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Recommitting to America's Unique Government-University Partnership

This article written by AAU President Mary Sue Coleman appeared in Volume 50 of Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning

The partnership between the government and American research universities lies at the heart of the U.S. scientific and higher educational enterprise. This unique and historic partnership has advanced human health, enhanced national security, and produced human capital that has fueled technological innovation and economic growth, created entire new industries, and fundamentally changed the way we live.

This compact began during the Civil War with the passage of the Morrill Act of 1862 when state and federal investments created a set of flagship state research universities devoted to conducting and disseminating research in agricultural and mechanical arts. During World War II, the government-supported research conducted by universities became an essential element to our success in the war.

After the war, the partnership was further solidified by Vannevar Bush in his 1945 report, Science, the Endless Frontier. The report outlined the federal government's role in support of curiosity-driven, competitively awarded basic research to support major national goals. Bush maintained that this work was best conducted in the open environment of the nation's universities where research would be linked to the education and training of students. Bush's vision of this partnership, combined with the substantial state and federal resources invested in higher education and research in the decades after the war, ensured the nation's health, security, economic and industrial growth. It also made our universities global science and technology leaders.

The relationship between the federal government and universities continues to serve the nation exceedingly well. Eighteen federal departments and 12 independent agencies support the U.S. research enterprise, providing combined funding in excess of $70 billion annually to support research projects, scholars, and graduate and undergraduate students at the nation's colleges and universities. The output of ideas, discoveries, and people from this investment remains extraordinary. At the same time, the partnership has helped educate tomorrow's scientific and technology leaders, educators, entrepreneurs, and global citizens. In FY 2017 alone, U.S. research universities (Very High Carnegie Classification) educated 22 percent of undergraduate students and 33 percent of graduate students.

Yet the government-university partnership has grown increasingly strained and is at risk. The tremendous value and critical role played by the states and the federal government in support of higher education is not well understood by the public and has been taken for granted by elected officials. This has been particularly acute at the state level where continued budgetary pressures have resulted in steadily declining support for higher education. At the same time, federal funding for reseach has grown increasingly uncertain while the number of costly and burdensome federal education and research regulations has grown dramatically. These changes have put at risk U.S. global leadership in higher education and scientific research.

To ensure the continued success and advancement of American higher education, science, and innovation, it is critical that each of the partners—the federal government, the states, and research universities—reaffirm and strengthen this partnership. Outlined below are specific actions that should be taken by each of the partners to enhance the partnership.

The Future of the Government-University Partnership

The Federal Government

Fund Research Sufficiently and Predictably

Unlike some nations that have embarked on national strategies to develop their research universities, the U.S. does not have a centralized ministry for research or a central agency that directs the allocation of resources toward specific institutions for specific purposes. This has been to our advantage. Although the federal government early on supported the creation of universities, and it has invested large amounts in financial aid to students, we have relied on a decentralized system of higher education and research. As a result, American universities enjoy a wide degree of independence and self-governance.

This decentralized, competitive system for conducting research has served the nation well and must be sustained. Nevertheless, as recent history has shown, the system is subject to the constant fluctuations and uncertainties of state funding, endowment returns, and federal research budgets. Boom and bust cycles for research investments have plagued the partnership at the federal level. The busts critically reduce the number of research projects that can be funded and undercut the investments universities make in facilities, faculty, and students.

The federal government should end damaging fluctuations in research appropriations and instead reform the budget process to provide predictable and sustainable long-term growth in research funding. More stability in federal budgets would enable universities to better plan their research investments, making federal research expenditures more effective and efficient.

Commit to Basic Research and Disciplinary Balance

Public attitudes toward higher education and the scientific enterprise have shifted. There is an eagerness by the public, elected leaders, and Congress for university research to produce more immediate innovation and new commercial ventures.

While universities need to strongly promote the translation of ideas into inventions, calls to shift federal investment at universities from basic to applied or targeted research that will more quickly lead to commercial applications threaten the wellsprings of creativity and undermine confidence in the ultimate importance of basic research itself.

It is important that demands not be placed on research universities that would take them from their fundamental roles of education, research, and service. Furthermore, the importance of disciplinary balance within universities is critical. Our nation's future is best served by sustaining the arts, humanities, and social sciences along with the sciences within universities; these are essential to address the current grand challenges that face the nation and our world.

Address Burdensome Education and Research Regulations

In recent years, research universities and their faculty have seen a steady increase in the number and complexity of federal education and research regulations and reporting requirements with which they have to comply. While universities take seriously their responsibility to comply with federal regulations, many of these requirements are excessive, duplicative, and unnecessary. They not only cost the university money; the administrative requirements demanded of faculty take time away that could otherwise be spent on teaching, research, or student support.

Several recent reports have been issued, including those from The National Academies Committee on Federal Research Regulations and Reporting Requirements ( NASEM, 2016 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Optimizing the Nation's Investment in Academic Research: A New Regulatory Framework for the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. . [Google Scholar] ) and the U.S. Senate appointed Task Force on Federal Regulation of Higher Education ( ACE, 2015 American Council on Education (2015). Recalibrating Regulation of Colleges and Universities: Report of the Task Force on Federal Regulation of Higher Education. Retreived from [Google Scholar] ), which have recommended reforms to reduce regulatory burdens and simplify current grant application and reporting requirements across federal agencies. The federal government should move quickly to implement recommendations contained in these reports such as: streamlining pre-award (or proposal) requirements; simplifying faculty effort reporting requirements; providing for differentiated accreditation processes based upon risk; standardizing grant formats and biography sketch requirements across government agencies; and implementing a unified federal system for report submission.

Recognize the Federal Role in Supporting Graduate Education

The intricate interconnections between graduate education and research in the nation's research universities are a core strength of the American innovation system and critical to maintaining our competitive edge in a global economy. Long recognized as the best in the world, U.S. graduate programs attract the most talented students and faculty from around the globe.

However, recent misguided policy proposals, like in 2017 when Congress proposed to tax graduate student tuition waivers, threaten to weaken the historic connection between research and graduate education in STEM fields. Fortunately, Congress rejected the proposal in the final tax bill but the very fact that it was proposed and seriously considered indicates a troubling lack of understanding of the impact it would have had upon the enduring strength of America's scientific enterprise.

Given this backdrop, it is critically important to maintain high-quality graduate education programs, with a healthy balance of domestic and foreign students. Several studies, such as Research Universities and the Future of America ( NRC, 2012 National Research Council. 2012. Research Universities and the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to Our Nation's Prosperity and Security. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. . [Google Scholar] ) and Rising Above the Gathering Storm ( NAS, 2007 National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. 2007. Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. . [Google Scholar] ), recognize graduate education as a national need and suggest that the federal government should establish long- term goals and provide more robust support for graduate education as a means of invigorating our own STEM talent pool.

Continue to Welcome Top International Talent

Our continued capacity to attract top international talent is being challenged by the growing strength of universities in other countries and the appearance that the U.S. is less welcoming to international talent. Congress and the administration need to take steps and send clear signals that the U.S. continues to welcome top international scientific and technical talent. Our national interest is best served when the world's top students, scientists, researchers, and engineers can live and work in the U.S. Their contributions not only keep the U.S. on the cutting edge of innovation and technology but also help to stimulate the nation's entrepreneurial spirit and create more American jobs.

The States

In the case of public research universities, the government-university partnership is effectively a federal-university-state partnership, since the universities cannot easily uphold their obligations to the federal research agenda without adequate state support.

Renew State Support for Higher Education

The decades long decline in state funding and corresponding rising tuition costs for undergraduate education must be addressed. States must recognize the extraordinary roles these institutions play in their states and consider the consequences of their diminution. As acknowledged by the Lincoln Project (2016), an initiative of the American Academy of the Arts and Sciences, imbalances in funding public research universities need to be corrected. States must develop alternative strategies—besides cutting university funding—to balance the state budget. One recommendation is to establish long-term funding goals, including targets for the growth of state investment, to stabilize support and assistance to public research universities.

Provide Autonomy to Public Research Universities

The Research Universities and the Future of America ( NRC, 2012 National Research Council. 2012. Research Universities and the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to Our Nation's Prosperity and Security. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. . [Google Scholar] ) report emphasized the need for public research universities to have the autonomy and agility to navigate extended periods with limited state support. States should be careful not to overregulate or place restrictive mandates—such as tuition freezes—on state universities at the same time they are moving to further reduce state funding.

Ultimately, state support for public universities is critical. Without it, research universities will be forced to find new business models to generate the resources necessary to fulfill their missions.

The Universities

While it would be easy to suggest that all of the strains and stresses in the government-university partnership rest with the states and the federal government, research universities themselves do not get a pass. They must also play a role in strengthening the partnership.

Address Issues of Access & Affordability

Our universities are sometimes viewed as inaccessible and out of reach to many Americans. Moreover, as America's population has changed with the growth of immigrant and minority populations, these groups continue to be underrepresented in our universities. At the same time, as painfully illustrated by polls released by the Pew Research Center (2017), there are a growing number of Americans who question the value higher education institutions provide.

To address these concerns, universities must be more transparent in representing the real costs of attending our universities. We must work to ensure that families from all income levels understand what the actual cost is for their sons and daughters. To this end, we need to work jointly with the states and the federal government to make sure our schools remain financially accessible and affordable to all U.S. students.

Create Welcoming Campus Environments

Research universities must double down on efforts to provide an environment at our institutions that welcomes diversity and is safe for students. University leaders and faculty members must encourage and promote the free and open exchange of multiple perspectives and viewpoints. In this vein, we must fight to preserve and protect free and open speech on our campuses for all ( AAU Presidents and Chancellors Reaffirm Commitment to Free Speech on Campus , April 2018).

Improve the Quality and Effectiveness of Education

We must work to improve the quality of both undergraduate and graduate education. As articulated in The American Academy of Arts & Sciences report, The Future of Undergraduate Education, The Future of America (2017) our nation must recommit to the promise of education and strengthening American undergraduate education. “What was once a challenge of quantity in American undergraduate education, of enrolling as many students as possible, is increasingly a challenge of educational quality—of making sure that all students receive the education they need to succeed, that they are able to complete the studies they begin, and they can do all of this affordably, without mortgaging the very future they seek to improve” (2017, p. 1).

With this goal in mind, AAU undertook a major effort in 2011 to improve the quality of teaching of undergraduate STEM education by promoting the increased use of evidence-based teaching practices by faculty in the classroom ( Bradforth, et al, 2015 Bradforth, S.E., Dichtel, W.R., Leibovich, A.K., Martin, J.D., Bjokman, K.S., Schultz, Z.D., Smith, T.L. & Miller, E.R. (July 16, 2015). “Improve undergraduate STEM education,” Nature 523, 282–285. [Crossref] , [PubMed] , [Web of Science ®] , [Google Scholar] ; Dennin, et al, 2017 Dennin, M., Schultz, Z. D., Feig, A., Finkelstein, N., Greenhoot, A. F., Hildreth, M.,… Miller, E. R. (2017). Aligning practice to policies: Changing the culture to recognize and reward teaching at research universities. CBE Life Sciences Education, 16(4), [es5]. DOI: 10.1187/cbe.17-02-0032 [Crossref] , [PubMed] , [Web of Science ®] , [Google Scholar] ). We are now seeing these practices employed at our universities in classes that extend far beyond STEM disciplines ( AAU, 2017 Association of American Universities (2017). Progress Toward Achieving Systemic Change: A Five-Year Status Report on the AAU Undergraduate STEM Educaiton Initiative. Retrieved from [Google Scholar] ).

At the graduate level, we need to make sure that we focus on providing doctoral students with education and skills which will help them navigate multiple career pathways. We need to collect and make more transparent data and information on graduate student success and career pathways in both STEM fields and humanities. Most important, we need to promote a new culture where faculty members no longer view their success as replicating themselves through their students. While training graduate students for academic careers should not be frowned upon, it should also not be the only measure of success.

Rather, our institutions have a responsibility to ensure that doctoral students receive the training and mentorship required to enable them to succeed in careers both within and beyond the academy. AAU has embarked on a new graduate education initiative to help improve Ph.D. education that builds on the recommendations in the National Academies of Sciences report on Revitalizing Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century ( NAS, 2018 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Revitalizing Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. [Google Scholar] ).

Communicate the Value of Federally Funded Research

We also need to make sure that we convey how federal research funding is being spent and its value to the American public. We need to ensure that the research we conduct on behalf of the American taxpayer is done with the utmost integrity and the knowledge and products that result from this research are readily available to enhance the overall public good. This means our universities must continue to focus on new and effective ways to take the knowledge produced from research on our campuses and communicate the ways it can be applied to address not only scientific and technological grand challenges, but also our national goals and pressing societal needs.

Renewing the Partnership

The long-term health of U.S. research universities is essential for the nation's success. To ensure their continued health, we must not forget that the success of U.S. research universities is dependent upon a complex and essential relationship with states and the federal government. We must remember to value the unique partnership that got us to where we are, improve upon it, and endeavor to preserve the features of the partnership that have made American research universities the best in the world.

This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License ( ), which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way.


This article was originally published in Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning