Sunday, January 18, 2004

Lawmakers neglect brain drain


The University of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky University were both wailing the budget-cut blues last week, and both had their respective legislatures to thank for much of their woes.

UC President Nancy Zimpher says she needs to cut $6.6 million from UC's $800 million budget by June 30, and NKU President James Votruba estimates NKU will have to send $4 million back to the state this fiscal year. Both universities are looking at staff cuts, program cuts and more tuition hikes. Votruba on Monday warned tuition this fall could jump 20 percent. UC student government president Ron Ricks expects a 9.9 percent increase next fall.

It sounds like a formula to speed up Ohio's and Kentucky's brain drain, not slow it down.

UC and NKU need to squeeze all the efficiencies they can from fiscal and academic reform, including more cost-sharing on employee health insurance. But Ohio and Kentucky lawmakers also should stop dodging responsibility. Dump the short-sighted, insular attitudes against higher education and recognize the long-term benefits of investing in higher education. Not only do such public investments pay off in keeping more of our best and brightest here, but they produce an educated work force and research base that attract the companies, jobs and tax revenue needed for healthy growth.

This year, for the first time in UC history, tuition and fees contributed more revenue to UC's budget than did state funding. Ohio funding for UC's central campus dropped from $160 million in 2001 to $141 million.

"I'm worried that across America," said NKU's Votruba, "we are privatizing higher education."

UC's Zimpher says her university faces a fiscal "perfect storm." And although UC admitted its largest freshmen class in a decade, it missed its overall enrollment target. She's optimistic of a turnaround if UC keeps at its effort to recruit and retain all types of students. Her push for an academic master plan should help with enrollment and cost cuts. Ohio's public universities have been slackers at cutting marginal or "me-too" programs. UC could lead Ohio in cutting its losses and concentrating on academic centers of excellence.

But lawmakers in Columbus also should help, and not use the campaign to repeal the one-cent sales tax increase as an excuse to gut university budgets. There's plenty of other state government spending to cut.

Kentucky lawmakers also have been missing in action. It's shameful if they sit back in Frankfort and make public universities return restricted funds to the state budget, while the General Assembly refuses to increase such sacred cows as the 3-cent-a-pack cigarette tax, second lowest in the nation.

Gov. Ernie Fletcher is asking universities, along with state departments, to "make some sacrifices in the short term." He has said he won't back a stand-alone tobacco tax increase apart from a complete tax-code overhaul. Whatever works. But universities shouldn't be made the budgetary fall guys, or Ohio and Kentucky will be sacrificing their futures.

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