Although public research universities educate 3.8 million students annually and initiate the fundamental research that drives scientific and technological discovery, state governments have cut their funding to these institutions by at least 34% on average. Since the universities are able to raise tuition and cut programming (however, inadvisable that may be) state houses have treated them as the “balance wheel” of state budgets, an element of flexibility in budgets dominated by fixed costs and mandates.

In 2016, The American Academy of Arts and Sciences published the final report of its Lincoln Project, a multi-year effort to address the repercussions of these cuts, which are already weakening the states’ flagship universities. The report, Recommitting to Lincoln’s Vision, offers a menu of ideas for universities, the federal government, and the private sector, all designed to help sustain access and quality in public higher education. 

Of course, it reserved some of its most important recommendations for state governments.

The challenge of organizing a national effort to address state-based problems is the diversity of the states themselves. A 50 state strategy has to be a broad, high-level overview in order to accommodate local differences. As a result, the real work of such an effort begins after publication, during the outreach phase, when it is time to deliver the recommendations to the lawmakers themselves.

In the Lincoln Project, we worked with presidents of some of the major public research universities—in North Carolina, Illinois, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Oregon, and elsewhere—to introduce our work directly to the individuals overseeing state education budgets. Together, we organized a series of informal dinners at which project participants and university leaders made brief presentations about our findings. We did not ask for specific legislative interventions at these dinners. We merely offered to help lawmakers understand the national context for the decisions they faced, and how their own budgetary commitments to higher education compared with spending in other states.

Rather than a politics of confrontation, we opted for a politics of information, trusting that the facts would speak for themselves. And we refined our messages as we travelled across the country.

Change, in this case, will not happen overnight, and it will be incremental. But the Lincoln Project has already initiated a truly national conversation about the fate of state education, a fact-based conversation that is the foundation of sensible policy.

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