Presidential message: Devaluing public universities harms research, innovation

By Bruce Herreld

A few weeks ago, I had the honor of participating in the Lincoln Project forum where, among others, former University of Iowa President Mary Sue Coleman spoke about the difficulties faced by public universities. I encourage you to read the Lincoln Project’s recent report about how to make sure institutions like the UI can continue to serve the public the way they were intended to, and, at a time when public universities are receiving less and less funding from their respective state governments, I’d like to consider just one important part of what institutions like ours produce for the greater community.

Of course, I don’t mean “produce” in the sense of commodities or in dollar-for-dollar terms—though the UI certainly returns on the public’s investment—but instead, in this case, in terms of information. The University of Iowa is an impressive research institution, one that expands the limits of human knowledge in both purely intellectual and practical ways—and usually the two in combination. For example, I recently read about work that Michael Flatté, physicist and director of the UI’s Optical Science Technology Center, and his co-researchers have done on measuring magnetic fields in nonmagnetic materials. They’ve proposed a new way to study substances whose magnetic fields can’t be easily measured using traditional techniques. Their insight is interesting in and of itself, but their methods could, for example, open the door to advances in high-speed storage for computer processors. This theoretical work may lead to hands-on research, then to discoveries that could change the way we record information. Innovation has to start somewhere, and much of it starts at institutions like the UI, a public university.

Likewise, research undertaken by IIHR–Hydroscience and Engineering has shown that when a hurricane makes landfall, it isn’t just coastal cities that suffer. Gabriele Villarini and his team found that communities inland—even in Iowa—can be hit hard by the freshwater flooding that tropical cyclones produce. This research can help not only Iowans, who are of course no strangers to flooding, but also help other communities around the country determine if they need to take additional precautions against storm damage. That finding was made by people working at a public institution as well.

But research at the UI isn’t limited to STEM fields, either. Ed Folsom, a Walt Whitman scholar and Roy J. Carver Professor of English at the UI, and UI Press worked with University of Houston PhD candidate Zach Turpin to authenticate and publish a previously unknown Whitman novella called Life and Adventures of Jack Engle. Turpin searched through one of Whitman’s journals that had been digitized and added to the UI–sponsored Walt Whitman Archive. Using this archive, Turpin searched for where passages of the forgotten book, which had been published serially, might have been printed. He then compiled them. Not only did Folsom, a seasoned literary UI researcher, help Turpin confirm his findings and the UI Press help bring the book to the world, but the existence of the Walt Whitman Archive at the UI helped make Turpin’s discovery possible in the first place.

The above are just three examples of the broad range of important research that a public university sponsors. The truth is, what we face when we devalue publicly supported higher education is a loss of future knowledge. When an archive isn’t maintained because of a lack of funding, then the forgotten text hidden in it isn’t available for a keen-eyed doctoral student to spot. When we don’t support scientists studying flooding data, we don’t learn that inland residents who thought hurricanes were just a coastal issue may in fact need to keep their eye on tropical-storm forecasts. When we don’t support physicists tackling theoretical problems, we don’t find new techniques that could dramatically change the nature of computing. Perhaps the most difficult part of this problem is that it’s impossible to know what we might have known. How can we predict which shuttered lab or archive or classroom would have produced the next breakthrough in astronomy, literature, history, or public health? We daily rely on the work of those who’ve come before us, and it is our responsibility to expand on that work for the sake of those coming after. When we devalue public universities, we rob the future in both predictable and unpredictable ways, and that is neither responsible nor acceptable.

This post originally appears on Iowa Now. For more information visit

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