University of California President Janet Napolitano on Tuesday (Sept. 9) urged the nation’s leaders to increase government funding for basic research, especially at public research universities, describing such institutions as the country’s best hope for a robust and vibrant future.

“We need a new public funding model for these types of institutions — at both the federal level and the state level,” Napolitano said at an education conference sponsored by the New York Times.

“These are America’s universities,” she said. “And the nation as a whole will ultimately go the way that its public research universities go.”

Increasingly, she said, as private companies have ended or significantly cut funding for their in-house research and development arms, public research universities have become the main incubators for the fundamental research on which the nation depends.

Taken as a whole, the University of California’s 10 campuses perform nearly 10 percent of all academic research in the U.S., she said.

Napolitano was the keynote speaker for the New York Times Schools for Tomorrow conference, which included discussions exploring the various forces — economic, political, social and technological — affecting higher education today. Topics included online education, affirmative action, increasing college access, and issues related to making a university more global.

The conference began Monday evening, with the much-anticipated release of a new college rating system by the New York Times’ “Upshot” website, which ranked 100 selective colleges according to a formula based on the proportion of their students eligible for Pell Grants and the net price of enrollment for those with annual family incomes of $30,000 to $48,000.

But the Times, while aiming to rank universities that do a good job of educating low-income students, considered only those institutions with a four-year graduation rate of 75 percent, which eliminated nearly all public universities, including all UC campuses.

Napolitano made only a passing reference to the new index in her remarks, noting that 44 percent of all UC undergraduates are first-generation students and 42 percent qualify for Pell grants — “more than all eight Ivy League institutions, or all 10 of the recently named top 10 institutions by the New York Times.”

Other conference speakers included Ted Mitchell, undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Education, who was asked about the Obama Administration’s plan to enter the college ratings game, creating a ranking system based on the value students receive for their tuition dollars.

Mitchell said he anticipates that a draft “1.0” version of the plan will be ready this fall, with a public release in the spring, and improved versions to be rolled out later. The first version is not expected to include the names of specific institutions, he said.

The goals of the rating are three-fold, he said: to make the nation’s higher education system as a whole more accountable to the public; to push institutions themselves to improve; and to help students and their families make more informed choices about college.

“There is not enough good, reliable, tested information about the state of colleges,” Mitchell said. “We’re interested in coming up with a set of measures about a few important things, to cut through the noise that exists and provide a stable, reliable tool.”

Napolitano, asked during a Q&A session whether she was happy about the expected new federal ratings, demurred from a direct answer to David Leonhardt, the Upshot’s managing editor, who served as moderator.

“I’m not sure the way [the proposed rankings] are being done will solve the problem they want to solve,” Napolitano said. Instead, “I actually think it would be better to focus the efforts on schools that are true diploma mills.”