Are Public Universities Going to Disappear?

Facing giant budget cuts, the chancellor of the University of Kansas worries aloud about the future of state-funded higher education.

Bernadette Gray-Little, the chancellor of the University of Kansas (Charlie Riedel / AP)

Will there be public universities in 20, 50, 100 years? The question was posed Tuesday night during a dinner of journalists and university presidents, including those from Arizona State University, the University of California Riverside, and Georgia State University.

For most of the dinner, presidents equivocated on issues such as paying adjuncts fairly and keeping tuition costs low, defending their universities while expressing optimism about the future and not necessarily saying anything new. But for the question of the long-term future of public universities, at least one president didn’t dress things up.

“In 100 years? Maybe not,” said Bernadette Gray-Little, the chancellor of the University of Kansas.

The conservative state has been experimenting with supply-side economics, after Governor Sam Brownback cut income taxes and introduced exemptions for small-business owners, a policy that has lead to steep revenue declines. Lower revenues in turn have led to significant cuts in higher education. Over the last 15 years, per-student state support for the University of Kansas has declined almost 40 percent. This year, after the state realized that its new tax policies were leading to significantly lower revenues, universities started to worry that they would face something unprecedented: budget cuts in the middle of the year.

“It doesn’t take that long to get down to nothing," she said.

The disappearance of higher education in Kansas is something that some legislators have worried about before.

“Where else can they cut? Are they just going to close down and say they’re not going to do higher education anymore?” Jim Ward, a Democratic member of the Kansas House of Representatives, said earlier this year.

In Kansas, and other states trying to cut taxes, residents will have to decide whether a state has an obligation to fund higher education, Gray-Little told me, after the dinner.

Taxpayers may want to send less money to the government, but are they really willing to give up their public colleges and universities? And even though the University of Kansas is 0-6 this year in football, and perhaps an example of all that is wrong with college-sports funding, are taxpayers going to be willing to give up their public-university sports?