Sunday, July 01, 2007

"Fighting for UW Faculty"

"Officials are worried budget cutting at UW–Madison will make it harder to retain key faculty members". So reads a headline and subtitle (or whatever you call that in journalism) on the front page of today's Wisconsin State Journal (online here). A set of related stories on this takes up a good chunk of p. 1 and two pages inside.

Any positive attention to the need for more funding at UW has to help out, right?

Not really, for a string of reasons. Let me lay out a couple points first before turning to what's the fundamental political, philosophical and even moral mistake in this coverage (and the mindset that underlies it among some UW administrators).

First, the whole issue of funding for the University is being framed in terms of faculty salaries, specifically the salaries of the highest paid faculty. Retentions are viewed clearly through a related pinhole: Keep the highest-profile people, let the rest walk. From the article again, about outside offers:
"It sounds rather crass but we've got to choose carefully which [professors] we want to fight back on," Farrell said. "Because if we choose this one, the next one we may have to pass on because we don't have dollars left to do it."
If you're tenured faculty at Madison and you can't get a decent outside offer, you're deadwood or ready for retirement. This year — in this one season — we've lost almost a third of the Political Science department, with big losses in History, English and elsewhere in recent years. Keeping a couple of stars around isn't going to do much when most of your core people are leaving. This destroys morale, and that destruction is far advanced now. In maybe the most insightful comment in the whole piece from an administrator, the Dean of the School of Education, Julie Underwood, said:
What I fear is the erosion of loyalty to the institution, an erosion of that sense of collective responsibility.
That sums it up. She's still pretty new to campus and in charge of a school where Educational Psychology has lost seven senior faculty since 2002, so she must be feeling it.

Second, what's the solution, at least as proposed by Provost Pat Farrell? Raising private money to endow chairs for star faculty. There's barely a hint of a plea for greater state funding anywhere in here. We regularly hear that key voices in the administration of the University favor privatization, dramatically raising tuition to keep things funded fully and let the state continue to wean us. Currently, UW–Madison gets roughly as much from gifts and grants as it does from the State, somewhere over 18%. That's the death knell for affordable public education at Madison.

I could go on. But what's the top, number 1, very worst aspect of this coverage? Easy: It completely misses the actual core problem entirely: Everybody at Madison — academic staff, classified staff, grad students and undergrad students — is suffering directly from budget cuts, almost everybody more than star faculty: The University has plenty of clerical staff doing what used to be one and a half or two jobs. (There are Limited Term Employees serving in some of those roles.) Students are going deeper and deeper into debt with tuition increases and collapsing grad student funding. Students aren't getting the classes they need because of cuts in course offerings. That's ignoring for the moment the many qualified students who can't afford tuition to start with, or can't come here because of the tight enrollment caps driven by funding shortfalls. And on and on.

Who does the WSJ focus on? The very highest paid people in the system, a few star faculty. How much does the average citizen of Wisconsin feel for professors making $150,000 or 200,000 a year? Or care that the average full professor is earning a mere $103,000, versus $133,000 at UCLA? Not that much, I'm pretty sure. It's all but designed to alienate people working their asses off to put food on the table and buy insurance, when they are well aware that they can no longer afford to send their kids to Madison anyway.

As a state, we have a collective responsibility to higher education, and we, collectively, are failing. This is a grave matter for the State of Wisconsin and fixing it requires changes in public perceptions and attitudes as well as in political will. The UW is crawling with stories that would resonate with the people who can help reverse our funding declines, but there's no hint of those stories in here, and little of the real damage the situation is causing to Wisconsin.

And don't tell me we can't turn this around: State after state has been stepping up to invest in public higher education. (If Kentucky can do it, Wisconsin can.) But some real leadership from the University administration would be a big help here.


The Ridger, FCD said...

It's called the "deck".

I hope things pick up for the university!

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks -- on both counts. On the first, I just couldn't get the word. On the second, it will, but it's going to require some real work. There's pretty widespread worry that the UW's current leadership is simply not up to the challenge.

Anonymous said...

The key to this issue is not faculty salaries, though it plays a role. Quality faculty are less concerned about earning $103,000 versus $130,000 per year than they are about the inability to attract graduate students to the Madison campus. We are getting close to a point where the UW's graduate student support is barely half what it is elsewhere. And don't ask grad students to suck it up. Nobody can live on $9600 per year. You can scrape by on the $18,000 that the likes of Penn State and Minnesota can offer. Even if UW has good faculty and programs, students just cannot afford to come here. Then the faculty leave for campuses with a real commitment to graduate education. Faculty members are far less interested in salary than they are in their work, and graduate students drive that. Extra money would be far better spent on graduate student support than on sweet deals for a handful of "stars".

Mr. Verb said...

Yup, that's completely right.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your blog on this topic more than WSJ precisely because you note that a structural change (funding, leadership from within and without, etc) would be a real fix as compared to the superficial changes (star payments). One thing I picked up, in defense of the star faculty they noted who turned down offers, is that they seemed to echo that staffing, grad students, etc constitute 'support' by the university.

Anonymous said...

Did you do the math on the little box showing the number of offers vs the number of departures. I wondered why percentages weren't shown and that is because the percentage of departures to offers is down from a few years ago. It seems, from my limited experience with Bascom Hall types, is that red flags will only show up on paper and not in their heads. In other words, the deans et al look at the percent of staff gone or percent of offers accepted and they think this is a non-issue (except for those that would really make the headlines).

Anonymous said...

And, I was unaware, before reading the article, that our value to the university is based on whether we bring in a million or so by tenure as a return on the admin's investment. Again, a case of one (academic--read engineering) model fits all.