“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

16 02 2011

That quote, of course, is John Muir talking about nature, but he might just have well have been talking about university budgets. Money comes in. Money is reallocated. Money goes out. Cut revenue, whether from tuition or from some other source, and something else has to go unless the university wants to borrow money and pay it back down the line. Unfortunately, creditors don’t take to kindly to being told that the interest payments on their bonds won’t be met so other parts of the university’s budget have to suffer. [“Financial Outlook Is Grim for Colleges With High Debt, but Remains Stable for Many,” explained the Chronicle yesterday. This is not a good path to go down.]

If there’s anything good about a financial crisis, it could be that it teaches people to make budgetary connections that they’ve never made before. Take this article, “How Much Is Your College President Costing You?,” for example:

These high salaries are being doled out in a time when students are bearing the brunt of ever-increasing tuition. Tuition at private, nonprofit four year colleges now averages $27,293— up 4.5 percent from the 2009-10 school year according to the College Board. Executive pay is funded, in part, by students’ tuition. At larger schools the price per student of the executive salary is typically less than $100, but at smaller schools the executive salary can cost more than $600 per student. The NAICU maintains that this has no bearing on the rising cost of college. “Presidential salaries make up a very small percentage of overall campus budgets and have virtually no impact on tuition increases.”

Cewrtainly that last part is right, but cry me a river! Professors have been taking this kind of guff all the time. “We can’t pay faculty, otherwise the students will be priced out of higher education and the taxpayers will suffer.” In fact, that argument is being made in Wisconsin right now. I was struck by this report from a Badger State bunker on College Misery this morning:

I would like to point out that most schools in the UW system get less than 25% of their total funding from the state. Madison gets 8%. We have accepted lower-than-average wages with the assurance that our benefits and pension would be exceptional. In truth, the UW system has already become far less attractive to the top candidates for positions because the benefits are seen as a given if you’re a state employee anywhere and the salaries are lower than offers from other states (my “campus” lags more than 15% behind the national average in salaries). The idea promulgated by the Republicans and their masters that public sector workers are “living off of taxpayers” is a convenient fiction. And we have had to do more with less for decades.

In a weird way, the fact that everything is hitched to everything else in the universe gives me some hope for the future. When things get bad enough that college presidents’ salaries are no longer off limits for discussion, then maybe everything will finally be on the table.

Once the instruction cuts have hit bone, there is no other place to go but elsewhere. Try sawing into bone and the students might actually complain because they see where faculty salary dollars go every time in class. You can’t say that about Presidents’ salaries.

The situation kind of reminds me of Herbert Hoover’s justification for throwing lavish dinner parties during the early years of the Depression. He thought the American people didn’t want to see the office of the presidency degraded. It didn’t go over well then, and I predict it won’t go over well now with students today in classes of 600 either.


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