Last Tuesday, MIRS published a lively news story on the opposing views of the Lt. Governor’s Commission on Higher Education and Economic Growth and Dr. Richard Vedder, distinguished professor of economics at Ohio University and a research adviser to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. The commission published a report in December encouraging the view that greater state government funding for colleges and universities would improve Michigan’s economic growth. Dr. Vedder, in contrast, recently published a book and a Mackinac Center Viewpoint detailing empirical research that casts doubt on the economic value of state spending on higher education.

Not surprisingly, state officials were less than enthusiastic about Dr. Vedder’s findings. Much of their response in the MIRS article involved changing the subject. It somehow made sense to the governor’s office, for instance, to attempt a lame joke about Ohio.

Still, the comments of a spokesman for the Presidents Council of the State Universities of Michigan were disconcertingly unprofessional. We sent a rejoinder to MIRS the same day. A slightly expanded version of that note appears below.

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The Mackinac Center for Public Policy responds to the remarks of university lobbyists and state officials regarding the effect of higher state education funding:

It would be misleading to attribute the obvious benefits of higher education to funding from state government, as some state officials seemed to in yesterday’s MIRS article. State money can fail to lead to more affordable schools because there is often a disconnect between universities’ decisions and students’ needs — a point cogently argued in "Going Broke by Degree," a book recently published by Dr. Richard Vedder, distinguished professor of economics at Ohio University and a research adviser to the Mackinac Center.

"The basic problem," Dr. Vedder writes, "is that universities are ... subject to only muted competitive forces, and lacking market-imposed discipline to economize and innovate. University presidents, deans, maintenance supervisors, department chairs, and other administrators do not benefit from reducing costs. With third parties such as government and private donors footing much of the cost, there is little fear that higher prices will trigger a consumer backlash."

This ability to raise prices without a corresponding increase in value to students may be one reason why the extensive empirical data Dr. Vedder reviewed did not demonstrate a positive correlation between economic growth and state spending on universities. Indeed, the correlation, where it existed, was negative, suggesting that some of the money the state spent could have been put to more economically productive uses. This possibility should give honest observers pause, especially in light of Dr. Vedder’s finding that average college tuition increased by 296 percent between 1982 and 2003, compared to increases of 195 percent for health care and 85 percent for housing. The potential for misallocating taxpayers’ money is high.

Regardless of Dr. Vedder’s results, it was disturbing to see a spokesman for the Presidents Council of the State Universities of Michigan accuse Dr. Vedder of intellectual impropriety with no apparent resort to evidence. Professor Vedder is a respected scholar whose work is regularly subject to peer review and the vigorous give-and-take of academic debate. His findings may be inconvenient for the state university presidents’ campaign to increase taxpayer spending on state education, but he would be remiss to withhold his research from public discourse on an important issue of state policy, and he would hardly serve the university’s higher mission of open-minded intellectual inquiry if he investigated only politically safe topics.

We would have hoped that the presidents of Michigan’s state universities would support and welcome lively academic discussion of this issue, even if it didn’t increase their budgets. Their spokesman’s willingness to besmirch a respected researcher apparently because they disagree with him has troubling implications for the academic freedom of scholars at state universities.

In fact, one of the least recognized side effects of state funding of universities and colleges is the political pressure the schools subsequently receive to compromise their research, admissions and employment agendas. This pressure is not limited to the flashpoints in America’s culture wars, but includes more distinctly academic topics, such as teacher preparation curricula.

State financing of higher education is a topic over which intelligent people can disagree. We look forward to continuing the discussion in that vein, and we commend MIRS for providing a prime forum for the debate.

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Christopher F. Bachelder is communications director for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.