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An Example of the Problems with Higher Education Today

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I should preface this post by saying that I rarely complement higher education administrators. I am naturally suspicious of people in power anyway and I always question the motives of faculty who love meetings and the minutia of academia so much that they choose to turn their backs on research and teaching for it. I have found most college/university presidents duplicitous corporate gladhandling hacks. One excellent example of the new species of university president is the University of New Mexico’s David Schmidly, probably the most loathed individual in the Land of Enchantment. Schmidly embodies everything I dislike about the new university–a corrupt man who is “business-friendly” in the sense that he has used his time in the job to destroy much about the university, particularly within the liberal arts, social sciences, and university press.

That said, there are some good ones out there. One is the current (until yesterday) president of my alma mater, the University of Oregon, Richard Lariviere. As Farley can confirm, the University of Oregon was not exactly a great institute of higher education when we were there in the early to mid 90s. Property tax limitations copied from California had severely undermined university funding. The school shut down many programs, including most of the education program. Tuition began rising. In order to make up funding, the university began recruiting heavily out of California. That might sound fine, but in reality, we were getting students who were not smart enough to get into the UC system but had enough money to not have to suffer the Cal St. schools. Rich, lazy Californians, sounds awesome. And indeed it was.

The school has improved some since then, but still ranks very low in pretty important metrics. It has sunk to the lowest per student funding of any American Association of Universities school, and in fact could follow the University of Nebraska in getting kicked out of the organization, which would be a huge blow to the institution. It also paid its professors significantly less than its peer institutions, leading to 15 leaving last year for other jobs. The state was not going to fix. In fact, the state ordered the schools to not give pay raises, saying the state couldn’t afford it. So Lariviere decided to act on his own.

Realizing state funding was never going to come and knowing that the state only provides 5.8% of the school’s funding anyway, Lariviere combined tuition increases, enrollment increases, private funding, and research grants to give employees a 4.5% raise, a huge jump in this day and age. He did this without 1 cent from the state and without asking the state’s permission.

For this, he was canned yesterday.
There are ancillary issues. First, salaries for administrators jumped too. And that’s bad given how much they make. But let’s be honest, it’s not like state governments really care about this unless it’s convenient for them. Administrator salaries are skyrocketing across the country at schools that are eviscerating their faculty. If we want to run our institutions of higher education like a business, we have to concentrate 99% of our resources in the top 1% of employees, right? Second, for whatever reason, people with ties to UO are underrepresented on the Oregon Board of Higher Education (essentially it’s board of trustees) while the regional schools like Western, Eastern, and Southern are highly represented. The Board was outraged that the state’s flagship institution might outpace its regional schools. Third, Lariviere totally bucked Governor John Kitzhaber’s orders on this so I don’t know what he expected.

Maybe Lariviere didn’t care. Unlike most university presidents, doing the right thing by his faculty took priority. I like Kitzhaber. His stand on rejecting the death penalty is to be lauded. But he is wrong here. If the state isn’t going to provide a majority of funding, or anything even close to a majority, why should it have such power over the institution? Last year, the state of Oregon provided $62 million to UO. This year, it is providing $47 million, the lowest number since 1986 and that doesn’t even count for inflation or the much larger student body today.

More here.

Plus, it’s hard to not like a man who not only wears a hat like that, but who kind of looks like John Huston circa-Chinatown.

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