US state bureaucracy ‘impairing mission’ of public universities

President of Johns Hopkins University says ‘deeply poisonous politics’ is also harming the system

December 13, 2016
Student slips on snowy staircase, Johns Hopkins University
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Perilous ascent: scientists in their twenties and thirties struggle to get research funding, Johns Hopkins leader notes

State governments in the US are “fundamentally impairing the mission” of public universities through “crushing bureaucracy” that constitutes a “tax on creativity”, according to the leader of a private university in the country.

Ronald Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University, said that his counterparts at US public universities spend a lot of time “fending off highly interventionist initiatives by state governments” and “worrying about the pernicious effect of regulation”. He said this can include dealing with codes around building "large capital projects" or waiting for approval before launching “innovations” in their institutions.

In an exclusive interview with Times Higher Education, he said: “There’s just a level of really crushing bureaucracy that I think is fundamentally impairing the mission of these institutions.”

When asked whether the level of interference constituted just unhelpful bureaucracy or has started to impact academic freedom, he added: “It’s more. At one level, having your senior leadership team at the university focused on issues which are arguably extraneous to the academic mission is bad in itself. That’s a tax on creativity, it’s a tax on the core mission.

“But you see in a number of ways it is truly limiting the ability of the institution to focus on research and teaching and I think it is very corrosive.”

He said that the simultaneous decline in government funding for public universities means that there is now a “very significant mismatch between the structure of regulation and governance for the publics and the amount of state funding coming in”.

“There are now public universities in the US where you have a level of state support that is less than 10 per cent of the total budget and yet you still have the same apparatus in place to regulate those entities that goes back to a time when they were funding more than 50 per cent of the university’s budget,” he said.

Another issue, he continued, is the “very significant churn” of executive leaders at public universities.

“If you combine relatively short executive leadership and couple that with a very significant vicissitude in state funding, you create a degree of instability within the system that I think again is really pernicious,” he said.

He said this has been coupled with “highly symbolic and sometimes deeply poisonous politics” against universities, with the "castigating" of leadership and choices made within institutions seen as a “great foundation for politicians to get attention”.

Professor Daniels said this “very shrill and persistent critique” of higher education occurs because of “deep anxieties” over whether universities are succeeding in their role as “great engines of social mobility”.

He suggested that multi-year university funding from the state could be one solution to these issues, as it would prevent institutions having to annually defend a budget increase, which is “time-consuming, creates instability and subverts long-term planning”. He said this change would also likely “drain the nasty politics” against universities.

He added that states could give universities “greater clarity” about the public goals it would like them to pursue, which could then be built into mandates. Such a model could include representation from appropriate parts of the community but would act as an alternative to “obtrusive regulation”. 

Professor Daniels, a Canadian-born law and economics scholar in Johns Hopkins’ department of political science, also spoke about the lack of research funding for young scientists in the US, which he said is leading to recruitment troubles for all leading research universities in the country.

Despite the doubling of the National Institutes of Health’s budget in recent years, the average age at which investigators receive their first grant for independent research has increased from 36 to 44 years, he said.

A higher percentage of scientists over the age of 65 receive research funding than scientists under 35 years, he added, despite the fact that scientists are typically in their twenties and thirties when they undertake “transformative” research that is later recognised by prestigious awards, such as the Nobel prize.

“So we’re creating a system that is really undermining the capacity to get money to people that are in the prime of their creative and scientific careers,” he said.

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