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UB2020: Questions Worth Asking

Since UB2020 was proposed, I have looked in vain for serious counter-arguments to the hype and sound-bite reasoning associated with it. Artvoice, Bruce Fisher, and Peter Reese are to be commended for beginning a reasoned debate on whether UB2020 is worth the candle.

Let me state my biases at the outset. They are old-fashioned: A university should promote teaching, research, and service. But then what else can one expect from a retired professor at SUNY Buffalo? In addition, I believe that UB’s education output, like that of all public educational institutions, is a public good—something that the private sector would supply in inadequate amounts. For a good example, go back to the land-grant colleges, some of which have grown into great universities. Originally, they put their emphases on applications like engineering and law in rebellion against the exclusive classical instruction of private universities. Add computer science and one has what UB has become. In the course of this growth, some departments of UB grew stronger, while others—among which, unfortunately, were three I know best—deteriorated.

Now UB2020 is an attempt to privatize UB and to me privatization of a public good means there is too little of it. I understand UB2020’s appeal to academic administrators. I have known some excellent administrators but very few who would look unfavorably on the prospect of overseeing a larger faculty and student body. An equally important incentive, in my view, would allow the UB to retain the money from tuition increases and the sales of state property—all with minimal state oversight. That also applies to procurements and contracts. So, it is easy to see why UB2020 has the vigorous support of administrators. I can sympathize with this to some extent. For the many years I had grants whose 100 percent overhead vanished into Albany’s coffers, and I too would have liked to retain that money at UB for research, teaching, and service. But at the same time, I have seen slush funds directed toward favored faculty, contracts that resulted in inferior outcomes, and arbitrary withdrawal of support to good departments. So, one has to ask: Who guards the guards? Can we at least have some reasoned arguments from UB2020’s enthusiasts as to the effect on teaching, research, and service objectives of UB?

I can also understand why the jobs and economic stimulus aspect of UB2020 has such appeal for our community. And UB2020 has historical precedent: Land-grant colleges were often a boon to frontier development. But wasn’t that a by-product? As far as I know, jobs and development were not part of their mission. Peter Reese and Bruce Fisher ask good questions on this issue.

Finally, the taxpayer must ask for some thoughtful discussion of the cost from increasing the size of the university. How many good students will be deterred from applying to UB because of the tuition increases; What is the cost to taxpayers of implementing the staffing and physical plant of UB2020; In which academic areas will the enlarged UB act to preserve or reduce academic quality; And, since UB is already pretty big, won’t a bigger UB run into the range of decreasing returns to scale? These are hard problems because for every example, it is possible to come up with a counter-example. Clearly, the issue is situation specific. But all of us want the best for our community and are willing to be convinced by reasoned responses from UB2020’s supporters.

Murray Brown, Professor Emeritus of Economics, SUNY Buffalo

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