Will big government stifle universities?

Universities, like civilization itself, are most precious. It takes forever to create them and but a moment to lose them and everything they represent. It is because of this fragile quality that I speak about [certain] matters today.

I speak first about the implications of some of the efforts by the government to balance the federal budget. To be sure, the need to revitalize our economy must be high on our national agenda. . . .

Surely there must be reductions in federal spending. But I am troubled that some programs -- such as many related to defense -- are receiving little or no apparent scrutiny while others -- having to do with education or social services , for example -- are being proposed for major reductions. We need to become participants in, not simply recipients of, the decisions about the budget. . . .

It is in this spirit that I express my own views on the consequences of the proposed budget as they affect the university -- as they affect principles at the heart of the American academy -- particularly the research university. I am convinced that now is the time for clarity and strength of position regarding these principles. We must take care that our efforts to revitalize a troubled economy do not undermine those values.

What are some of the principles for which we who are in -- and from -- the university must speak? And what are some of the changes implicit in the evolving federal budget which may not bode well for these principles?

First, there is the long-held goal that access to higher education in this country is based on a person's merit, and not on his or her ability to pay . . . . The proposed cuts in [the Guaranteed Student Loan Program], together with proposals to reduce funding for such federal scholarship programs as the Basic Education Opportunity Grants, are clear signals of a very different future with regard to access to higher education.

Second, there is the continuing need to regenerate the base of human resources and knowledge on which our national welfare depends. The United States is confronted by serious problems in assuring essential supplies of energy and raw materials, in increasing productivity, and in providing health care and environmental protection at reasonable costs. . . .

But although the need for this kind of education and expertise has never been greater, we see a continuing decline in the number of US citizens pursuing doctoral degrees in engineering and the physical sciences. Consequently, engineering schools already have difficulty filling faculty positions, and there are serious questions about the ability of the research universities to renew their faculties in the future. We are, in this respect, eating the seed corn, with the likely result, 10 years hence, that the number of engineers and scientists at all degree levels will fall short of national needs.

In light of these needs, the administration's proposal to do away with the NSF [National Science Foundation] Fellowship program and the virtual elimination of the NSF science education programs for minorities and women, are signals of precisely the wrong kind, coming as they do at a time when many able students are turning away from graduate study in the sciences and engineering.

Third, we need to preserve the unique dynamics of the US research universities, which have contributed so much to the public welfare and the national purpose. The US has -- in its research universities -- a model for achieving scholary accomplishment and education which is unmatched in the world. By engaging graduate students -- and at MIT. many undergraduates as well -- as partners in research, and by translating the newest findings into classroom teaching, research universities couple scholarly progres to an endless stream of able, curious, and committed young people, rich in ideas and energy. In so doing, they create a constantly renewed base for advances in knowledge and innovative application of research findings. There is no generation gap between the research endeavor and the classroom.

But the abandonment of long-delayed, desperately needed initiatives for equipment and facilities renewal, as well as other possible cuts in funding for university-based research in the sciences and engineering -- to say nothing of the social sciences, the humanities, and the arts -- could quickly erode the foundation and the momentum of this country's research enterprise. Since the late 1960s there has been scant attention paid to the capital base of the research universities, particularly with reference to facilities and instrumentation, and this neglect seems likely to continue. Its effects, like those of dry rot, may remain hidden for a few more years, but they are palpable and real.

Beyond the implications of these budget proposals for the university, there are other signals of changing times and sentiment in this country -- some of which seem to be reflected in a changing posture with regard to the regulatory mechanisms of the government. The President has called for the "deregulation" of our society -- a call which is in response to popular sentiment about an overgrown federal bureaucracy. But this call appears to be directed towars some programs and to others. We see, on the one hand, initiatives to review and perhaps reduce regulations pertaining to civil rights. On the other hand, we see an apparent expansion of government regulation into the realm of academic inquiry. . . . Let me cite one example.

There is an increasing concern in government agencies about the export of technologies which are deemed to have critical military or commercial importance. Under a number of statutes, the US has, for nearly three decades, controlled exports which might have an adverse effect on the nation's military security, foreign policy, or domestic economy. . . . Now, however, efforts are being made to implements these export control statutes through regulations which restrict the dissemination of unclassified research results which emanate from the nation's universities.

There might be no quarrel with the proposed regulations if they were confined to specialized technical information of clear and specific military applicability. The regulations, however, [in action begun under the Carter administration] are being applied in such fundamental research areas as microelectronics and cryptography, and they assume that basic research can be clearly differentiated and separated from applied research. Such distinctions are difficult or impossible to make. . . .

Furthermore, these regulations, if strictly enforced, would define the "export" of technology in ways that would circumscribe the research process and undermine the foundation of the university by impeding our ability to offer educational programs which reflect the forefront of rapidly changing fields. In the broad scientific and technical areas defined by the regulations, faculty could not conduct lectures with foreign students present; they could not exchange information with foreign visitors; they could not present papers or participate in discussions ot conferences where foreign nationals were present; they could not publish research findings in the open literature. Nor could universities, in effect, admit or employ foreign nationals to study or work in those areas. . . . Those who would circumscribe the free of exchange of ideas among scientists and scholars in the name of protecting this country's technological lead would, on the contrary, inflict severe damage on the very system responsible for creating that lead.

I have been speaking this morning about changes -- changes on the national scene which presage a troubled climate for the universities and for the larger society which you are about to enter.

The poet of Ecclesiastes spoke of changing times, saying:

"To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: . . .

". . . A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; . . ."

Today, we are in a time to keep, a time not to yield, those values which are the foundation of the university and the wellspring of opportunity and justice for all people in our society.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.