University Life in Times of Scarcity

by Nelly P. Stromquist, Education/UMCP

A silent malaise permeates the campus today. This malaise stands in harsh and pathetic contrast to university statements exhorting us to become one of the top 10 flagship universities, “equal to the best in the nation.” Few faculty members express their feelings openly, but when they do, it is clear few people are happy. This article is based on views expressed by 14 colleagues in five colleges, all but one either associate or full professors.

We have seen furloughs before. They are, unfortunately, not a new phenomenon in our UM lives. But there are questions about fairness in their application. University officials announced the furlough formula without acknowledging that in the one-day, two-day, and three-day categories, individuals at the lowest end of their category lose a higher percentage of their salary than people at the highest end of their category. According to one math professor, it would be much fairer to say that everyone who earns above $60,000 loses some across-the-board fixed percentage (whatever that percentage needs to be). The president, with a current salary of $492,277 ($450,000 when he began in 2010) and a furlough of three days, is giving up 1.15% of his salary, assuming a 260-day year; the provost, with a salary of $416,615, also with a three-day furlough, is giving up 1.15% of her salary too. These percentages are low compared to the 1.25 to 2% reported by the associate and full professors. Moreover, the dollar amount main administrators lose is much more affordable given their generous salaries. And “furlough” is a misnomer because here it is applied to loss of wages, not work—no faculty would want to take furloughs on teaching days.

The decision to rescind cost-of-life adjustments (COLA) and merit increases are even more serious than furloughs because they affect base pay and, being permanent reductions, they also affect future salary increases. Some salaries have scarcely increased in the past eight years. In fact, the only salary increase a faculty member might earn here is when first hired by UMD. The lack of salary increases has abetted a considerable salary compression, as new hires are attracted on current market prices. According to a professor in one of the colleges, her recently hired junior colleagues earn $30,000 to $50,000 more than she does. This further fosters a demoralizing, resentful climate.

Have faculty members left because of the chronic economic depression at UMD? There has been no mass exodus, yet several examples are identified, most involving young faculty memberes at assistant levels. One faculty member vividly relates, “I do recall that we were recruiting at a time of furloughs, and just about to sign someone on, when the person saw the furloughs being discussed on the UMD home page, and suddenly she did find more reasons to not join us—but the furlough issue was a key factor in my estimation.” Other instances are less dramatic; they usually involve a permanent job search, with the attendant behavior of less commitment to the institution. The current hiring freeze is creating unsustainable situations in some departments, as people who played key roles—including having many advisees at the graduate level—are not being replaced. There is a case of some 30 orphan graduates moving aimlessly through the halls. In the case of one of the wealthiest colleges at UMD, the average professor/undergraduate student ratio is 1/94.

A poll jointly conducted by The Washington Post and the University of Maryland (10 February 2015) found that 32% of the US population are “least favorable” to budget cuts at the K-12 level but that only 11% are least favorable to cuts in higher education. What does this mean? They do not care for what is one of the best attributes of the US in the minds of many people throughout the world? They do not mind dismantling the reputation of public universities? They do not know that that tuition at UMD—at $8,000/year— is cheaper than many private primary schools in the area? A public policy professor has noted that the median annual family income of MD resident students at UMD is $120,000 and that of non-state resident students is $140,000 per year. Poor these students are not. Certainly, exploring the possibilities of increasing tuition is a correct measure to take.

Most politicians at Annapolis have four or more years of college education. So why is it that they do not fully appreciate the crucial role of the University of Maryland? According to several colleagues, the answer might lie in our limited success in articulating the kind of student we foster and how a certain level of resources must be in place to continue producing high quality graduates. Are we really doing a good job in presenting ourselves and our strengths?

Courtesy of Kelcie Grega

Courtesy of Kelcie Grega

Where is the philanthropy toward UMD these days? At my previous university (USC, Los Angeles) a gift of $20 million made it to page 5 in the student newspaper; here this very rare event commands front page and multiple pictures. California, to be sure, has 111 billionaires compared to nine in Maryland, but on the other hand, Maryland has six of the 10 counties in the country with the highest income per capita. Can UMD do better in terms of identifying potential donors? There is evidence from successful fund-raising universities (USC a case in point) that large donors are not necessarily alumni. UMD administrators have stated on several occasions that 25 years ago the university did not have a fund-raising unit, that “we are new at this and it takes time to develop.” Now 25 years is a quarter of a century. This is a rather lame response for a unit tasked with fund-raising/institutional development. On19 February 2015 President Loh established Flagship 2020, a mega commission comprising 96 faculty, staff, and students who will work in five groups: updating the strategic plan, budget and finance, innovation and efficiency in education, research and administrative services, and revenue development. The last of these groups will engage in fund-raising planning—an area in great need of progress.

Faculty members who have been at UMD for at least 15 years think that university administrators engage in short-term politics and respond to petty, near-sighted political party exigencies. In the process, we fail to appreciate the big picture: where is the nation heading in the next decade when you curtail higher education? Faculty members are intelligent, well-credentialed people who know how to maximize their own welfare. Subjecting them to the whims of feckless politicians makes working in the Maryland system a risky proposition. The state has an obligation to its flagship and land grant institution to maintain the quality of its faculty and create supportive environments. Failure to do so will result in fewer and less qualified students applying to UMD and fewer funding agencies engaging the faculty in research.

Faculty members and administrators alike consume an inordinate amount of time on budget concerns. Why does this happen? It is less an issue of “good guys” and “bad guys” but rather one of permanent uncertainty due to the state’s inability to predict revenues and may be linked to some level of financial incompetency, and at least disordered priorities. If past is prologue, we will eventually leave behind this new crisis; unfortunately, in its wake we won’t become strong after this but rather resigned to the efficiency myth that you can always “do more with less.”


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