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Dr. Gregorian's 3 R's: Reading, Writing and Recession

Michael Winship

That was quite a crowd at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, last week. Thousands of students took to the streets in protest. But it wasn't an antiwar march -- the campus has a reputation for a lack of activism. It wasn't even a pep rally for UNLV's beloved, championship basketball team, the Runnin' Rebels.

No, they came out to raise hell as they never have before because Jim Gibbons, the governor of Nevada, just proposed state budget cuts to higher education of a whopping 36 percent. At UNLV, that could mean a budget slash of as much as 52 percent and possible tuition increases of 225 percent.

UNLV student and employee Helen Gerth told the Las Vegas Review-Journal, "By the time they get through cutting the budget, this will be a ghost town."

Meanwhile, in Tucson, Arizona, a record thousand people crowded into a meeting of the Arizona Board of Regents to voice their outrage at a proposed cut of more than $600 million from the state's university system. School presidents there say such draconian budget rollbacks could force the elimination of academic departments, even entire colleges.

Lest you think this is a phenomenon limited to the Great American Southwest, things are bad all over. With state governments looking down the barrel of more than $300 billion worth of deficits this year and next, the long knives are out and money for higher public education is a serial victim. Twenty-six states already have either cut their budgets for higher education, raised tuition fees or enacted a combination of both. When it come to college affordability, a report from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, "Measuring Up: 2008," gives a failing grade of "F" to 49 of the 50. Tuition at public four-year colleges is up an average of more than $6500; at two year schools, almost $2500.

Less and less of that money is going to actual teaching and more of it to administrative and support services. Despite that, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that many college buildings are "outdated, inefficient, even crumbling."

The states are paring away at their future noses to save their current financial faces, say leading academics, denying dollars to higher education when it's more of an absolute necessity than ever, providing jobs, retraining those who've been laid off, generating the basic and applied research that in the past has driven a country once world-renown for invention and productivity. As one of those who spoke at the Arizona Board of Regents meeting said, "You cannot cut yourself out of a recession. You must grow your way out."

Last October, a meeting was convened in New York City, a gathering of leaders of higher public education who came here to try figure out a way to cope with the current economic crisis and its devastating impact on America's public colleges and universities. The conference was organized by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the philanthropic foundation that fosters and promotes educational opportunity and increased civic participation, and its president, a human dynamo whose career is testament to the value of a lifetime of learning.

Vartan Gregorian, the former president of the New York Public Library and Brown University, is a man of erudition and charm with a passion for philanthropy and wider education. The conference of educators he and the Carnegie Corporation sponsored last fall resulted in a two-page page ad published in major newspapers, an open letter to then President-elect Obama asking that whatever economic stimulus package comes out of Washington in the next few weeks, five percent of it -- around 40 to 45 billion dollars -- go to higher education that will "propel the nation forward in resolving its current economic crisis and lay the groundwork for international economic competitiveness and the well-being of American families into the future."

Gregorian spoke with my colleague Bill Moyers on the most recent edition of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS and noted that it was during another national crisis -- the Civil War -- that Abraham Lincoln had the foresight to sign the Morrill Act establishing public land-grant colleges and universities. Its purpose, the legislation stated, was, not only to create public institutions of higher learning that would teach the traditional curriculum of science and "classical studies" but "to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts... in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life."

Lincoln supported the law because he realized the value of education for people who could use the land grant schools not only to advance knowledge but also to learn a trade. Unfortunately, Gregorian said, the public "has the impression that the land grant universities are providing free education to the public. That's not the case."

Public colleges and universities can't compete with private schools, he said, because the salary differentials are so great, yet, "Eighty percent of our nation's talent, in every domain, from lawyers to engineers to doctors, come from public higher education."

Gregorian includes two-year community colleges as well as four-year schools. "We're talking about how to build the next generation of our youth to be able to compete globally, and re-engineer our nation's reemergence in the next phase of global competition," he explained. "We need all the infrastructure. We need all the engineers, all the doctors, all the computer specialists... We can no longer allow 50 percent of our students not to graduate from high school, or 30, 40 percent to drop out from our universities, especially minorities and others...

"We need... to participate as citizens in the fate and future of our country... We cannot have a democracy without its foundation being knowledge, in order to provide progress."

That need is all the more critical in times of economic crisis and if the states are unable or unwilling to come up with the cash, at least the House version of President Obama's economic stimulus package that passed this week include billions for higher education, so apparently someone in the administration is listening to the entreaties of Dr. Gregorian and his colleagues. Nonetheless, the legislation still has a long way to go.

There is an upside to the gloom, Gregorian noted. "Merit always counts, especially when the economy tanks. You find the true value of individuals. I can't tell you how many people are calling me about going into non-profit business... People have suddenly stopped in their tracks and they're looking to see what they could do otherwise... People confront themselves, their values. It's like when you leave a hospital with catastrophic news. You see the world differently."

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at

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