Utah has many fine institutions of higher learning. The state offers a variety of types of secondary education to meet the needs of a diverse population. Lawmakers should protect that variety and shun the notion that all colleges and universities should have the same mission.
Nearly every year during the Legislature's budget-setting debates, the University of Utah and sometimes Utah State University get hints of subtle disapproval or outright criticism for the ways in which they differ from teaching institutions such as Weber State University or Salt Lake Community College.The U. and USU are research universities, and as such their missions and roles in the state's educational mix are different. Their faculty members often spend less time in front of classrooms, but the time they spend outside the classroom is no less valuable to students or to the state and its economy.
Their standards of admission are higher for students than the minimums set for Utah's other universities and colleges, and their standards for teaching and research are also high. These facts should be a source of pride, not suspicion.
In deciding budget issues, Utah lawmakers have a responsibility to make all public institutions accountable for how they spend taxpayers' money. But they also have a duty to understand how research universities operate and why they cannot operate the same as do teaching institutions.
The University of Utah has a responsibility to provide quality education to all its students. In fulfilling its role in research, the U. makes opportunities available to its students that are impossible at other institutions where research is not emphasized.
Both undergraduate and graduate students can benefit from myriad experiences doing scientific research alongside highly skilled mentors. They also benefit from research in the humanities that can provide invaluable preparation for careers and advanced study.
State money provides a base for operations at the state's research universities to which they can add further funding from the federal government as well as corporate and individual donors.
If state support decreases, it can mean lost research opportunities and a corresponding loss of jobs, earnings and state revenue. Research at the U. and Utah State has contributed in many ways to the state's economy, brought in millions of dollars and helped create new businesses.
Undoubtedly there are problems at all of Utah's colleges and universities that can be corrected. There is waste to be eliminated and efficiencies to be implemented, but corrections must be made with an underlying understanding of what each institution contributes and how each is unique.
Without that understanding, funding decisions could undermine the educational system that is one of Utah's finest assets.