By Melissa Mitchell Despite a "tidal wave of criticism" in recent years, U.S. colleges and universities remain the envy of the world, according to Jack Peltason. Peltason, the first chancellor of the UI's Urbana campus and president of the University of California until his retirement last month, visited the UI on Oct. 18 to give the campus's 17th David Dodds Henry Lecture. The lecture series is named in honor of the UI's 12th president, who died in September. Peltason noted that colleges and universities have been dodging bullets fired from many directions - both external and internal - since the 1960s. Back then, the criticism came from students and faculty who wanted to change the system, as well as from those outside academia, who believed university administrators needed to reign in the revolutionaries. In those days, which he characterized as a "noisy" period in the history of higher education in the United States, "it was always the campus administration that was blamed." Today, university administrators continue to shoulder much of the criticism, most of which originates outside the academy. But in the 1990s, the chief critics of higher education tend to be politicians, public policy-makers and the news media. Institutions "most under attack" have been the large research institutions, such as the UI, Peltason said. "Never before in the history of this nation have so many people talked so much and added so little to the discussion of higher education," Peltason said. The list of complaints are "long and painfully familiar": Institutions lack strategic plans; they need to adopt better business practices; they should abolish the tenure system; they are too specialized; faculty don't teach as much as they should. In sum, many of the critics believe higher education is in need of an overhaul. "What worries me is not the existence of criticism, but the ultimate effect of criticism on the public," Peltason said. "People believe [universities] are wasteful, ineffective and inefficient." Yet, he noted that "when people talk about delivering education more effectively and efficiently, they're always talking about someone else's children." Nonetheless, the former UI chancellor acknowledged that "we do have to improve efficiency in using scarce resources entrusted to us." And, he said, increasing efficiency translates to "everything from how we teach classes to how we mow our lawns. We do have to be more accountable." But he cautioned against "the illusion of the quick fix." "The job won't get done without will, vision and knowledge of the past. Change is inevitable, necessary and desirable. But we can't get there without paying the minimum cost. "There's no more fat to be cut," Peltason said, adding that he is "skeptical that fundamental change in the organization is the answer." In fact, he said, he's unconvinced that higher education is fundamentally flawed, or broken. One reliable measure of how a university is succeeding - or failing - at its job is its students. Peltason noted that when students are polled, "every survey shows we're doing a splendid job; we get a 70 percent good-to-excellent rating." "Higher education doesn't need fixing. It needs funding," he said. According to Peltason, higher education today is in the throes of a "quiet crisis" that is "just as threatening - if not more threatening - than what took place in the turbulent '60s." "Doors are closing," he said, referring to the ongoing erosion of educational opportunity and financial assistance available to current - and future - students. If the trend continues, he said, it won't be long until the United States has a two-tiered system of higher education. "Who will provide quality education for those who can't afford it?" he asked. To illustrate his point, Peltason noted that even as he spoke, "Congress is debating cutting financial aid - not should they cut it, but how much." Meanwhile, he said, another unfortunate scenario is being repeated in state after state, where legislatures are wrestling with the challenge of balancing funding for schools with the need to fund prisons and human services. Peltason said universities "must find new support or ways for taxpayers to return their support. We must convince them that higher education is a real investment that pays dividends." To do that, universities should do everything possible to make the benefits of teaching and research more visible to the public. One way to do that, he said, is "to bring ideas to the marketplace" through technology transfer. While it should always be obvious, in times of fiscal restraint and hardship the public needs to be reminded that "our ability as a nation to generate wealth will depend on the development of knowledge," Peltason said.