By Lowell Hepler
The Meadville Tribune
Pennsylvania state Rep. Brad Roae would like you to believe that he has the solution to the rising cost of higher education, and that he understands what should be done to avoid the impending retrenchments (firings) of college faculty at many of our state-owned universities. Of course, the culprits he accuses of inflating tuition are the professors who work within the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE). To him, they earn six-figure salaries for working 12-hour weeks, and if we can just lower their salaries and increase their workloads, all will be well.
To him, Gov. Tom Corbett’s $82.5 million cut to higher education seems to have nothing to do with it. Even though his arguments have been thoroughly debunked by well-documented columns such as the one written by Peter McLaughlin that appeared in the March 30, 2012, Tribune, and a letter that was circulated by his colleague, state Rep. Mike Hanna, within the Pennsylvania House on April 2, 2012, they repeatedly arise like the phoenix from the ashes. His latest “solutions” appeared on the front page of the Oct. 17 Tribune.
The bottom line is that Rep. Roae hates unions, especially if they have anything to do with public school or pubic university education. I hope that you will allow me a little credibility in discussing these issues because I am not now, have never been, and never will be a member of a teachers’ union. I have taught for 40 years at a college that has demonstrated its support for the faculty through shared governance and faculty development, thus obviating the need for a union. My focus here will be on the two state-owned public universities within our area: Edinboro and Clarion. Edinboro University is surrounded by Mr. Roae’s district, and as a member of the House Committee on Education, his actions directly impact all state-owned universities.
Mr. Roae’s old saw about the 12-hour work week for professors would be laughable if he wasn’t actually trying to get people to believe it. Likewise, the typical six-figure salary is a myth. To put it in terms that Mr. Roae might understand: According to 2012 figures supplied by the state, the average professor in the PASSHE earns $68,200. The starting salary for an assistant professor (the rank at which most begin) is $51,856. Mr. Roae’s salary is a bit over $82,000, and he receives travel and per diem allowances, much of which is unvouchered.
According to the House webpage, they are in regular and scheduled sessions for 78 days in 2013. So, by his logic, he is getting paid $82,000-plus for 78 days of work per year. Wow! That must mean that he’s getting 287 days per year of paid vacation! His time in meetings, preparation for debate, writing and consulting with constituents means nothing.
My own work week, as well as almost every professor I know, extends well beyond 40 hours per week. Beyond the actual teaching, we design courses, evaluate and advise students, serve on committees and tend to myriad details of academia with time commitments that make that 12-hour figure look ridiculous for those who actually live the life. College faculty are expected to do what they teach, so we also do research, write books and articles, create art, perform music, all beyond our direct teaching activity. This work isn’t an option. It’s required for promotion and tenure; not that tenure means anything: just ask the tenured PASSHE professors who are being retrenched.
Mr. Roae’s six-figure salaries are also a deliberately misleading illusion. He promotes the idea that it takes only 13 years to progress from a starting salary to six-figures. The facts: After teaching enough years to prove themselves, almost all faculty need to pass through at least two highly competitive promotions, which are approved by the president. It typically takes far more than Mr. Roae’s 13 years to make it to the fabled six-figure salary.
The average faculty salary at Edinboro University is about $80,000, but as at Clarion, this reflects a relatively high number of faculty members at the higher levels due to the fact that many positions go unfilled after retirements, resulting in increasing numbers of senior faculty among the smaller teaching staff. Clarion has essentially frozen hiring for 15 years. In 1993, the school’s music department had 12 faculty members. Today, it has seven, and six of them are scheduled for retrenchment, effectively eliminating music from their campus.
Why, though, does Mr. Roae think that these salaries are so high? Almost all full-time college/university faculty hold terminal degrees, typically the Ph.D. Entrance to Ph.D. programs are very competitive, and they take at least three to five years (usually more) of full-time study beyond the baccalaureate degree.
Here is the real issue: It isn’t faculty salaries that are driving up the cost of a college education. There are two very important factors, and Mr. Roae ignores both of them: 1. The number of administrative positions and costs have increased over the last decade, and 2. colleges and universities are locked in a race to provide dorms and facilities that are at least equal to or better than their competitors. This generation of students and their parents demand Taj Mahal facilities, even as they complain about the rising costs of higher education.
Nationally, the number of full-time college faculty has dramatically declined since many of us were in school. Back in the dark ages when I was in college, more than 90 percent of the teaching was done by full-time faculty. Now, more than 70 percent of college-level teaching is done by adjunct faculty. Adjuncts are paid for “piecemeal” teaching of courses. They earn far less than full-time faculty, typically receive no benefits and can be fired at the drop of a hat. The collective bargaining agreement with PASSHE limits adjunct faculty numbers to 25 percent of the faculty. At Edinboro, 23 percent of teaching is done by adjuncts.
What do administrators do with the money saved by hiring adjuncts? They hire more administrators. At Clarion, over the past five years, the student enrollment dropped by 19 percent. The number of faculty dropped by 17 percent, but the number of administrators increased by 3 percent. In Clarion’s current budget, the cost for faculty (even before the proposed 22 faculty eliminations) is projected to be $1.2 million less than last year. However, the administrative costs will increase by $1.3 million. The school has four administrators who currently earn more than the governor of Pennsylvania.
At Edinboro, the number of administrators has remained fairly consistent over the past decade. In fall 2012, they had 80 managers. In spring 2013 they had 82 managers. The faculty, however, has been reduced by 32 from 375 in 1999 to 343 in fall 2011. Mr. Roae never complains about administrative costs. Of course, they’re not unionized.
In the past (and currently in outstanding schools), the provost and other chief operating officers have frequently been recruited from proven faculty who move to administrative posts late in their careers or return to teaching after a given term in office. Today, the trend in many universities is to hire executive managers who are drawn from the business world. Many of them totally lack teaching experience, and they view students as widgets to count as “cheeks on seats.” In sheer numbers and percentages, instructional costs will always be larger than administrative costs. But that’s just common sense. Mr. Roae needs to remember that students come to universities to study with the faculty, not the administrators.
The decreasing number and influence of faculty in many schools has resulted in increasingly large classes and a business-dominated philosophy that threatens to turn our state universities into vocational schools. This comes at the expense of a broad, liberal arts-based education that requires students to think, reason and make linkages across multiple disciplines.
An interesting irony is the fact that Mr. Roae sponsored a resolution in the House that proclaimed Sept. 3 to be “University of Pittsburgh” day. Pitt is a perfectly fine school, but it is the most expensive public university for in-state residents. Why is he attacking professors at the university near to his own district that provides one of the most affordable educations offered by four-year public universities?
He should be working to introduce legislation that creates well-paying jobs, rather than spreading misleading propaganda to eliminate them. He should support the state universities by standing up for the restoration of the funds that Tom Corbett eliminated from the state-owned universities. Of course, maybe they have to be non-union jobs before he will support them.
Lowell Hepler, Ph.D., is a professor of music at Allegheny College. He was the 2013 recipient of the college’s Julian Ross Award for Excellence in Teaching.