House Finance Committee testimony

Testimony from UNH President Mark W. Huddleston
January 17, 2013

Thank you for the opportunity to join you today.  

Chancellor MacKay and President Leach did an excellent job describing what the University System is, how frugally we operate, and how well we serve New Hampshire students, their families, and the broader community.

My role is a bit different.  I am here to talk with you about our common future.

Unfortunately, the future ain’t what it used to be, as Yogi Berra shrewdly observed.  

We live in an era of enormous, and enormously disruptive, change.

Three streams of change—three intertwined streams of changes—are of particular relevance to us here today.  

The first stream flows from the massive economic and demographic forces reshaping New Hampshire—the graying of our population, the crumbling of our infrastructure and the challenges to our competitiveness in the global marketplace.   Taken together, these forces threaten nothing less than an end to New Hampshire’s place as one of our country’s most prosperous states.

The second stream of change washes over this building in particular.  It is the related disruption in public finance, wherein a flat economy and a surge in demand for services, particular in medical care, have removed almost all degrees of freedom from you as elected officials.   Your ability to invest in the things that have made New Hampshire’s quality of life the envy of the nation—education, the environment, the arts—have been severely constrained.

Finally, there is my world, the world of higher education.  The disruption in higher education—public and private—is hard to overstate.  Not only are we being asked to do much more with much less—but we are being asked to do so while taking onboard technologies that no one fully understands and while stepping away from relationships with our students that have essentially defined the enterprise for the last five hundred years. 

Now, as I said, these changes and challenges are intertwined.  In fact, I would suggest that there is a direct, linear relationship among them.

We are not going to be able to ameliorate the problem of public finance and improve our ability to fund critical public services until we build a stronger economy.  We are not going to be able to build a stronger economy unless we have a well-educated, highly skilled workforce.  We are not going to be able to provide New Hampshire business and industry with a well-educated, highly skilled workforce unless we adequately support education—kindergarten through post-secondary.  We are not going to be able to support education unless we fix public finances.  And so on and so on and so on.

This is a classic vicious cycle.

I’ve simplified some of the elements of the cycle I’ve described, but not by much.  I don’t think many people would argue with its fundamental accuracy.

In their complexity and seeming insurmountability, the challenges that define this cycle are in some ways a paler version of the challenges that are thrown at the young men who are trying to get through grueling BUD/S program--Basic Underwater Demolition/SEALs school--that is the first obstacle in their path to becoming Navy SEALs.

This is a metaphor that occurred to me yesterday as I sat at the Whittemore Center with about eighty people from around the state we brought together to talk about how to ease the transition of veterans—including SEALs—into higher education.

Anyone who has known a SEAL or read anything about them, knows that these intrepid souls are forced during their training to endure two mile ocean swims in frigid water, shift massive telephone-pole-size logs, and pull heavy Zodiacs onto a surf-battered rocks, among many other things. 

While it helps to be incredibly fit and mentally tough, the key to survival as a SEAL—as the SEALs themselves are first to tell us—is teamwork.

I would submit to you that that same factor—teamwork—is the key to our survival.

We are in this together.  You can’t meet your challenges as public officials alone.  Members of the New Hampshire business community aren’t going to meet the demands of global competition by themselves. And public higher education in New Hampshire certainly isn’t going to be able to provide the next generation of skilled workers on its own.

Either we work together as a team—or we are going individually to drown in the surf, get crushed by the log, or be lacerated by the rocks.

Now, for a long time in this country, we had this teamwork thing down pat.

Arguably since the passage of the Morrill Act in 1862, that great piece of federal legislation that created our system of land grant universities, of which UNH—then called the New Hampshire College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts—is one, we had a compact, a meaningful sense of our “teamness,” in the United States:  Our colleges and universities would meet the needs of our farms and our factories and those colleges and universities would in turn be supported by the American people.

This compact endured for more than a century, and was arguably more responsible for the creation of the world’s strongest economy and highest standard of living than any other single factor.

But something happened in the last twenty or thirty years to cause that compact to fray.

And in my view, the most consequential thing that happened was a year-over-year rise in the cost of higher education relative to base rates of inflation and median family income, a rise that would come to have a crippling effect on the American middle class.

Why this rise occurred is complex, and a subject for another day.  For now, it suffices to say that it occurred and that it had baleful consequences.

For a time, some states were able to buffer the effects of cost increases by increased public support.  And for a time, families were able to tap into rapidly rising home prices and access home equity lines to pay college costs.  But as state budgets became increasingly strained and as the housing market collapse saw home equity evaporate, tensions grew and the compact between the people and their institutions of higher education began to disintegrate.

Those who were once partners in a great common enterprise soon became finger-pointing adversaries. Colleges were accused of bloat, inefficiency and unresponsiveness.  Public officials were painted as uncaring or hostile to education.

In retrospect, this reaction is unsurprising.  Sustained stress doesn’t bring out the best in any of us.

But we need to remind ourselves that the reaction isn’t rooted in fact.  It certainly isn’t healthy or constructive.  And it isn’t inevitable.

There are states in this country—not coincidentally some of the most vital and prosperous states—that have reforged the great compact.  States like Florida and Virginia and Utah, where very conservative and budget-conscious legislatures and governors are partnering with and investing in very innovative institutions of higher education, because they know that this is the path to success in the 21st century, just as it was in the 19th and 20th.

I am here today to say that we can be the same sort of partners to you.

The institutions of the University System of New Hampshire have also been on the cutting edge of innovation.  We’ve made bending the cost curve our central goal.  We have embraced online learning.  We gave created flexible year-around calendars. We have made significant changes in our structures of governance, reducing bureaucracy, encouraging nimbleness and responsiveness.  We have multiplied sources of revenue, including commercializing our intellectual property and looking systematically to our alumni and friends for philanthropic support.  We have committed to doubling the number of STEM graduates by 2025.  We’ve established business incubators and outreach programs.  We are extending broadband to underserved areas of New Hampshire. We’ve increased access and grown enrollment.

But we can’t continue to do this alone.

We need good partners.  We need our state to join with us.

With my USNH colleagues, I recognize and appreciate the serious fiscal challenges that you are facing as legislators. I know you have a difficult task ahead in balancing the budget.

As nice as it would be to move out of last place in America in public funding for higher education, I know that isn’t realistic, at least across this biennium.

But I do have a goal that is both realistic and critical.  I want to change the tenor of the conversation we have with one another.

I want to end the sniping and the adversarial relationship.

I want you to be proud of your institutions of public higher education in New Hampshire.

I want you to feel confident bragging about what we’ve accomplished together for the people we serve.

I want us forge a new compact – not for the good of UNH or Plymouth or Keene or Granite State College – but for the good of the people of New Hampshire.

I want us to lift the log, move the Zodiac and accomplish the swim together.

Really, there isn’t any choice.

Either we do it together and survive.  Or we go it alone and perish.

Thank you very much.  On behalf of my USNH colleagues, I look forward to standing together with you.