It was only a few days after the defeat of the tax initiatives and some might have imagined higher education officials would be basking in the glow of victory.
Yes, they were relieved that the tax initiatives were defeated. Yes, they interpreted the election results as a public mandate in support of education. Yes, they were grateful for the outpouring of support from the community, faculty and students that helped cause the initiatives' defeat.But the regents, college and university presidents, faculty, and other higher education officials who met earlier this month to talk about higher education's budget needs weren't celebrating.
As University of Utah President Chase N. Peterson pointed out, the only thing that higher education "won" on Nov. 8 was "to keep the state from losing." The regents didn't have to shut the doors of higher education to 10,000 students and boost tuition 25 to 30 percent.
So, as they struggled with how to fund higher education in the 1990s, they returned again and again, during their two-day meetings, to the experiences of the tax-limitation campaign. They tried to put them into perspective, looking past vote tallies to underlying messages.
Because of the strong block of those favoring tax limitation, higher education officials acknowledged that it is not a time for business as usual.
But, despite what tax protesters have said, higher education has known that for a long time.
It was just two budgets ago that higher education received a state appropriation increase of only $138,900, or 0.05 percent, despite a request of a $26 million increase or 10.16 percent. Last year, higher education sought a $26 million increase in state funds but came away with only $2.2 million or .86 percent.
This era of austerity comes at a time when children of Baby Boomers begin the enrollment flood that is flowing into the state's colleges and universities.
Higher education knows the lean years will continue. That message came through loud and clear in the tax vote, so the regents will recommend to the governor their smallest state appropriation request - $21 million or 8.34 percent increase - in a decade. It is a budget that falls far short of meeting the needs of higher education, said Commissioner Wm. Rolfe Kerr.
They heard something else in that 60-40 vote. Peterson, who often found the tax protesters' arrows aiming for him during the months-long debate, said the tax debate has forced the university to look at itself, to ask tough questions and find defensible answers. That will continue. "At the University of Utah we will be our toughest critics."
Along with the recognition of the need of continual self examination also came an awareness of a never-ending duty to interpret the U. to the taxpayers.
"At the University of Utah we must become our own best advocates," Peterson explained. "We must seek to interpret our institution in ways that make it meaningful to all of the state and its citizens. To do so effectively, we need to make such advocacy and interpretation a part of all our jobs."
For, the U. president noted, unless the public perceives the U. as excellent, an asset to the community and state, reality becomes arguable. It is up to the university to make certain that it is perceived for what it really is - an underfunded asset of incalculable value to the state, he said.
For all of higher education, that message is as important as the belt tightening and self scrutiny.
For if higher education is to receive the funds necessary to meet its needs, its leaders must not abandon the strong advocacy roles that were born in the political campaign. The strings to the public purse are tied up in the public perception of higher's education needs and value to the state.