12 Research Universities on the Brink of Extinction

One of the greatest assets to American higher education has always been its research universities, many of which have been responsible for the biggest breakthroughs in science, medicine, and technology of the past century. In fact, public universities produce nearly three-quarters of our nation’s scientists, researchers, doctors, and other professionals and do more than 60% of the nation’s academic research. Despite this, the future of these venerable institutions is far from secure, as funding cuts and leadership problems have threatened the stability of even some of the most prestigious public institutions in the U.S. While it’s unclear which universities may crumble under these increased challenges and which will rise up to meet them, the ones below are currently struggling to overcome major issues ranging from financial shortfalls to serious ideological differences among administrators.

  1. The University of Virginia:

    The University of Virginia is one of America’s most highly regarded and storied institutions of public education, but that hasn’t saved it from some serious turmoil in recent years. The highly publicized firing and subsequent rehiring of university president Teresa Sullivan helped bring many of the school’s serious issues to light. At the heart of many of these struggles has been the mismatch between boards focused on the bottom line and other administrators who think the university should prioritize educational initiatives over revenue. While a balance between the two may be hard to achieve, the struggle has caused major challenges and recent media attention may have even damaged a brand that took decades to build. In the wake of all of this, school is also suffering from major budget cuts of more than 14.7% over the past five years. Hopefully, proposed increases in state funding, new online projects, and a reassessment of leadership can put the school in a better place for the coming decade.

  2. The University of California:

    California is home to one of the best public education systems of higher education there is. It boasts a whopping four of the top 20 research universities in the world, whose discoveries and graduates have played a major role in boosting the state’s economy. Yet the financial turmoil being experienced by the state as a whole is threatening to cripple its high-quality educational institutions. The state of California cut funding for higher education by $1.5 billion in the 2011-2012 school year and has restricted enrollments everywhere from community colleges to top-tier universities for several years running. The University of California system alone has had to come to terms with a loss of $813 million in funding, and even smaller schools are seeing hefty cuts upwards of 20%, driving away both students and top academics. The combination of fewer research dollars going into schools and lowered enrollment in a time of rapid population growth will likely leave the state with far too few highly qualified graduates to meet its needs, potentially causing long-term, irreparable damage to its economy.

  3. The University of Illinois:

    Illinois is another state that’s undergoing major financial turmoil, a predicament that’s had a similarly negative impact on the state’s public research universities. Illinois’ three public research universities — the University of Illinois campuses in Chicago and Urbana-Champaign, and Southern Illinois University-Carbondale — experienced a combined drop of 37% in state funding per student, the fourth largest in the nation. To recoup costs, the U of Illinois system has had to raise tuition substantially, with its flagship school UIUC raising tuition and fees by a staggering 123% over the past decade. Financial troubles have also hurt the ability of the school to attract and retain top faculty and staff, and over the past 12 years the school has seen a drop of 13% in tenured faculty. These problems might be more manageable under strong leadership, but the already struggling system found itself at the center of an admissions scandal in 2009. Things also haven’t gone smoothly under new president Michael J. Hogan, who ruffled many faculty feathers in 2012 with his plans for the school.

  4. The University of Colorado:

    Research can improve lives and even change the world, but it doesn’t come cheaply, nor does a top-notch educational experience for students. Both are in peril within the University of Colorado system, which has seen the steepest per-student drops in state spending of any system in the U.S.; it’s down an incredible 48%. Overall, the system has seen a 23% drop in state funding over the past five years, and with the state struggling to balance its own faltering budgets, the funding situation is unlikely to improve anytime soon. To compensate, CU has raised tuition by 9%, but even the increase in tuition only helps recoup 20% of the losses the school has suffered due to budget cuts. The situation is so bad that CU president Bruce Benson says that state funding for the research universities could dry up in the next decade if cuts continue at their current pace. One thing may save research at CU, however: partnerships with businesses. Private institutions have already been helping offset costs and ensure that the school can stay afloat.

  5. The University of Rhode Island:

    Since 2002, state funding for Rhode Island’s public universities has dropped 47%, making it the second lowest in terms of state contributions to higher ed in the nation. While cuts have slowed and the state has appropriated funds from other places to help build and renovate the campuses, the school is still coping with major shortfalls. Like most other research universities on this list, the RI system has had to raise tuition to balance its budget, making it harder for students to shoulder the financial burden of attending college. Even with promises from the governor to increase higher education funding over the next few years, Rhode Island’s state schools are still some of the most poorly funded in the nation, making it hard to pay faculty, draw in new students, keep tuition low, and complete cutting-edge research.

  6. The University of South Carolina:

    South Carolina’s flagship university has been recognized by the Carnegie Foundation for its research, leading the nation in investigation to issues of public health, cancer treatment, and energy efficiency. Despite those achievements, state budgets have haven’t been kind to the research university. State funding per student is down 38%, leading university president Harris Pastides to plead his case for more funding to the South Carolina House Ways and Means Committee. Pastides was not only asking for a reprieve from serious cuts (the school lost more than half of its state budget over a two-year period), but also that the legislature not put caps on tuition increases, allowing the school to modulate the cuts by passing costs onto students. A lack of funding hasn’t just hurt the bottom line; many faculty and staff positions remain unfilled, upwards of 800 as of 2011, leading to larger class sizes, overworked faculty, and ultimately, a harder time staying a major force in innovation and research.

  7. The University of Georgia:

    As the oldest public university in the U.S., the University of Georgia has faced its share of challenges over the years, but recent budget cuts have hit the school especially hard. It is tied with Illinois for the fourth steepest cuts in per students state funding per student, down 37% between 2002 and 2011. Over the past few years, budget reductions have cut the school’s state funding by by 25% overall, leading to the elimination of whole programs and a variety of positions. Yet these cutbacks haven’t been enough; the school plans to eliminate nearly 130 jobs between 2012 and 2013 and to make major cuts to spending on laboratory safety training and equipment. This not only puts greater stress on the remaining faculty and staff but may impede research at the school, especially in molecular medicine, chemistry, and agricultural and environmental science. Past struggles, including a much-publicized battle between athletic director Vince Dooley and former UGA president Michael Adams and a myriad of sexual harassment complaints haven’t helped the university either.

  8. The University of Oregon:

    The University of Oregon system is receiving less state funding today than it was a decade ago, in part thanks to an 11% cut in funding between 2011 and 2012. Today, the UO system receives less than 7% of its funding from the state, a huge drop from 25% in 1990. If proposed cuts to federal research funding go through, things could get even worse, with the university system standing to lose around $28 million in federal research grants. The financial situation is causing some leadership issues at the school, as well, including the ousting of UO president Richard Lariviere in November of 2011. Lariviere was fired, at least in part, because state education board members said he refused to work with system leaders and pushed too hard for a alternative way of funding the school that would have given the schools greater autonomy from the state. The decision was highly contentious, with Oregon residents, administrators, professors, and students alike expressing their outrage, despite Lariviere’s history of being a highly divisive figure. All of this upheaval hasn’t necessarily been good for the school, as it needs strong, steady leadership to help it weather the major budget cuts it faces.

  9. The University of Arizona:

    Arizona‘s public institutions of higher education, University of Arizona campuses and community colleges alike, have taken a major hit in recent years. In 2008, state universities were receiving $9,498 per student. In 2012, that number dropped to $4,950 per student; a cut of over 50%. What’s more, the state’s governor, Jan Brewer, may tie future funding to graduation rates and performance. With ASU experiencing a huge surge in enrollment at the same time it was hit with over $200 million in cuts, it may be hard to keep up with these demands, though university leaders have said they are committed to working towards better outcomes for students. Budget concerns have caused leadership problems in Arizona, as well, with president Robert N. Shelton resigning in 2011 after five years of struggling with repeated cuts.

  10. Louisiana State University:

    LSU operates more than 800 sponsored research projects with the support of agencies like the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, and even NASA. This outside help is likely a relief for the school which has seen a serious lack of state support and some tumultuous leadership over the past decade. Since 2008, the state has cut the school’s funding by $102 million or about 43%. This has meant that in some cases, entire departments have been given the ax, including the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s philosophy major. In April of 2012, John Lombardi was fired from his position as president of the Louisiana State University system. Many believe his termination was for political reasons, with the outspoken president often at odds with the state’s governor, who some see as trying to exert a growing amount of control over the state’s higher education system. The school’s chancellor, Michael Martin, also recently left the school, citing the that pressure of cutbacks as his reason for departure. Amid this mess, the state’s universities were censured by the American Association of University Professors for violating faculty rights, after the state voted to ease firing rules, leaving many professors with little notice or recourse for dismissal.

  11. The University of Texas:

    It’s hard to argue that UT-Austin hasn’t had a major impact on the city’s economy. Research and highly-qualified grads from the school have helped to draw in major companies, many of them in the technology industry, who’ve transformed the city into a secondary Silicon Valley. As hard as it may be to believe, some have argued about the importance of the research being done in Austin and throughout the state university system. Governor Rick Perry appointed a board of regents who have pushed for a focus on teaching, accountability, and lower costs, even questioning the value to taxpayers of the research that UT does. The response from the university and alumni has been contentious, and UT president Bill Powers has been especially outspoken about his dislike for Perry’s views on the university system’s finances. Despite currently having a healthy budget for research, UT’s schools could see major cuts coming the the future if the governor wins this battle of wills, and may have to look to outside sources to keep up with their top-tier research.

  12. The University of Wisconsin:

    Wisconsin’s governor, Scott Walker, has made major cuts in education spending across the board, a move that hasn’t exactly been popular. The higher education system wasn’t exempt from these cuts, with Walker trimming a whopping $250 million from the UW system budget, among the largest cuts in the nation. The University of Wisconsin has long been a top-tier school, especially its flagship location in Madison, but these cuts and increased competitive for federal funding could mean that research at the school will take a hit. UW Vice Chancellor Vince Sweeney has admitted that the state’s significant cuts to education have made it harder for the school to get research grants, but that the school’s students and faculty help to make up for it by working harder than ever to bring in research dollars. Amid the financial struggles have been leadership ones as well, with UW chancellor Carolyn Martin leaving the school, some believe because of budgetary constraints and political attacks.

The extinction of research universities shouldn’t just be a major concern to those studying and working in the academic sphere; it’s a problem that has far-reaching consequences for all of us. Simply put, innovation and education help foster growth in business and the economy. When states whittle down schools to the bare bones and cut back on research, there’s a serious trickle down effect that can cause everything else in the economy to suffer as a result. In a time when the U.S. should be focusing on staying at the forefront of research and innovation leadership to stay competitive in a global market, the death, or even just crippling, of our great public research universities is a major blow to our ability to innovate and produce the world’s top scholars, businesspeople, and leaders.