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Flagship Institutions, Public Higher Education and Research

This fall, public universities across the country marked the matriculation of record numbers of students, probably reflecting both demographic trends and rising costs for private higher education. Accommodating these additional students just as serious budget shortfalls are being experienced in many states is becoming increasingly difficult.

The United States has long been distinguished by its wide range of public higher education offerings: two- and four-year undergraduate programs; urban and rural locations; predominantly graduate and predominantly undergraduate student bodies; large comprehensive universities and small liberal-arts colleges; those pursuing a technology-intensive research agenda and those excelling in personalized instruction; residential campuses populated largely with 18- to 22-year-olds and commuter schools with mainly older students; those pursuing internationally competitive scholarly goals and those responding to local economic or social needs. What a rich array from which to choose! And how deserving is each of these missions!

Nowhere can this diversity of mission be more clearly seen than in the nation's multi-campus state university systems. Such public university systems offer students programs designed specifically for their own personal goals and interests. These systems usually include one or more "flagships," usually large institutions with well-established histories of excellence and extensive graduate research opportunities. Whether land-grant colleges or not, such schools typically have strong outreach programs and are widely recognized as contributing strongly to statewide economic growth and job creation. They are also likely to maintain large portfolios of federally and privately funded research, most funding having been awarded on the basis of competitive merit review.

Even where these flagship institutions enjoy a substantial endowment, their focus on research requires significant annual investment, certainly in facilities and equipment but also in much higher costs for technical assistance and regulatory compliance and support for graduate teaching and research assistants. A "critical mass" of infrastructure and personnel is absolutely crucial for their demonstrated research success. But when budget shortfalls materialize, one frequent response is to disperse available resources roughly on a per capita or a special-interest basis among all system institutions, often to the detriment of maintaining the infrastructural support needed by the flagship.

If university systems are to prosper, so must the flagships. But full budgetary democratization among institutions with clearly different missions will inevitably point all toward the average, and mediocrity is the proven enemy of front-line research. Now is the time to ask: What is an appropriate level of financial support for public flagship institutions? What roles and responsibilities should they uniquely bear as a consequence? How many doctoral-granting institutions are needed in each state? Should institutions whose missions do not include primary emphasis on graduate-level research compete with flagships, or is this an unaffordable duplication of programs? What intellectual support must a flagship make available to its sister institutions within a system? How can state legislatures make budgetary decisions that resist the otherwise inevitable march toward mediocrity?

Our ability to grapple with these issues will determine the strength of higher education in the future.

Marye Anne Fox
President, Sigma Xi

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