A dramatic restructuring of Arizona's university system is drawing praise for its forward-looking stance but concern from many who fear the system will turn the UA and ASU into "elitist" universities.
While everyone seems to agree some plan is necessary to help universities absorb what's projected to be the near doubling of Arizona universities' enrollment by 2020, whether future students should be funneled into three regional universities with teaching emphases is being debated.
The possibility of three regional universities would give the UA room to move forward with its plans to cap enrollment at 40,000 in order to dedicate its resources to research.
"It gives us an opportunity to institutionalize our vision, which we characterize by the term 'focused excellence,'" President Peter Likins said. "Over time we'll become more of a selective institution with a higher academic ranking."
In 2006 the UA will only be required to admit Arizona high school students in the top 25 percent of their class, as opposed to the current admission policy of granting automatic admission to the top 50 percent. Many are concerned that as the population grows, minorities and students from low- and middle-income families will be pushed into less prestigious universities.
"The question is 'Are you taking them from the UA to a regional college or are you taking them from a community college to a regional college?" said John Cherlosky, professor of higher education.
Cherlosky said as the UA becomes more selective, it runs the risk of fielding a less diverse student body.
Regent Ernest Calderon, who cast the only no vote on tuition and fee hikes this year, said he thinks the system might limit future first-time college attendees and minority students from going to the UA and ASU.
Edith Auslander, Diversity Coalition chair and UA vice president, said because the plan is so new, she doesn't know yet how the UA will maintain diversity in the student populace. "It's a goal. The details aren't even worked out for the restructuring of the university system," Auslander said. "But the intention is there."
Provost George Davis said he expects diversity to increase among students and faculty if this plan is implemented. He said more funding for diversity initiatives will be provided and programs that try to help K-12 schools prepare minorities for the university system will continue.
"It's so easy now for people to think the UA is a kind of elitist place," Davis said. "We're proud to be a land grant public university. The special way we do it here is we connect to the public through research programs."
Terry Valenzuela, professor of emergency medicine, points to the university's failure to become a Hispanic-serving institution as an indication of how diversity initiatives will progress in the future. "If Hispanics have a hard time getting into the UA now, what's going to happen after he (Likins) succeeds (with focused excellence)?" said Valenzuela.
Latanya Autry, an art history senior, said she doubts the UA will succeed with its efforts to increase diversity in the face of stricter admissions requirements and thinks the plan "sounds kind of elitist."
Calderon said he is working out an alternative plan he hopes to propose to regents soon. In it, NAU would expand to provide primarily undergraduate education, he said, while supporting some research in order to keep faculty members enthusiastic about teaching.
"It would expand NAU's mission without creating a second tier. The UA and ASU would not abrogate their duty to disadvantaged students."
Many are referring to the plan as a "tiered" system, despite governor Janet Napolitano's recommendation to avoid use of the word.
Stephen Zegura, professor of anthropology, said he thinks a three-tiered system is just what Arizona needs. "It's a very good plan," he said. "I'm from California and I'm familiar with the three tier system." Zegura said in his 32 years of teaching over 10,000 students, he has encouraged some struggling in his classes to go to NAU.
"There's a large lacuna between the universities and the community college system," Zegura said, "and this will provide a better opportunity for students who want something that represents a four-year education without the research emphasis."
Donald Davis, professor of hydrology, said instead of creating a gap between the research-oriented universities and the regional universities, the plan might provide a higher education option missing from Arizona.
"The high schools minority students come from are not up to par; it's hard for them to make the jump," Douglas said. "If a student ÷ minority or otherwise ÷ is not prepared, we're not doing them any favors. Minorities are too often shunted to community colleges."
Like Napolitano, many dispute the assumption that the regional universities would necessarily be mediocre universities.
"We have to be certain we don't confuse a mission with quality," said Davis.
But the fact that the constitution of the regional universities requires them to be "cost-effective" means that students at a regional university might see less money spent on their education.
"If you attend the school considered the top of the hierarchy, often you receive an education in which more money is spent on you," Cheslock said. But Likins said that given the state's limited resources, institutions of higher education have to focus on their own missions and not try to "do it all."
"If we have to use the state's money cost-effectively, the state has to assign different missions to the different universities," he said
Likins said each university should strive to become better at fulfilling its mission and not to become better than other universities. "One of the problems is we tend to create a hierarchy · in which universities such as ours are at the top," Likins said. "That's not wise."