University of Arizona President Ann Weaver Hart has been on the job since July. The Star sat down with her Nov. 8, and the following are excerpts of that conversation:
Star: We want to start by asking what you've learned in the four months about the relationship of the university to this community.
Hart: One of the things that has been vivid for me is to talk with community leaders, with the mayor, with the downtown proponents who are very interested in helping Tucson to sort of revitalize its downtown area, but also to build business and knowledge and IT-based industries and business opportunities in the greater Tucson area, sort of the Southern Arizona region. And the university is an intimate part of all that.
We now have master's degrees offered downtown in the evening targeting public administration and government leadership. We have a number of programs, as you know, with our architecture program. The leadership and great academic leaders in the university are active in the community - leading committees and engaged in dialogue, and we are very tied together with our initiatives, such as Tech-Launch Arizona, the Bio Park that we just opened and the tech park in bringing knowledge-based industries to the region. It's very interactive and very exciting, and it adds to the work we have done with Raytheon and Honeywell and the Air Force and all of the other existing aerospace industries that are a part of the environment. It's nice to see that kind of energy going in both directions.
Star: Are there things that you've seen about that relationship that you would like to change?
Hart: I'd like to contribute. One of the things that we need to be more explicit about planning is how we use the new knowledge generated at the University of Arizona - to think about what that means for the economic development of our region. And that is not just in high-tech: That's also in trade, economics and cultural opportunities. There is a lot of interest, as you know, on the part of the mayor with more cross-border economic energy, and we would like to be a part of that.
Star: What's your take on funding for higher education, and what role with that do you think you can play to maybe get the conversation going in maybe a more productive way or where you see your involvement in that conversation as it relates to the state?
Hart: Having been in five different states, now, the positive side about that is that it's a familiar discussion. I am, as are many leaders in public higher education, very aware that the proportion of our general education budgets that comes from state funding versus that proportion from tuition has completely flipped in the last decade and Arizona more shockingly in just the last five years.
I do not believe, however, that even as we work very hard together that we will completely reverse that trend and return to an era where state funds support 85 percent of the general and education of a public university.
So what I would like to do, and we are engaging in the process right now on campus, is to actively pursue new models and processes through which we can bring revenue and resources into our great institution that contribute to research and development, but also to graduate education and the growth of graduate and professional programs, and that we re-think our assumptions about how we manage those appropriately.
We have to deal with conflict of interest, obviously. We have to preserve our core mission, which is the land grant and university clearly and deeply imbedded in the state of Arizona. We also need to have a broader set of assumptions about where revenue can come from and how we work with partners from private enterprise from around the world, not just in our community, but from all sources to mutually advance our shared mission and values.
Star: You said there were models in the economics of higher education. Are there models on doing that right now?
Hart: Sure, there are a lot of nascent proposals about how we can do that. Online is certainly one of them.
The big providers of those massive online courses that are free now have no intention of leaving for-credit courses without a revenue source associated with them. But we have great models in social media and the Internet for how to build models that create revenue sources. And those are business and industry. They can include partnerships for internships that provide a great workforce but also an educational experience. They can include joint ventures that contribute back to the university, but also promote and advance the economy. There is a whole constellation of options. Our job is to think about that in a more flexible way. And we have been very traditional for good cause. The structure of American higher education has been very successful. But the new century brought some tremendous changes that I do not believe will be reversed.
Star: Everybody knows that the cost of college education in this country in the last 25 years has increased at a rate - double, triple - the cost of inflation itself. What do you see as a way to control that cost increase?
Hart: At the University of Arizona, if you graph state funding and tuition increases, they are almost exactly correlated one to one. So we have done a good job in an era of inflation, not as great, certainly as other periods of our lives - but there has been some inflation - in controlling costs while adjusting to changes to revenue at the same time. We have to get better at that and recognize that that's a permanent commitment. Our job is to create access to incredibly high quality while keeping those costs down. So we need to do things like helping our students plan their course of study from entry to graduation, so that they don't get trapped in the complacency that sometimes occurs when you think that because the federally guaranteed loan system defines 12 credit hours per semester as a full load, that means it's a full load for you. If you register for 12 semester hours, you will take six years to graduate from the university, and because of the way our tuition is structured, you will pay 50 percent more for the same degree. So advising and planning and thinking about a college experience not only as a marvelous, young adult life-transforming experience, but as a major purchase that needs to be treated in that way, will help.
Just without making any changes, just being more careful about helping everyone plan that education, is something the small liberal arts schools have been very successful at because they have such a limited curriculum. In a large research university like the U of A, we need to put more energy into planning and advising to make that happen. So what I say to freshmen when I meet with them is, you need to plan for the next four years as carefully as you intend to plan for your retirement, because that loan is going to follow you wherever you go and will have an impact on other economic choices you may make in the future. It's hard to say to an 18-year-old you need to plan for your college as carefully as you would for your retirement, but when they really start thinking about the sticker price and how much money they're borrowing, and we provide the support to help them plan to do that, then if they take longer it will be because they planned to do it and wanted to for some personal reason, not because they just didn't think about that until their first semester junior year, which turned out not to be a junior year because they don't have enough credit hours. So those are things we have to do.
We also, as every business and not-for-profit business in our society has to do, we have to always to look for better ways to increase the proportion of our total resources that we put into our key mission activities and reduce the cost of doing business.
Star: What about the nonscience, non-revenue-heavy areas of the U of A, where do they fall in terms of how you look at the university and their importance of what they contribute?
Hart: They are critically important. Remember that our mission is not just the economic future, but the cultural and social future. And the arts and humanities and social sciences at the University of Arizona are part of its greatest strength. You, I am sure know, that our dance program is ranked among the best nation-wide; that our Confluence Center, which is a humanities, social science and science partnership, is a unique approach to our arid environment and our border culture in understanding our future. Those things interact at many, many levels.
Our jazz band is incredibly talented and contributes to the culture of our environment. Our poetry center is renowned. So, when you think of a great comprehensive research university, it is commonwealth. There is in fact a commons that we all are a part of and that we all benefit from. And so as we look forward to new models for financing the university, ways in which those parts of our whole become a part of the spirit of what we do.
Those programs, to be honest with you, are also less expensive to deliver, and certainly not all of them. And we think about that when we're planning finances and budgeting, but we recognize that when we're thinking about the university, we need to be sure that the good of the whole and its institutional integrity is front and center in thinking about our contribution to the future of our society.
Many people are surprised to learn that some very prominent businesspeople are very interested in the humanities because they studied philosophy as undergraduates, or they started out with a history major and used that to parlay into some other area of focus. We have young physicians who are on our medical school faculty who majored in English while taking the premed curriculum in science at the same time. That's deeply part of being human, and we think that's very important.
Star: There always seems to be an issue in every university town where people are educated in that town but leave, and the universities say, well, our job is to educate them, give them the finest education for their dollar. And, is it a responsibility to say, well, wait a minute, we need to keep more of them helping our communities and helping our state and keep those jobs in these states?
Hart: Oh, absolutely, and it's totally interdependent. We can't complain about young people leaving our cities and state if we don't work to build employment opportunities that will keep them here. And it's interesting when you confront that question as an analyst as opposed to a parent. You're not going to advise your newly minted MD daughter to be unemployed as opposed to moving to Washington state or California, or Philadelphia. You're going to advise her to seek the best life opportunities that she can find as a parent.
But you're going to deeply hope that those opportunities are available in our great state of Arizona. So those are completely interdependent and you've made full circle to our conversation about economic development in Tucson and Southern Arizona. We want those things to go hand in hand.