Jan. 14, 2010

NOTE: This opinion piece, written by president Gregory Geoffroy, appeared in the Jan. 10 edition of the Des Moines Register.

Guest column: Future of Iowa's universities endangered

Des Moines Register, Jan. 10, 2010

Iowa State University is known throughout the world as one of the top research universities in the agricultural sciences, materials sciences, computer sciences and many other fields. We are also a place where generations of Iowans have received a superior education at a relatively low cost, and where Iowans in every corner of the state and from all walks of life have received help to increase their economic prosperity and improve their quality of life.

But all of that is now critically endangered because of the massive budget cuts we have experienced over the last 18 months -- $62.9 million or 22 percent of our state appropriations -- and more cuts seem likely to come.

"Although painful to our students and their families, a tuition increase is essential if we are to have any hope of maintaining educational quality at the level they expect."

Gregory Geoffroy

We have cut deeply in absorbing these reductions, with impact felt across the university and throughout Iowa. We have reorganized ISU Extension and cut extension staff and programs, instituted furloughs or mandatory unpaid days for all employees, reduced employee benefits, and cut by 10 percent the number of state and tuition funded faculty and staff positions.

Students are feeling the impact through increased class size, decreased access to faculty and advisors, and reduced services for those who need help with academic, financial or personal problems. And more changes are yet to come as we absorb the full impact of these budget cuts, with the inevitable elimination and consolidation of academic programs and departments, significantly reduced course offerings and limited access to programs of study.

As president, I am deeply concerned that these budget cuts seriously threaten our ability to maintain the high-quality Iowa State University education that generations of graduates have received and that Iowans expect us to provide. Tuition increases will help offset only a fraction of the lost state funding. It would require an enormous 33 percent tuition increase to fully cover the $62.9 million loss, and that is simply not feasible, even though increases of nearly that magnitude are being implemented in California and Oregon. Still, our tuition is low compared to our peer land-grant universities, compared to our neighboring states (only South Dakota has a lower tuition), and as a percent of median family income. Although painful to our students and their families, a tuition increase is essential if we are to have any hope of maintaining educational quality at the level they expect.

Iowans have worked hard to build Iowa State University, the University of Iowa and the University of Northern Iowa into one of the best public university systems in the nation. Both Iowa State and Iowa are among our nation's most highly regarded public research universities. Together our three universities annually bring into the state more than $765 million in sponsored funding -- $165 million more than the state appropriations for all three universities combined. This funding pays for research in areas critical to Iowa's future, such as biorenewable resources, plant and animal sciences and human health.

Combined, our three universities attract nearly 23,000 students from other states and nations, who through their out-of-state tuition subsidize the cost of educating Iowa residents and who contribute to Iowa's growth and development. Our universities generate new businesses, strengthen Iowa industries and assist Iowans in every county through our many outreach services. But this level of excellence and service to Iowa is in grave danger because of the deterioration of state funding.

Iowans have a long tradition of valuing education at all levels, and it is critical to Iowa's future for that to continue. Today's economy requires our citizens to have advanced knowledge and skills if Iowa is to compete effectively with other states and on the global stage. If Iowa's public universities sink into mediocrity because of these massive budget cuts, then Iowa's quality of life and economic vitality will suffer a similar fate. For the future of Iowa, I call upon our elected leaders to give priority to Iowa's public universities, even in these tough economic times.