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Pigs, Poker and Prisons

January 24, 2010

The university has a record number of students and a record level of external grant funding.  By any standards, the faculty have been doing an outstanding job.  Our reward for this exceptional performance is having our salaries and benefits cut and being threatened with layoffs.   University administrators, members of the board of regents, and local politicians increasingly talk as if the university were a business.  A business when it has record sales and profits rewards its employees and shareholders.  Our recent financial crisis illustrates clearly that we are, in fact, not a business.  We still depend on state appropriations for nearly half of our operating revenue.

In spite of the business rhetoric, the governor and legislature treat us as just another branch of state government like the prison system.   This is what has created the disconnect between the university’s reward structure and its performance.   The universities annually bring  hundred of millions of dollars of federal research funding into the state.  They bring thousands of out-of-state students who help to underwrite the cost of a university education for in-state students.  In short, unlike the prison system, the universities are major economic engines for the state.   Nevertheless, not only are the state universities likely to having their budgets cut again next year, but they may again be cut disproportionately in order to fund other state agencies like prisons.  Talk about killing the goose that laid the golden eggs.

In the last couple of weeks the universities have begun to take their case to the public, primarily in the form of an opinion piece by our president in the state’s major newspaper.  The public’s response to his opinion piece has been mixed, based on written comments on it.  It has, however, been well received by faculty and staff, and it has garnered us some support in the form of a positive editorial in the same paper.  Whether any of this translates into increased support for the universities in next year’s state appropriations to the board of regents  is uncertain.  In reality,  this is unlikely unless there is a significant improvement in projected state tax revenues.

The singer-songwriter Dave Moore once characterized the state’s economy as being based on the three Ps:  pigs, poker and prisons.  I doubt that this will change much in the near future, but it would be a significant turnaround in state educational policy if cutting  university budgets were no longer seen by politicians as a way to fund more pigs and prisons. (We already have more than enough poker.)  Perhaps they might even begin to realize that our universities are not businesses but an essential public service whose employees needs to be rewarded for their achievements.  Unless this happens, the universities will begin to lose their best faculty, and this will result in a significant decline in the universities’ ability to continue to bring in hundred of millions of dollars in research funding  and to attract thousands of out-of-state students.

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