Crisis In Public Higher Education

By Gwendolyn Bradley, Gregory S. Brown, and Nsé Ufot

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Budget Cuts

Despite much rhetoric about the need to regain US leadership in higher education and boost the economy by educating more students, higher education across the nation is facing steep reductions in federal and state funding. And although in many cases institutions are able to make up the difference from other funding sources, the withdrawal of public support for higher education is troubling, as it transfers the cost of education to students, often in the form of student debt, and to corporations, whose funding often has strings attached. According to a report by the National Conference of State Legislators, tuition is now more than 37 percent of total higher education revenue, as opposed to less than 25 percent in fiscal year 1984. And according to a survey conducted by the Project on Student Debt, college seniors who graduated in 2009 carried an average of $24,000 in student-loan debt, up 6 percent from the previous year; at the same time, unemployment among recent college graduates is rising.

Furloughs And Program Discontinuance

At the beginning of the recession, faculty and staff members faced a wave of temporary furloughs as administrators scrambled to compensate for budget cuts on short notice. Sometimes, furloughs were a sensible response to serious budget problems. In other cases, they were the result of the misplaced priorities of administrators who pleaded poverty while directing millions of dollars to facilities and other noninstructional projects. Indeed, some of the same institutions that imposed furloughs in 2009–10 had record revenues during the same period, as declining state funding was more than made up for by other sources of funding, such as tuition.

Furloughs continue, and were accompanied this year by a new wave of budget cutting in the form of program discontinuances. Administrators announced plans to eliminate, reduce, or suspend programs at numerous institutions, including Louisiana State University (German, Japanese, Latin, Portuguese, Russian, and Swahili); the State University of New York at Albany (classics, French, Italian, Russian, and theater); the University of Maine (German, Latin, public administration, theater, and women’s studies); the University of Nevada, Reno (German studies and Italian); the University of Southern Mississippi (art, engineering technology, geology, German, health, Latin, marine science, religion, and other programs); and Winona State University in Minnesota (French and German). In three of these cases, AAUP investigations have been authorized.

Collective Bargaining

Republican governors and lawmakers in several states have initiated attempts to strip public employees, including many faculty members, of collective bargaining rights. Details vary from state to state, but pieces of legislation being introduced seek to

  • undermine the fiscal solvency of unions by forbidding payroll deduction of union dues and forbidding agency-fee provisions;
  • reduce drastically the number of subjects on which faculty may bargain collectively;
  • cap the amount a public employer is allowed to pay toward an employee’s health-insurance plan, regardless of the employer’s ability to pay;
  • require unions to hold recertification votes yearly—so they are under constant threat of dissolution;
  • recognize unions only when a majority of the bargaining unit are paid members;
  • require unions to renegotiate contracts—an expensive and time-consuming process—every year;
  • prohibit collective bargaining for public employees entirely.

Although these attacks have been reported in the media as battles over how to close budget gaps, the emphasis on budget is often misplaced. Public workers do not earn more than their private-sector peers when individuals with similar education and training levels are compared. In addition, states without public-employee unions are no better off financially than states with some or no collective bargaining—demonstrating that the existence of unions does not exacerbate budget shortfalls. Moreover, most of the measures proposed are not immediate cost-saving measures, and some are clearly designed to weaken unions.

Attacks on collective bargaining affect a wide spectrum of workers. AAUP conferences and chapters in the affected states, as well as the national office staff, have been working together with other groups of public employees to fight back against these attacks.

Each group of public employees faces unique issues. Faculty members stand to lose not only the power to bargain over compensation but also contract provisions covering such matters as governance, academic freedom, and other important matters that do not relate to compensation. For example, many academic union contracts include provisions related to faculty senates; faculty responsibility for participating in decision making on fundamental academic matters such as curriculum, advising, and degree requirements; and faculty responsibility for setting promotion and tenure criteria and decision making on faculty personnel matters. Others incorporate policies protecting the faculty’s right to speak out on institutional matters—of key importance after the 2006 US Supreme Court decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos, which determined that the government can restrict the speech of public employees when they comment on issues related to their “official duties.” Although the decision specifically set aside academic speech, recognizing that additional constitutional interests were at stake, several lower courts have subsequently ruled that faculty members who speak out on matters affecting their institutions are not protected under the First Amendment.

Direct Attacks On Tenure And Faculty Governance

This semester, a bill that would have prohibited the creation of new tenure-track positions at public universities in Utah was introduced—but defeated in committee. In Florida, as of press time, a bill prohibiting tenure for community college faculty is proceeding through the legislature. The governing board of the eight-campus University of Louisiana System changed its procedures so that faculty members can be laid off on short notice—only a month for those not on the tenure track. At Idaho State University, the state board of education suspended the faculty senate after it voted no confidence in the president’s leadership and response to budget challenges. Here too an AAUP investigation is under way.

Campaign For The Future Of Higher Education

More than seventy faculty leaders from universities across the country, including many AAUP representatives, met in Los Angeles in January at the invitation of the California Faculty Association. The purpose was to hold a first-of-its-kind discussion on how to assert the faculty’s voice in the national debate over the future of American higher education at a time when public higher education is at great risk. The mission of this grassroots campaign is to ensure that affordable, high-quality higher education is accessible to all sectors of society in the coming decades and to ensure that faculty members, students, and communities—not just administrators, politicians, foundations, and think tanks—have a say in discussions of reforms to higher education. Participants agreed on the following set of principles.

  1. Higher education in the twenty-first century must be inclusive; it should be available to and affordable for all who can benefit from and want a college education.
  2. The curriculum for a quality twenty-first-century higher education must be broad and diverse.
  3. Quality higher education in the twenty-first century will require a sufficient investment in excellent faculty who have the academic freedom, terms of employment, and institutional support needed to do state-of-the-art professional work.
  4. Quality higher education in the twenty-first century should incorporate technology in ways that expand opportunity and maintain quality.
  5. Quality higher education in the twenty-first century will require the pursuit of real efficiencies and the avoidance of false economies.
  6. Quality higher education in the twenty-first century will require substantially more public investment over current levels.
  7. Quality higher education in the twenty-first century cannot be measured by a standardized, simplistic set of metrics.

The campaign will be launched formally on May 17 at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, and more information will be made available as it develops at http://www.aaup.org/AAUP/GR/Public/21st.htm. What we know already is that the success of the campaign hinges on the magnitude of participation by faculty members and others who care about the future of higher education. Although this began as a faculty initiative, we are at work reaching out to organizations and other campus constituents. You can help by talking to your friends and neighbors about the importance of higher education, writing to your local newspapers, and letting others on your campus know about this campaign.

These boxes provide snapshots of what was happening in Ohio and Nevada as of press time.

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