Are public research universities in peril?

States provided 38 percent of universities’ funding in the 1980s and 90s.

They’re the pride and backbone of American higher education, doing essential research and educating en masse the next generations of scientists and engineers. But a new report argues the mission of the country’s 101 major public research universities is imperiled by budget cuts amounting to one-fifth of their state funding over the past decade.

State support for public research universities fell 20 percent between 2002 and 2010, after accounting for inflation and increased enrollment of about 320,000 students nationally, according to the report published Sept. 25 by the National Science Board. The organization provides independent advice to the federal government and oversees the National Science Foundation.

Ten states saw support fall 30 percent or more and in two — Colorado and Rhode Island — the drop was nearly 50 percent. Only seven states increased support.

The study is the latest in a series of alarm bells warning that public research universities — which perform the majority of academic science and engineering research funded by the federal government, and educate a disproportionate share of scientists in training — have been weakened by years of eroding state support.

Many are losing their best faculty to private institutions, and tuition increases in response to the budget cuts threaten the historically affordable access students have enjoyed.

Among the report’s findings: While public research universities still managed to increase instructional spending 10 percent between 1999 and 2009, to about $10,000 per student, private universities increased such spending 25 percent over that period, and now spend more than twice as much per student on teaching as their public counterparts.

Meanwhile, the salary gap between public and private research universities is also widening, raising the specter of a two-tier system in which most of the very best faculty migrate to private institutions and work with a comparatively small number of students.

Public research universities — particularly top-tier flagship institutions like the universities of Michigan, Virginia, Texas and California — are in some ways stuck between worlds.

They compete for students and faculty and conduct research on a national and even global scale. But they remain under substantial political control of the states, and are dependent on them for funding.