Skip to main content

Why public university presidents are under fire

By Jeremi Suri, Special to CNN
updated 9:23 AM EDT, Tue June 19, 2012
University of California, Berkeley, will have to find a new president at the end of the year.
University of California, Berkeley, will have to find a new president at the end of the year.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jeremi Suri: Some of the best public universities in America are losing their presidents
  • Suri: University leaders are caught between pressures from state officials and faculty
  • He says reforms to these institutions are needed, but political attacks and budget cuts won't help
  • Suri: University presidents should be empowered to pursue common goals

Editor's note: Jeremi Suri is the Mack Brown Distinguished professor of global leadership, history, and public policy at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of numerous books, including, most recently, "Liberty's Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama."

(CNN) -- We know an industry is in crisis when its top institutions cannot establish stable leadership. That is the case with some of our nation's best public universities today.

When the Board of Visitors at the University of Virginia pressured President Teresa Sullivan to resign on June 10, she became the fourth leader of a flagship public university to leave office under a cloud of controversy recently.

The other casualties included the highly respected leaders of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Illinois and the University of Oregon. The president of the University of California at Berkeley has also announced that he will step down in December. Leaders of public universities in other states face equally strong pressures to go. The men and women in these jobs seem to have a target on their backs.

This can't go on.

Jeremi Suri
Jeremi Suri

Our nation's public universities are the heart and soul of our higher education system, which is the envy of the world.

Flagship public universities educate more of the brightest high school students than private universities in many states. They conduct the lion's share of advanced research. They also attract the largest number of foreign students. If our public universities fall into a decline because of a leadership vacuum, then our entire system will decline, too.

University leaders are an endangered species because they are wedged between opposing and powerful pressures that are undermining public universities.

Government officials in state capitals want to cut funding while requiring far-reaching reforms. They demand more control over costs that have risen much faster than inflation or family income in the last decade. They also ask for increased public access to flagship universities through traditional and online forms of education. Governors and legislators want all these benefits as they continue to reduce state expenditures for higher education.

Professors and administrators on campus view these reforms as attacks on serious education and research. Advanced training in the sciences, engineering and humanities requires intensive small-group work that cannot be subjected to assembly-line efficiencies.

Anyone who has taught writing, for example, knows that there is no substitute for the instructor sitting with the student and going line-by-line through each sentence. The same is true for theoretical physics, medicine, law and many other fields. You need extended time and personal contact for young minds to mature as effective thinkers. That is expensive, but it is money well spent for the good of the society.

It's the same for advanced research. Innovation and creativity require freedom, security and flexibility. Scholars must have the ability to pursue a question in depth and examine its many implications. Sometimes an important project may take years to complete. Without university research of this kind we would not have many of the technologies and medicines we take for granted today.

Governors and legislators have a strong argument about the elitism, the inefficiency and the sometime self-serving nature of university faculty. Professors have a strong case for the merits of what they do, and the remarkable record of achievements and historical job-creation coming out of our best public universities. The system works for some, but not for everyone. The system produces value, but at costs that might not be sustainable.

University leaders are caught in the middle. Governors are impatient for new "efficiencies." Professors are adamant about protecting the freedom necessary for their work. University presidents have the title to address these issues, but they have little power when funding is tight and the two sides are equally uncompromising. No one wants to acknowledge the legitimacy of the other side's point of view.

Wealthy alumni groups are very generous and loyal to their alma maters, but they cannot solve this crisis. Although alumni want their universities to be the best in the world, their support (as generous as it may be) cannot replace government money.

Despite steep decreases in state funding for universities, state and federal agencies provide the largest share of money to public universities for research and related activities. The National Institutes of Health, for example, is the dominant funder for medical research in the world. States own the land on which public university campuses are built.

So where do we go from here?

Reforms to public universities are indeed necessary, but they will not emerge effectively from political attacks and vindictive cuts.

What we need is an open and participatory process where university boards, state leaders, faculty, students and campus presidents formulate measurable goals for reasonable reforms, cost-savings, and more efficiency. These discussions should also include meaningful incentives for increased excellence (in teaching and research), public accessibility and international recognition. University presidents should be empowered to pursue these goals, in a reasonable time frame, with transparent accountability.

While faculty must preserve the essential freedoms for their creativity, they cannot expect to do this by protecting privileges at all costs. Along with administrators, they have to accept changes to their comfortable routines. If both state and campus communities contribute to mutually beneficial changes, the reformed public university of the 21st century will be much improved.

At present, the attacks on university leaders from all sides are attacks on the very idea of a public university. When Thomas Jefferson designed the University of Virginia, and when Abraham Lincoln created the federal land-grant system to finance public education, they had a faith that the most advanced intellectual work would improve the nation as a whole. That is what they meant by the "public" in university. Jefferson and Lincoln's support for public higher education made the United States a model for the rest of the world.

We need leaders in government and on campus with the same vision -- the same desire to use limited resources not as instruments for political or personal advantage, but as opportunities for constructive engagement and the greatest long-term public good. Public universities need protection and they also need serious, thoughtful reform. Let's start with giving university presidents a fair chance to do their work.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jeremi Suri.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 2:18 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT