By Richard Vedder
The folks of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization of thousands of legislators and private sector supporters, nicely gave me an award this past week. In my acceptance remarks, I urged state legislators to learn more what their universities are doing, and not take everything at face value.
I was powerfully supported in this appeal by Hank Brown, a remarkable man who has been the president of both the University of Northern Colorado and the University of Colorado --but also served for years as a legislator himself, including many years in the U.S. Senate. In a panel over which I presided, Hank very civilly told the lawmakers the same thing I did with less tact --pay attention. He told the story of how, when running the University of Colorado, he asked units about classroom utilization on Fridays. The Business school said every classroom was occupied 100 percent of the time --contrary to campus rumors. He went into the classrooms himself and found them empty --the college had done what is all together too common these days --it out and out lied to its own president (to be sure claiming the classrooms were available to students for working on class projects). Some legislators told me they were going to make surprise Friday classroom visits to their nearby state university, and I urged them to do so --and not tell the college president about it until AFTER the visit. And if classroom utilization is low --just say NO to any new capital funds requests.
Even neater would be if a bipartisan group of legislators could plan a clandestine Friday raid on multiple university campuses simultaneously --armed with a few newspaper reporters. After the evidence of empty classrooms comes in, announce at a big press conference that they (the legislators) would be opposed to any further capital appropriations to state universities until existing space is better utilized, and invite other legislators to join in future unannounced clandestine visits to campuses.
At an ALEC higher education workshop over which I presided, Jane Wellman, far more of an establishment figure then I am, presented some great graphs (as she had a week earlier to the National Council of State Legislators) from her Delta Project research showing the declining emphasis on instructional spending over time.
I think colleges are losing sight of their main mission, and, regretfully, need more policing by those who disperse public largess. Fortunately, more and more legislators, I think, are beginning to agree.