whole state, not just the students it taught,” Maher said.

At about the same time, American private universities were adopting the European research model, where professors as well as students shared “the life of the mind” to become active learners. “When the most eminent professor is learning, we call it research; when the greenest freshman is learning, we call it homework — but everybody is trying to learn,” he said. “Weld that onto that Morrill Land Grant Act idea of the learning and the research needing to do something to serve society, and you had a really dramatically new institution.”

One outcome of that melding was the invention of modern agricultural research by the land-grant institutions. In the 1850s, 49 percent of the American labor force were farmers. Today that percentage is less than 1 percent, Maher said.

“So almost half the workforce is available to do other things because of the fruits of that agriculture research. And those farms now that are being manned by such a small fraction of the workforce are not just feeding this very large country, but they’re feeding a lot of the rest of the world as well.”

Move forward to the 1940s, Maher said. “When World War II ended, the United States government passed what we all called the G.I. Bill, which really meant that we were going to try to offer college education to the masses. Until then, a very small fraction of the American workforce had a college degree. Ever since, a very large fraction of the American workforce has a college degree. That produced an enormous expansion of the middle class, where so many people participate in the whole economy. That really came out of sending all these people to college, and the colleges they went to were largely the local state universities, if you look nationwide,” he maintained.

“When I was a college student, I was really pessimistic about whether the United States would ever be able to be generous enough to have a real impact on helping the Third World to develop,” Maher recounted. “While I was worrying about that and pessimistically fretting about it, President Kennedy was initiating what is now called the Kennedy Round tariff negotiations, which opened up the American consumer economy to Third World products. As a result, an enormous number of Third World countries are not really Third World any more.”

While that’s a good outcome, the American worker also has paid a price for it.

“We put the American worker in direct competition with the Third World. If we’re to maintain our democracy with the living standard that our workforce is used to having, they have to be enormously more efficient in their work” because of the much lower wages in the rest of the world, Maher said.

“So productivity had to come up, and it had to come up through education. The country faces that to this day, and the government’s been wrestling with it through my whole professional life.”

By the late-1970s, the U.S. economy had stagnated, Maher said. “Some of the problem was that our innovations weren’t getting out to market. The government did studies of how much of the fruits of federally funded research had actually been turned into products and start-up companies and so forth, and the answer was almost nothing,” he said.

Then, in 1980, with the passage by Congress of the Bayh-Dole Act, universities were given the responsibility for commercializing the intellectual property that is produced in their research labs. The universities again were called on to figure out how to meet a new and complex mission, Maher said.

“In 1800 the mission was to teach; in 1900 the mission was to teach and do research, with some service to the society. Now the mission is to teach and do research with some service to society, and to figure out how to commercialize whatever you’re doing,” he said.

“At least for the 25 years after Bayh-Dole passed, there was no increase in the employment of the major companies of this country. Employment grew enormously, but it was all through small start-up companies growing, almost entirely in the small and entrepreneurial sector. Most of those people starting those companies had come out of universities, and an awful lot of the products were products of university-based research,” Maher noted.

“Through all of this, public universities have really come through for the country. They’ve been generators of economic development. If you look at the fields of endeavor that the government defines as areas of national need, depending on the area, 60-100 percent of the doctorates produced in the United States come out of public research universities,” as well as 78-95 percent of the bachelor’s degrees. In addition, 60 percent of the federally funded research is performed at those public research universities, he said.

But the focus in this country on supporting education has shifted in favor of other social aspirations, Maher maintained. “Many fewer families are primarily worried about educating their children now compared to the 1960s. By one account it is reduced by a factor of 2: two-thirds down to one-third of families are worried about that,” he said.

Similarly, two-thirds of American families, or about double the percentage in 1960, are worried primarily about economic issues, such as providing health care for elderly relatives.

“Taxpayers are worried about crime and want to see prisons built. Everyone wants tax cuts. The kindergarten-12 education system is in crisis. Various states are trying various desperate measures to do something about it. Some of those measures are good, but all too often those measures involve an element of denial, trying to force a dumbing-down, which they want to propagate up through the university system,” Maher said.

Another problem for the public institutions is that families want to see the same educational resources at the publics that the private schools enjoy.

“Public universities have to find ways to respond to that, because families like a lot of the things they see in the private schools and they want to see them at the public schools,” Maher said. “The public schools have to be extraordinarily savvy about which of the things the private schools are providing that the families really want and spend their money on those, and still keep their costs down.”

The net effect is that public institutions end up “getting carved with the same criticism that society levels at the privates for charging so much, even though publics charge typically about a third of the tuition of the privates. So the publics are really doing a lot more with less money than people realize and that is causing enormous strain,” Maher said.

“But it isn’t just the universities that are under strain, it’s the whole society. This country built an enormous and effective infrastructure [between 1860 and 1960] that primed the country for incredible growth. Those investments were wonderful, but that infrastructure is decaying. How are we going to pay for it? The public research university fits into that category,” he said.

At the same time, up until the 1960s, the United States lagged behind the world in its compassion for those in need. “We did not have the social structures that existed in Europe and that unfortunate people desperately need. Those social structures were put into place in my adult life. What the country never did was figure out both how to maintain the infrastructure and handle social problems,” Maher said.

“Something very important will be lost if we compromise on either of those things. And we don’t know how to do it, whether the politicians admit it in public or not. That will be a source of public decisions that will permeate the next several decades of your lives,” he said. “Balance will be required. If we don’t attain that balance, the country will be badly hurt, either in its social structure or in its economic structure.”

Maher said he hopes that people in the Pitt community of scholars and alumni “will find ways to play a constructive role in resolving the complex, almost overwhelming tension that is facing our country and the entire world. I do think these public universities have done so much and could do so much for the development of the country, and they’re an extraordinarily important investment. I hope that the country finds a way to settle these strains on the public universities and move away from the general negativity that exists as if the universities were [at fault for] letting expenses get high,” he concluded.

At the Feb. 26 honors convocation Maher, who is an alumnus of Notre Dame and Yale universities, also was awarded the first-ever honorary Distinguished Alumni Fellow Award from the Pitt Alumni Association.

In brief emotional remarks accepting the honor, Maher told the Carnegie Music Hall audience: “My life is truly blessed. Thirty-nine and a half years ago, [my wife] Angie and I brought our two then very little, very young children to this University, this wonderful University, and I felt so blessed. And I have felt more blessed every year that I’ve been here.

“I think: Can life be better than to have such a lovely family and work at such a wonderful University and have the only limits on what you can contribute to society be the limits of your own willingness to work and your talent level?

“I can’t imagine being more blessed, but I guess now I am. Up till now, Angie has been the only Pitt degree-holder in the family. And now thanks to my good friends in the Alumni Association, I’ve been welcomed into the heart of the family.”

—Peter Hart

Leave a Reply