Higher Ed Reform Moves Up Lawmakers’ To-Do Lists

Published February 14, 2017

Colleges and universities were much admired, and their issues were far less controversial than those experienced in many K–12 school systems. Many legislators were enthusiastic alumni of state universities.

A standard pattern existed: In times of recession, when budgets were tight, higher education served as a “balance wheel.” Legislatures could cut back on appropriations, knowing tuition increases could fill the gap. When a struggling economy improved, tuition increases stayed and appropriations increased.

Those days are over. Rising tuitions and massive national student debt have focused unfavorable attention on universities. Left-wing faculty, campus protests, and limits on free speech have put higher education in the national spotlight. Administrative bloat and rising pension costs are now becoming a public concern across the country. Legislators want to know what is happening on campus, and as they face fiscal pressure, they want to take a serious look at higher education finances.

The Higher Education Section of School Reform News helps legislators understand these issues. School Reform News recognizes the importance of the higher education sector and its costs. Public colleges and universities represent nearly 10 percent of state expenditures—the third biggest item behind K–12 education and Medicaid, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers.

Higher Ed Finance Is Complex

Addressing the high costs of higher education isn’t easy. In a recent paper, the National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO) warns, “The landscape of higher education finance is complex. It is shaped by forces beyond the state budget.” Those forces range from the federal government to university alumni who are enthusiastic about athletic programs.

“An analyst who has moved from a more traditional program area (such as corrections or transportation) to a higher education budget may find this transition more difficult to adapt to than someone who begins his or her career with the higher education assignment,” the NASBO paper states. “The more seasoned analyst might be frustrated by how the power and influence of the university system manifests itself in the budget development and/or implementation process.”

As a recent example of how political clout and expensive administration pervade universities, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill has just created a “vice chancellor of public affairs and secretary of the university,” who will be paid a salary of $280,000 per year. The new vice chancellor had previously been the chief of staff for the speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, where he had been paid just $158,500. He knows how to lobby.

The appointment adds one more vice chancellor to the school’s previous panoply of nine vice chancellors, all of whom make more than $300,000 a year. One of the vice chancellors is in charge of communications and has a staff of 32 professionals. With such well-paid communicators and the prestige that comes with academia, legislators can be easily overwhelmed. And Chapel Hill is just one out of sixteen campuses in the North Carolina university system!

Texas-Sized Corruption

Dealing with public universities means more than financial matters, of course. Also of concern are issues such as free speech, faculty workloads, affirmative action, access to college, periodic scandals, and more.

For example, the dean of the University of Texas School of Law was fired in 2012 for helping law faculty obtain “forgivable loans” to sweeten their pay, including a $500,000 loan to himself. One of the university regents who had pushed for an investigation, Wallace Hall, then uncovered more: Texans with clout were getting their sons and daughters into the University of Texas-Austin in place of more-qualified applicants, and the number of such students had been covered up.

A committee of the Texas State Legislature censured Hall and called for his impeachment for “disloyalty,” but his efforts led to the resignation of the university’s president, William Powers, in 2014.

Trouble in Academe

Texas’ stories may be giant-sized, but news around the country indicates the nation’s higher education institutions have cast aside their role as places of intellectual debate.

In 2016, a lecturer at the University of Virginia was forced to take a leave of absence simply because he compared Black Lives Matter to the Ku Klux Klan. The year 2016 set the record for the number of campus “disinvitations,” withdrawing invitations to speakers because of student or faculty protests. And after Donald Trump was elected president, some schools provided “safe spaces and counseling services” for students who couldn’t bear it, positioning universities as places for comfort rather than intellectual engagement.

The Ivory Tower isolates faculty from the outside world. Many admire Marx and disparage the United States, and few on campus challenge them. One survey of tenured faculty at four-year universities found 62.7 percent consider themselves to be “far left or liberal,” and just 11.9 percent call themselves “far right or conservative.” The rest (25.4 percent) describe themselves as “middle of the road.” Unless the pervasive left-wing atmosphere on campus moderates, future citizens will be unwilling and unable to maintain free markets, limited government, and the liberties affirmed in the Bill of Rights.

The goal of School Reform News is to alert elected officials and others about progress and setbacks in education reform. Adding colleges and universities to the education matrix will expand recognition of the problems in the nation’s colleges and universities and enable the public to begin the process of addressing them.

Jane S. Shaw ([email protected]) is School Reform News’ higher education editor.