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Liddick: Fund physicists, not marketers

by Morgan Liddick

With apologies to Jonathan Swift and the University of Colorado at Boulder – to which I once again resort because it is the largest and best known of our state’s institutions of higher learning – might I propose a way to curb the state’s higher education budget while at the same time supporting the goals both politicians and educators keep telling us they’re for?

You know. “Investment,” known to we who speak plain English as “spending even more tax money,” to “win the future” by supporting those areas of education and research that will lead us effortlessly into tomorrow’s Utopia where we’re all smart, rich, free of drudgery and powered by clean, free energy.

Sorry, that dream requires many more chemists and physicists as well as electronic, electrical, bio- and structural engineers. Carloads of people in lab coats and safety glasses with that whole “Mr. Science” thing going on. And we don’t have them. China does. Japan. Germany. Russia. Increasingly, India. Even Poland. So if we don’t want to be left in the dust, we better get our act together.

Let’s begin by admitting that both the dream and its achievement will require considerable social engineering. That’s right. It’s probably not going to happen by itself, given the current state of affairs, including what many college students see as the rigor and toil of the hard sciences, compared to the lighter requirements of, say, marketing. So compulsion may be called for. But if we plan it right, we might even be able to save, not spend, some taxpayer money. Consider:

There are about 24,700 students enrolled full-time at the University of Colorado in Boulder. According to the most current information available in the Common Data Set series – available at http://www.colorado.edu/pba/cds – slightly more than 33 percent of students in 2008 – the last year for which these figures were given – were awarded aid: That’s 8,520. The average grant, from all sources, was over $14k. For 7,155 of these, the sum included need-based aid, averaging $8,125 in both state and Federal funds.

Now let’s look at where CU’s students are. This year, 67 percent, study in the College of Arts and Sciences, which includes the most popular programs of social sciences (16 percent), journalism (9 percent) and psychology (9 percent). In contrast, chemistry and biochemistry together claimed 126 students in 2009 – half a percent. Physics enrolled 54; you do the math. At the same time, “Business, Management, Marketing and related” claimed 14 percent of all undergrads. Clearly, some “adjustment” is needed if we’re going to make it to that golden future.

Which brings us to the money part. Is there a particularly good reason the taxpayers of Colorado should subsidize the study of marketing? How about advertising? Film studies (twice as many enrollees as physics, folks)? If higher education is an aspect of social engineering, the only thing we’re showing by the present arrangement is that we’re not very good at it – something to keep in mind when you’re told a few days from now that “experts” can really create the World of Tomorrow.

Instead, if we’re serious about all that “win the future” stuff, how about this: no more taxpayer bailouts for film studies? Or management. Dance. Ethnic studies. In fact, how about eliminating taxpayer subsidies for all new students in any but a very limited number of courses of study, all specifically designated to help us arrive at our new Utopia?

Chemistry. Biochemistry. Engineering. Physics. Nanotechnology. These have repeatedly been identified as the keys to tomorrow, so why don’t we all urge our political leaders to put our money where their mouths are, instead of frittering it away on second-tier subjects? We would at least be consistent in word and deed, and save millions of dollars to boot.

If we lack the courage of conviction that it would take to eliminate all state financial aid to students of “integrative physiology” (four times as many as physics), then perhaps we could at least eliminate the payment of Colorado’s “College Opportunity Fund” stipends for it and its brethren. At the moment, that’s 33 percent of any Coloradan’s tuition, regardless of field of study. A tidy sum, when considered collectively.

It’s all for naught, of course. If what’s going on in Wisconsin is any guide, the only thing more dangerous than a charging Cape Buffalo is an educator whose right to pick citizens’ pockets at will is being challenged. So get set for gridlock on higher education, and on the how’s and why’s of funding for it. Prepare to understand that all the hot air about “Sputnik moments” is just that. And ready yourself for a lot more research physicists named Jin and Ram and Schistov.

But not to worry; I’m sure they’ll share their discoveries. They’re great guys. Really.

Summit County resident Morgan Liddick pens a Tuesday column. E-mail him at mcliddick@hotmail.com. Also, comment on this column at http://www.summitdaily.com.


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