Saturday, January 24, 2009

Why the State of Nevada needs a strong higher education system.

I'm heading home to Las Vegas this afternoon, having attended the Winter Board Meeting of the Association of Rice Alumni. This afternoon's meeting included a talk by Rebecca Richards-Kortum, the Stanley C. Moore Professor of Bioengineering. She described the many ways in which Rice University professors' research can be used to address global health issues (water-borne diseases, the high costs of getting technology to the medical personnel in developing countries who need them, etc.). Take a look (here) at what Rice's "Beyond Traditional Borders" project is doing all over the world. What makes Rice's program so special (well, among many things) is that undergraduates at Rice are participating in the research and outreach on an international scale (see here). You can read some of the students' blog posts here.

I can't think of a better illustration of why university research is such an integral part of all students' education. The film that we watched in the board meeting illustrated how Rice undergraduates were involved in the research, design, and dissemination of "science that matters." Not only were scientists involved, but also people from the Jones Graduate School of Management, as well as other disciplines, took part in the real-world problem-solving question: how do we get ideas and tools for improving health to communities with no resources at all?

I've had the pleasure of being at two flagship state universities: The Ohio State University and the University of Nebraska. Even at the less-than-flagship-funded University of Houston, faculty members do research that affects on-the-ground, real-life issues. And, of course, we at the Boyd School of Law at UNLV take our research and outreach missions very seriously. The students who take courses at any of these universities from any of the professors conducting this research or creative activity (don't forget the fine arts at all of these schools!) are benefiting from faculty members who are at the top of their game, and the students get to see for themselves what it means to have a life infused with meaning. Trust me: when you get paid to think about issues that are important to you and to convey your knowledge to other people, you have a life with meaning.

Now I'm living in a state in which the governor has proposed a cut amounting to 50% (yes, you read that right: 50%) of the budgets of the two public research universities. With a cut of that magnitude, there's no way to preserve any sort of benefit to the local, state, national, or international community from the research or outreach that we faculty members can do. The basic functions of these two universities will be gutted by these budget cuts, let alone any ability to discover and implement useful new ideas. (Even combining the two universities--an idea proposed by Geoff Schumacher in the Las Vegas Review-Journal last week as a way to navigate the budget cut--would be impossible with a 50% cut.)

Rice University graduates students who become astronauts, novelists, doctors, journalists, lawyers, and teachers. (See here for some examples.) Part of the reason that Rice has such a great track record with its graduates is that it has enough funding to attract the best minds--students, faculty, and staff. I actually don't think it's an exaggeration to say that some of what Rice does can save the world--or at least parts of it.

One of my favorite movies is The Right Stuff, and one of my favorite scenes in that movie explains the politics of the space program this way:
Recruiter: Funding. That's what makes your ships go up. . . . No bucks, no Buck Ro[]gers.
I'm not trying to compare Rice to any of the large public universities with which I've been associated. Rice has a very different mission from other universities and, as you can tell, I'm passionate about Rice. I am as proud of the work that Rice is doing with its Beyond Traditional Borders program as I've been of the fact that President Kennedy announced his goals for the space program at Rice in 1962.

But Nevadans deserve to have its best people working on difficult issues, teaching Nevadan (and non-Nevadan) students, and adding far more to Nevada's economy than any state appropriation "pays for." Unless the governor really thinks that it's more important to keep taxes low than it is to improve the Nevada economy for the future, this blow to higher education is taking away our "Buck Rogers" moments. Do we really want to give up reaching for the stars so soon?

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