Skip to main content

Why public university presidents are under fire

By Jeremi Suri, Special to CNN
June 19, 2012 -- Updated 1323 GMT (2123 HKT)
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
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
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.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
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.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT