I have had the honor of studying at two of America’s great land grant universities — the University of Illinois and Purdue. But as an undergraduate, I’m sure I didn’t fully understand what a land-grant university was or why it was different from other schools.
Sixteen years ago, I joined the faculty of another great land grant institution, Colorado State University, and over the years, I’ve gained a great admiration for the special character and role of land grant universities like CSU. Now, that historic role and mission provide an important context for understanding the choices and challenges facing CSU during our annual budget process.
In 1862, President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act into law, creating land grant colleges across the country. Unlike more traditionally elitist private schools, land grant institutions were created to “promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes.” It was a radical experiment that democratized American higher education, making the full advantages of higher learning accessible to the children of working families.
A central tenet of this “radical experiment” was the notion that all citizens would help finance the cost of public education, because society as a whole would benefit from university graduates who were prepared to be teachers, doctors, engineers, lawyers and professionals in our communities. For nearly 140 years, this societal investment has helped keep education at our nation’s public universities affordable to people from all walks of life.
Today, CSU, along with the rest of our state government, faces some serious financial challenges. As one of the few items in the state budget where we — the voters — have left our elected officials with discretion among an unpalatable menu of choices for how to balance the budget on our behalf, higher education funding gets hit hard in years when we see a downturn in the state economy.
At CSU, we’ve taken steps to prepare, including $1.5 million in recent cuts to university administration and preparations for an additional round of budget cuts for this fiscal year and next. We will not be taking across-the-board cuts, and we will attempt to keep the deepest reductions away from the classrooms, laboratories and student services to preserve the excellence of a CSU education.
Yet, students are still likely to feel some impact. When state funding is on the decline, students wind up shouldering an ever-increasing share of the costs for their education.
This creates a fundamental question for citizens in Colorado and, indeed, across America: Are we privatizing higher education? Are we giving up on the idea of all chipping in for the collective benefit of educational access? If not, how can we reverse this trend that leaves our states with too little funding to support our institutions and leaves our elected officials with no easy choices?
But while these as-yet-unanswered questions pose a very real challenge for Colorado and CSU (and we’re not alone – universities across the country face the same difficult choices), Colorado State has weathered serious challenges before, and the best solutions have always been devised with knowledgeable student involvement.
Our goal now is to proceed strategically and thoughtfully through these difficult economic times, devising a budget that supports academics and preserves our land grant mission. I want to encourage students to take an active role in this process. Your elected representatives, the Associated Students of CSU, have been invited to present and participate fully in the March 11 Planning & Budget Hearings, and all students are welcome to attend the hearings or, if you have ideas or comments you want to share outside of those hearings, share your thoughts with me and I’ll make sure they’re considered in the discussion.
Even before I fully understood the importance of land grant universities, I was able to benefit from our nation’s “radical experiment” with public education, and I hope your experience at CSU proves equally as valuable. The choices and plans we make each year through our annual budget process help to preserve this ideal of access to a world-class education regardless of economic status — and we need you to be a part of this year’s process.
Dr. Anthony Frank is the interim president of CSU. Letters and feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.