Some state universities are having smaller and smaller proportions of their costs paid for by the states, and some people are talking about the possibility of their ceasing to be state universities at all.
The University of Texas at Austin, for example, gets more money from student tuition than it gets from the state government. That's not counting how much money it gets from the federal government, from foundations, from alumni donations, from the earnings of its own endowment, and from other sources.
More than one-fourth of the students on this flagship campus of the University of Texas system have parents who make $100,000 a year and up. It is not immediately obvious why the average taxpayer should be subsidizing the education of these students, much less the research of their professors.
The image of a state university, as a place where those unable to afford a pricey private college can nevertheless get a good education, applies less and less to flagship universities like the University of Texas at Austin, the University of California at Berkeley, or the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. These are places whose main output is research, not undergraduate education.
During my years as a tenured faculty member at UCLA, I never saw a junior faculty member whose contract was not renewed because he was not a good teacher. But I saw many who were terminated because their research was not of the quantity or quality that was expected -- regardless of how good they were at teaching. It was strictly publish or perish.
UCLA was not at all unique in this. It is common at both state and private universities for the "teacher of the year" award to be regarded by some as the kiss of death. That is because so many people who have received this award have also been terminated.
Good teaching takes up time -- in preparation for class and in student conferences -- which reduces the time available for research. A professor at the University of Michigan put it bluntly: "Every minute I spend in an undergraduate classroom is costing me money and prestige."
Parents and taxpayers may not understand what their state universities are doing, but those inside these institutions know all too well what pays off and what doesn't. Nor is there anything wrong with research in general, though much academic research is dubious. The real question is: What kinds of activities should take place in what kinds of institutions -- and at whose expense?
A strong case can be made for research institutions such as Brookings or RAND, and a case can be made for having some of them located on a university campus. The Hoover Institution, ranked number one in the world by "The Economist" magazine, is located on the campus of Stanford University.
It is a lot harder to make a case for having research institutions supported by taxpayers under the false pretense that their main job is teaching students -- as happens with flagship state universities. When students and their parents are choosing a college, they need to understand that these students are less likely to be taught by the famous professors at famous state universities than they are to be taught by graduate students who are there primarily to study under those professors.
Research universities could be allowed to privatize and sell off some of their operations, such as teaching. Responsibility for teaching undergraduates could thus be taken out of the hands of graduate students and junior faculty, and transferred to teaching institutions, including on-line institutions like the University of Phoenix.
On-line teaching may never be as good as direct contact with a professor dedicated to teaching. But it may still be an improvement over being taught by a graduate student who gives top priority to completing his own education and beginning a career. A research institution does not need a costly football stadium or student dormitories or a swimming pool.
What stands in the way of such rational reorganizations are inertia, false impressions, traditions and politics. As the president of Texas A & M University said of the state legislature:
"They pay 20 percent and control 100 percent. Why would they give that up?"