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UB 2020 and the Knowledge Economy

Buildings or brains first?

In the post-Tucson America of carefully civil discourse, Buffalo-area politicians who have endorsed the massive taxpayer-funded construction plan called for in UB 2020 are going to have to watch themselves, because serious disputes over what public money should buy, and from whom, could bring a quick end to politeness. The State University at Buffalo’s current president announced that he would leave specifically because the State Legislature objected to several aspects of the UB 2020 legislation he promoted—including its plan for differential tuition rates, as well as its suspension of various parts of the Public Officers law, of state higher education law, of the General Municipal law, and of other statutes. Assembly critics have also questioned the UB 2020 legislation for its outsourcing of various real-estate-related operations to new, yet-to-be-defined entities that won’t be subject to public oversight in the same way that the rest of the State University system is. Everybody salutes the idea of UB being a success, but legislators question these technical issues.

But you know how it works in Buffalo: If anybody raises any questions to anything that some folks say they want, a version of Stalinist terror is unleashed. At least the verbal version.

So as soon as Governor Andrew Cuomo introduces his budget, watch for these buzzwords to start cropping up: “downstate special interests,” “obstructive Assembly Democrats,” “anti-upstate Speaker Silver.” Especially because of the rhetorical strategies of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership and its allied lobbying group Unshackle Upstate, any questions anybody in Albany or New York City or on any of the other campuses of the State University of New York ask—unless the post-Tucson rules actually get applied here—will doubtless result in more of the same ugly name-calling and bitterness we’ve grown accustomed to.

Call it the Partnership style, or call it Paladino-ism. Meanwhile, more sober and more measured folks are asking questions like these:

• As long as there’s a $10 billion state budget deficit, what can UB, the three other university centers, and the 60 other SUNY campuses expect in the way of state support?

• If Assembly Higher Education Committee chair Deborah Glick (D-Manhattan) opposes both the state’s terrible practice of sucking money out of SUNY campuses and the UB 2020 plan to raise tuition on middle-class students, is it realistic to think that yelling at her will convince her to change her mind?

• If SUNY is truly going to drive our economic future, not just as the operator of campuses but as the centerpiece of the innovation economy, which of our scarce public dollars will yield the best return on investment—the construction dollar, or the faculty dollar?

Common dreams

Everybody wants a new economic engine to replace the broken manufacturing, real-estate-development, and transfer-payment motors that drive Upstate New York. Everybody in Ohio and Pennsylvania—and in Rochester and in Syracuse and in Albany, too—wants the same thing. What’s dramatic about the UB 2020 discussion is how different the approach seems to be in other places. Here, the approach seems to be largely about real estate. Elsewhere, the first dollars in are for high-achieving faculty members, for post-doctoral fellowships, for high-achieving students—and for helping students get access to higher education in the first place.

Chairwoman Glick, writing recently in the Albany Times-Union, points out that Cuomo and his two predecessors have all “touted the economic development potential” of SUNY institutions. But she is unimpressed with the new version of the UB 2020 legislation, which goes by the name Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act, precisely because it threatens to raise the price-tag for the prime customer: the young people of New York State.

What nobody on any side of the discussion misunderstands is that the very operation of the 46 SUNY campuses has major positive economic consequences for the local and regional economies where they’re sited. The handsome villages of Geneseo, Oswego, Cortland, Brockport, and others where SUNY operates campuses are a sharp contrast to Upstate towns quite nearby. Pulling SUNY out of these places would leave students to turn to predatory for-profit “colleges,” or, for most, to miss higher education altogether.

But it’s not just the college-as-local-employer economic impact that the four big research institutions are supposed to deliver: It’s the innovation economy, too. Patents, commercialized intellectual property like drugs and industrial processes—that’s what the new research university is asked to deliver. Every chancellor wants his or her system to be Stanford or Harvard, with genius professors, genius students, and a Silicon Valley or a Route 128 popping up next door.

When you look at the UB 2020 legislation, what’s so striking is that there’s not much in it about intellectual innovation, but a whole lot in it about real estate.

So in a civil discussion about how a public university like the University of Pittsburgh became one of the institutions that wins many hundreds of millions of dollars in grants every year, from both public and private sources, one would think that the first question is how did they do it? Some of the answers may be contained in the individual life-histories of public institutions—biographies of leaders, of researchers or of donors. Another way is to look at how universities grade each other.

The answer seems to be to follow the grant money. The new report of the Center for Measuring University Performance, alluringly entitled “The Top American Research Universities,” says that UB ranked 53rd in the total quantity of research grants won, and 64th in the total quantity of federal research grants won. Out of 200 or so schools reviewed, that’s starting to sound like good news. Schools get ranked on research grants won, faculty publications, PhDs awarded, student scores on achievement tests, endowment size, and other issues, but when it comes to research universities, the prevailing thinking seems to be this: If your faculty are winning national competitions for research grants, your university gets a good score. If faculty don’t bring home the bacon, the score suffers.

This report ranks UB ahead of Stony Brook, Albany, and Binghamton, which are the other three SUNY research institutions; all the other SUNY campuses are either four-year colleges or two-year community colleges. UB’s own website touts its take in grants. UB faculty won $149 million in federal grants in 2007. Stony Brook won $111.2 million. So it would seem that UB is a winner.

But context matters. Other public research universities win many more of these grants. In New York State, the private universities, particularly Columbia, Cornell, and Rochester, dwarf SUNY individually and even collectively. UB won $44 million in Department of Defense grants since 2000, but in that category Cornell got $168 million, Columbia $125 million, Rochester $98 million, Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute $73 million, and RIT $45 million. The private colleges and universities in New York State have been known to ask why there needs to be a SUNY anyway, given the comparatively stellar performance of the private institutions in getting these grants.

SUNY’s distinct mission since 1948 has been to serve students who are modest of means. So the discussion of economic impact of policy changes—like tuition policy—is necessary. And then there’s the lack of clarity about how to judge other statistics used for ranking research universities. For example, is Stony Brook, whose mathematics program is internationally recognized, a lesser institution because its grant haul from the DoD is smaller than UB’s? Or does Stony Brook’s smaller take in grants reflect that it does not do as much medical research as UB does (which is not surprising, as Stony Brook has no medical school, while UB does)? Would Stony Brook get more grants if it had its own version of UB 2020, or if it dropped its math and chased DoD projects instead?

People power

This is a huge set of variables, but inevitably, when it comes to ranking and reputation, one has to focus in on the question of faculty. Stony Brook has more faculty than does UB who are members of the national academy of each of their respective disciplines. There’s a radical sorting that has already taken place in America: The schools with the big reputations have so profoundly many more of these scholars than the low-ranking schools, or even the medium-ranking schools, that most other institutions are in comparative darkness. Of course Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Yale, and Columbia are in the top 10 in this measure. But the rest of the top schools that win the reputation wars are public: University of Texas at Austin, University of Wisconsin, University of Washington, and three California public schools: Berkeley, San Diego, San Francisco.

So the lesson seems to be this: Public money spent on people brings the public schools into the ranks of the best-known private schools. And when the rankings go up, whether public or private, the big, rich universities win grants. Then they win philanthropic support—endowed chairs and such-like. And then, after they win recognition for excellence, is when they make money.

Academic personnel matter. Students matter. Buildings? Of course. But hardware without software and operators doesn’t operate itself. Yet at this time of fiscal mayhem in the states, the first casualties everywhere are the students—and faculty, too, as faculty are neither being hired nor encouraged to stay. California students have been very loudly protesting cutbacks in aid and even more loudly protesting increases in their tuition. Elected officials in New York State are reminded daily how real the recession is by constituents who think that public services are the cause of their economic woes, rather than Wall Street, globalization, or $100-a-barrel crude. And in a predictable turn of events, some SUNY campuses may see enrollments go up even as cutbacks kick in, simply because the price of a SUNY education is still within reach the reach of working and middle-class families, while private tuition moves further and further out of reach.

Dollars are scarce, so difficult discussions will necessarily be had. Assemblywoman Glick pointedly mentioned how cutbacks at SUNY have gone on even while state government has not stinted on “resources we have readily provided to private enterprises.” In its current form, then, it would seem that the UB 2020 legislation may never pass. That still leaves the question of not whether, but how UB attracts and retains the people who compete with Harvard, MIT, Stanford—and the University of Pittsburgh, UC San Francisco, and the University of Rochester—to bring the reputation money, the ranking money, even the DoD grants home. A reprise of last year’s divisive rhetoric won’t be much help in that job.

Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.

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