The University Record, February 27, 1996

Hillegonds exhorts U to adjust rapidly to state's turbulent economic, political climate

By Mary Jo Frank
University Relations

 

To thrive, the U-M must adjust rapidly to the state's tumultuous economic and political climate, warns Paul C. Hillegonds, speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives.

Speaking Feb. 19 as part of the lecture series "Changing in a World of Change: The University and Its Pub lics," Hillegonds, R-Holland, predicted that the U-M will need to refine its mission because of stiff competition for limited state dollars from health care and prisons, the Legislature's shrinking institutional memory due to term limits, and students' demands for more personalized educational experiences.

At the same time, the U-M alumnus said, the University needs to provide students a strong liberal arts education, cultivating a joy of learning and critical thinking skills so they can adapt past solutions to new problems.

The state's fiscal facts of life are putting higher education at risk, said Hillegonds, who noted that since 1989, spending for corrections has increased 72 percent. If the corrections portion of the state budget continues to grow at the same rate, one in three state employees will be corrections employees by the end of the decade, he said.

In contrast, state expenditures for higher education during the same period have increased by only 18.5 per cent, less than the rate of inflation.

Gross state spending is projected at $30.2 billion in 1996. Of that total, only $8.2 billion is discretionary and must be divided among higher education, crime and punishment, health care and other state priorities. Corrections and health care are high-growth, politically sensitive areas, he noted.

More than 50 percent of the state's general fund budget comes from income taxes, making state coffers vulnerable to downturns in the economy, Hillegonds explained.

Michigan's adoption of term limits---two three-year terms for Senators and three two-year terms for members of the House of Representatives---could make it even more difficult for higher education to garner state budget sup port, he said.

After 1999, the 110-member House of Representatives will have 80 to 85 freshman legislators, he predicted. "We don't know who the 80­85 members will be, or if they will be friendly to higher education," Hillegonds said. "We do know that incoming legislators are becoming more conservative, and they are less persuaded by precedent. Also, both parties are anti-taxes."

Hillegonds said the University needs to consider the public's concern as it redefines its mission.

Students and parents want more student-faculty contact, Hillegonds said. Of the state's 15 universities, the three fastest growingGrand Valley State University, Saginaw Valley State University and Western Michigan University---have lower tuition rates, and their faculty spend more time with students.

A second concern is the public's growing frustration with K-12 education, which is driving the charter school and school-of-choice debate. "What role will the University play in improving your farm team, K-12 education? Why is there so much need for remedial education?" he asked.

Hillegonds also suggested that the University enhance its service to communities and then share that information with advocates, who can spread the news about how the University is contributing to the state's well-being.

During the question-and-answer period, Hillegonds said the University needs to market its strengths, including publicizing its research. However, research can't be the University's only claim to fame.

"If the perception is that the University doesn't care about undergraduates, more has to be done," Hillegonds said.

Noting that his remarks were directed to the U-M and to higher education in general, he called upon all of the state's universities to better serve the needs of t he state and its citizens by collaborating to avoid costly duplication of programs.