Private universities with big endowments and wealthy donors may be able to weather the storm. (So, too, may the handful of public universities, like the University of Michigan and the University of Virginia, that receive far more private than public funding.) But most public research institutions won’t.
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This is not abstract or anecdotal. Midwestern public universities are already experiencing a pattern of relative decline, based on NSF rankings of universities by total research-and-development expenditures.
From fiscal years 2007 to 2015, according to NSF data, federal funding for university- and college-based research grew by 8 percent nationwide. But for the seven states generally considered by research organizations to make up the Midwest—Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin (to its definition of “Midwest,” the U.S. Census Bureau adds Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota)—the increase was only 4 percent. Both those numbers lag far behind the roughly 14 percent inflation during that time period, meaning that federal funding for university research actually decreased overall, and it decreased more in the Midwest. As private and better-funded public universities elsewhere in the country found alternative sources of support, they pushed their Midwestern rivals down the research rankings.
The University of Wisconsin–Madison was ranked second in 2008; in 2015, for the first time since the figures have been tracked, it fell out of the top five. Ohio State dropped from 10th to 20th, Missouri from 71st to 85th. The University of Iowa rose from 60th in 2008 to a peak of 39th in 2010, but has since fallen back to 49th. Purdue, for which the NSF rankings date only from 2010, has slipped from 32nd then to 37th now.
Some experts caution against reading too much into these numbers. Big changes in research rankings could result from shifts in the type of research under way, said Howard Gobstein, the executive vice president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. Biomedical research, for example, costs more and brings in bigger grants than research in the humanities.
The question is how long that can last. In Illinois, for instance, research output has stayed surprisingly steady as of 2015, the most recent year for which full data is available. But since then, a budget impasse has resulted in some of the deepest cuts to higher education in the nation. (Thanks to a legislative override, the more-than-two-year budget standoff finally ended in July, but significant damage had already been done to university enrollments, staffing, and facilities.)
“It really is amazing that the administrators and staff can keep it together by cutting everywhere they can,” said Arthur Kramer, who last year left a post as head of the University of Illinois’s Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, a 313,000-square-foot research center, for a provost position at the private Northeastern University in Boston. “But this can’t go on forever.”