Ah, priorities - a fact of life at home, work, school and play. The Legislature is no exception when it comes to its blanket budget for higher education. Right or wrong, it revels in the details.
University of Utah President Bernie Machen understands that as well as anyone but chose to make a statement last week when he presented his line-item budget to the Board of Regents sans line items.His premise was simple: Trust me.
The likable Machen told the Regents he disagrees with the practice of every taxpayer and tuition dollar allocated for the U. and other state schools being earmarked for a specific use. He sees that as legislative micro-managing. The president would prefer a bottom-line annual state funding increase equal to tuition hikes and the flexibility to channel new money where it belongs - impervious to political whims on Capitol Hill.
That flexibility would be nice, but it ignores a couple of realities. First, priorities and politics are inherent in any state system of higher education. Oversight and budgetary approval is the way the game is, and probably should be, played when dealing with public funds. Those designated as stewards rightfully demand specifics before granting their blessing.
Higher education may be unique from other state entities, but the public would wax indignant were a blank-check increase granted to any division or department of government. There would likely be equal discomfort if the same were afforded to any college or university. It will never happen with a tight-fisted Utah Legislature.
Second, a fragile trust already exists between legislators and higher education. That has led to years of uneasy truce and recent calls for increased faculty accountability. If he doesn't make the mistake of treating the Legislature with contempt, as did his predecessor, Machen has the temperament and credibility to garner increased legislative confidence in the University of Utah. To do that, he should initially work within their parameters to encourage positive, incremental change.
Like incremental budgets, small, detailed steps are more palatable to conservative politicos than compulsory broad-brushed conversion. Understanding that is part of playing the game successfully.