Editorial: Program cuts at regents universities unpleasant, but may be necessary

Editorial Board

Iowa’s regents universities continue to find themselves in financially hard times. Most recently, the University of Northern Iowa administration decided to end 22 majors, 20 minors and 16 graduate programs for financial reasons. In total, 58 programs will be ended to pay for a budget shortfall this year of about $1 million and anticipated cost increases next year of about $4 million.

A few years ago, we at Iowa State narrowly avoided a drastic reorganization of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences that would have consolidated majors into departments of humanities and social sciences. Some programs, however, especially at the graduate level, died. Combining public service with teaching is the mission of land-grant universities like Iowa State, but we could not be all things to all people.

Similarly, other public universities such as Northern Iowa are supported with tax dollars because the people have decided that the institution benefits the state as a whole in addition to the students taking classes and paying tuition. When money was easy and readily available, universities could expand. Now, however, all recipients of public monies are competing with a smaller pool of resources.

The pool is smaller for two reasons. First, and less relevant now that Iowa’s economy is in a reasonable state of recovery, is that the economy’s deterioration in 2007-2009 led to a decrease in tax revenues. Second is the eagerness of Republicans in the Iowa House of Representatives to cut the state budget. While Senate Democrats want $34 million in additional spending for the coming year and Gov. Terry Branstad wants an additional $20 million, House Republicans want to cut spending by $31 million.

As the regents and university officials confront those possibilities, students need to understand that Iowa’s public universities are designed to specialize in certain fields rather than defending a quality education in everything from physics to history to engineering to French. Iowa City has the liberal arts school; Ames has the school for agriculture and science and technology; Cedar Falls has the school for education.

Our public universities cannot be allowed to suffocate as funds dwindle. At the same time, maintaining such extensively comprehensive course offerings cannot be allowed to suffocate the state’s financial soundness. The public world is about pulling together, whether that pulling consists of scrap metal drives and rationing during such crises as World War II or paying more tuition to make up for less state funding for universities or not majoring in geology at a teaching college.

All too often, students see only their side of the issue and demand more funding in their editorials, columns, letters and trips to the Capitol for events such as Regents Day. Realizing that we are one of many public programs may be the best lesson from a public education.