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Thursday, December 04, 2008

Sad State of Affairs in Higher Ed

These are rough times for everyone, and higher education is taking a huge blow right now. Decisions on cuts need to be made, and more and more institutions of higher ed are looking at cutting faculty, staff, removing certain degree programs, and even reducing the amount of scholarships and merit aid they offer. I figure this is as good a spot as any to air some of my issues about this, since I'll be losing my seat on the Faculty Senate here at UTC when I leave, and will have no greater body to pester for a bit with efficiency and annoying common sense.


You know, automaker management decided that if they needed to take the bailout for their companies, they would draw a single dollar a year in salary until the crisis was over (thought what they say and what they do may differ. Funny, I haven't heard anything about looking at former administrators who fell back to regular faculty with no more administrative duties, but are still drawing a six-figure salary while their colleagues are doing the exact same job and making $45k a year. for higher ed administration, I have heard very little in the whirlwind of proposed cuts about *not* paying out the remainder of contracts for which fired folk don't work. For instance, Fulmer was fired as UT's head football coach, and gets a six million dollar contract buyout over 2 years, and I haven't heard too many folks who are mortally offended that $6 million over two years is more than our UTC library budget for two years. In fact, it's more than our library budget for *three* years. For a university of about 10,000 students. Actually, our budget was just cut by about $50,000 which we didn't have to lose, but a single person makes millions for not going to work.


Well, I'll say it. I am offended. And I know arguments crop up often about athletics budgets versus academic budgets even in the best of times, but when, according to UTC's Chancellor Brown, the University of Tennessee system is preparing "for cuts to our state funding a deep 15 percent for next year" and goes on to share that "Vacant faculty positions totaling $200,000 are being eliminated, and $500,000 in operating and vacant personnel lines is also being lost. More than $1 million in enrollment growth dollars will be eliminated from the permanent budget" - I expect an outcry.


When the Associated Press reports that a $6M Illinois tutoring center assists only athletes - "...about 550 of the school's 37,000 students" - where is the group to stand and protest that universities are for learning? I happen to think that athletics are an important part of the college and university experience, yes, but they are still subordinate to the provision of an education, and when it is time for the axe to fall, athletics simply isn't the number one priority of these institutions. At least, it shouldn't be the number one priority.


A question this brings up, other than "omgwtfbbq how are people letting these sort of ridiculosities slide??", is: how low does state funding have to fall for state university systems and other public colleges and universities to not really be considered "public" anymore? I've already mentioned the dire straits Tennessee higher ed finds itself in. For the University of Kentucky, according to the Lexington Herald Leader, "State funding has dropped from about 30 percent of the university's revenue to less than 15 percent in 10 years." Thanks, there, state government. Not that you legislated that UK become a top 20 research institution or anything.


Augh.


Much of this is likely due to the fact that I went to Centre College, a tiny private liberal arts school where, while we had athletics teams and were very proud of them, we focused on academics. Club sports were extremely popular and well-attended audience-wise, but there was none of this building a $20 million structure for basketball practice while academic programs took a hit. Never happen. Centre's President John Roush recently sent an email out to the college and alumni community letting us know what building projects were going forward, which were on hold, and that aid to students would not be impacted and they were not really looking at faculty layoffs seriously just yet. Thank goodness for generous donations from alumni.


And yet, although alumni and community giving is becoming a larger percentage of even public college and university funds, these are the very people being disenfranchised by cutting academics before sports. Sure, you can come watch a UK basketball game, but don't think that your English major is going to serve you extremely well after spending 4 or 5 years in overcrowded classes with overworked part-time faculty with no benefits teaching. Sure, you can enjoy your Mocs football game - at the expense, again, of what you're actually paying tuition for: an education.


It amazes me that the administration of higher education today can actually go out in public and look people in the eye with their shiny suits and shoes and merrily announce tuition increases and academic cuts when things are run so damned inefficiently. The UC system, at least, is trying to get a handle on one of these ugly inefficiencies: giant severance packages to those officials leaving one campus....to then work on another in the same system. Again, embarrassing, but at least someone got up the nerve to publicize it enough that they *had* to be embarrassed and do something.


My charge to you? Go ahead and look at the measures being taken by your academic institution. Some will be sane and useful. In other spots there will be glaring omissions, like forgetting to mention that perhaps your Teaching Resource Center completely duplicates the mission and some of the materials of the campus library, and that an organizational shakeup could help both in terms of long-term efficiency and service as well as budget-wise. You don't have to be as in-your-face as I know I can get, but do *something* other than pontificate how bad it's going to get, and huddle under your desk. Consider this, if you will, the war on education. Not as sexy as WMDs, admittedly, but where are our protesters? Or does nobody care?

2 comments:

Alison said...

You make so many good points I hardly know where to start. I work at Sherrod Library at ETSU in Johnson City, TN and am amazed at how much the university is having to cut back. The TBR voted last week on whether or not to implement mandatory furloughs (that's what I heard at least...). And you're exactly right. How DARE they cut back on education expenses when the university systems seem to spend more and more on athletics. I went to Appalachian where they spent millions of dollars on a new football stadium, but increased tuition and reduced funding for the School of Music (among other things). I agree with you - athletics are an important part of the college experience, but isn't the whole point of going to college to get an education? Sigh.

Allison said...

I heartily agree with everything you said, but I want to make one addition. A large problem is the fact that universities often receive earmarked funds. These funds are targeted toward a specific project - say, a new basketball practice facility, as UK built a few years ago. Because of the way earmarks, grants and gifts are laid out, the university is not able to transfer extra funds from areas such as athletics into, for example, English dept salaries. The university would be silly to turn down an earmarked gift, even for a non-essential area. Now all that said, they need to SERIOUSLY look at the pay and bonuses of top-tier administrators. Yes, the bonus is written into the presidents' contracts in many cases, but as public figures in positions of leadership, college presidents would do well to think about the propriety of taking their six-figure bonuses while layoffs are a reality on campus. Even those of us with secure positions here are likely looking at a second year of no raises (that's while my rent and bills have continued to rise). Shaving a bit from presidential bonuses, severance packages paid to coaches, and the scads of money paid to retired administrators who have returned to the faculty on a part-time basis would surely free up a little cash for those of us struggling with the bills.