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A Great Chance to Negotiate – with whom?

18 Sep Posted by in Business | Comments Off on A Great Chance to Negotiate – with whom?

It’s an interesting moment for public universities. On the one hand, budget cuts have forced some important economies. Some of them are surely undesirable, but others may prove less onerous than expected (we need a bit of time to figure out impact). Most obviously, some modest increases in average class size, sometimes abetted by the greater use of technology, have been a common response. Some results are surely harmful to learning, but others might conceivably be sustainable without damage to educational outcomes. At a time when states are understandably seeing some productivity gains in colleges, even aside from current budget circumstances, there might be some adjustments worth discussing for the future.

For their part, universities have some definite issues in planning for the future. Faculty salaries lag. In Virginia there have been no collective raises at all for two years, and even aside from this there are troubling gaps. A state that pledges faculty salaries at the 60th percentile of peer-group institutions sees many schools (including my own) now lagging below the 30th.

So why not a trade-off discussion: universities pledge to look into faculty student ratios more imaginatively, and the states (or at least my state) really promise to move salary scales up the priority level?

Of course no action is possible right now, given the economic downturn, but how about some markers for the future? The problem here is, again at least in my state, that there’s no one on the state side really prepared to talk about the future. We have a state council that requires planning for the future, we are required to turn in six-year capital plans, but the state itself resolutely shuns commitments. Budget cuts are thus permanent, with no promises to return to normal when things get better. Governors and their staffs are on the way out every four years. No one will promise anything serious, even contingent upon the admittedly undatable return to prosperity.

So the prospect is that an interesting moment will be lost, as universities return to business as usual as soon as possible because there is no sense, from the state side, that any longer term pledges can be undertaken. The result is a prospect of continued roller coaster oscillations, with no durable change in strategic thinking. It seems a shame, but without a clearer set of higher ed interlocutors on the public side, it’s not clear how to remedy.