OP-ED | Herbst’s ‘Let Them Eat Cake’ Moment Shows Need for Transparency at UConn
Connecticut’s political parties might be increasingly polarized, but there’s one issue upon which they finally reached unanimous agreement: UConn President Susan Herbst has had a “let them eat cake” moment and her Board of Trustees is utterly tone deaf.
Jump into the DeLorean, fire up the Flux Capacitor and set the date for February 24, 2015, when President Herbst testified about how cuts to the university’s block grant would have dire impacts on the quality of education at the university:
“A reduction to the appropriation in that amount would without question have a devastating impact on every aspect of university operations, faculty teaching and research, and student success . . . The greatest consequences of this would be the effect it would have on our students, our academic programs, and the role UConn must play in the state’s future, economic and otherwise. It would be a giant step backward. To address the gap this would create, our cost savings and revenue options will include: strategic workforce reductions and, to the extent permitted by collective bargaining obligations, unpaid furlough days for all employees including management and unionized workers, reductions to student financial aid, closing academic departments and programs including in Storrs and the regional campuses and ending certain degree programs.”
As of February, 30 faculty members had been laid off, according to Michael Bailey, Executive Director of the UConn chapter of AAUP (American Association of University Professors). It’s happening across the country — tenured professor positions are being filled by less expensive adjuncts for whom the university isn’t required to pay benefits.
“Approximately 50 percent of the faculty is off the tenure track with adjuncts accounting for 25 percent of those. There has been about a 10 percent increase in adjunct faculty use in the Fall semesters since 2010,” according to Bailey.
Yet despite this, at a time of massive state budget deficits and statewide layoffs, President Herbst and the Board of Trustees have chosen — because let’s be clear, it’s a choice — to go forward with massive pay increases to a few non-union administrators on the basis that “everyone else is doing it.” One can’t help but think of that oft-heard parental reprimand, “If all your friends were jumping off a cliff, would you do that, too?”
“The university does not run itself,” President Herbst reminded Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney and state Sen. Dante Bartolomeo, Senate Chair of the Higher Education Committee, in a letter responding to their questions. “We strongly believe in hiring high quality employees in order to fulfill UConn’s potential and ensure that we are as good as we can be as an institution. There are undeniably costs to that including the pay for the four people that prompted your letter, out of a workforce of more than 9,000.”
“I believe a contract is a contract and people should abide by contracts,” Board of Trustees chair Larry McHugh told the Hartford Courant.
What’s interesting — and revealing — is Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s position. He was stridently adamant that labor unions reduce their contractual benefits in light of the new fiscal situation. Yet in a statement, his spokesperson David Bednarz appeared to support Herbst:
“Just like any agency in state government, UConn must adapt to a new economic reality and accomplish more with less,” Bednarz told the CT Post.. “They are already working to do just that making the difficult decisions to live within their budget. That being said, to remain one of our state’s primary economic drivers and educational centers, they must do what it takes to attract the best and the brightest to their university.”
Apparently in the eyes of our governor, “the best and the brightest” refers only to administrators, not people who actually teach the students. Sadly, anti-intellectualism seems to have become a bipartisan affair, too.
As Sen. Bartolomeo points out, at a time when legislators are agonizing over cuts to every budget line, the enormous pay raises and $15,000-a-year car benefits that these four state employees are receiving are “obscene — and that really is the appropriate word to categorize it.”
In Herbst’s response, “I hear a lot of concern about being equitable with other institutions, but not about tuition increases and rising student debt.”
Last December, UConn’s trustees voted to increase tuition 31 percent over four years.
Meanwhile, according to Connie Fraser at the Office for Higher Education (OHE), the Alternate Routes to Certification (ARC) program had its budget cut from $97,720 to $47,883. ARC is a state-approved program for talented mid-career adults who wish to enter the teaching profession — focusing on subject areas where the state has a shortage of teachers. OHE had to cut the summer training session — they expect 90 people to go through the academic year training sessions on evenings and weekends. Think about the impact those 90 people can have as trained teachers — and OHE now has to try and train them with half the resources.
Just to put that into perspective, Bartolomeo said the salary increase and car allowance for just one of these employees would have made up for the cuts to the ARC program. Choices. It’s all about choices.
Maybe this wouldn’t look so bad if UConn weren’t Connecticut’s poster child for lack of transparency. After all, these are the same trustees and senior UConn officials that lost an FOI commission complaint after they barred the public and reporters from discussions about the previous year’s budget. They have fought greater transparency for the UConn Foundation tooth and nail. Not only that, a 2013 PRI report found that “the effects of UConn’s financial aid and price policies are opaque, which could make it hard for prospective students and families to understand likely true prices. For most students, there is a large difference between UConn’s list prices and price actually paid, and prices grow annually. UConn does not seem to make these facts clear to potential students.”
For her part, Sen. Bartolomeo is apparently no longer on the Husky bandwagon.
“I believe in ‘trust, but verify,” Bartolomeo said. “Now I’ve verified and they’ve lost my trust.”
Fortunately, this isn’t a partisan issue, so perhaps Connecticut taxpayers and tuition payers might actually get a legislative remedy.
“These UConn raises are outrageous and inappropriate at this time, especially as tuition skyrockets at the university,” Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano said. “They are completely tone-deaf to the serious financial problems our state is facing and the sacrifices that are being made throughout state government. They also show that there is a serious need for more oversight at UConn and a failure of the administration to understand how UConn is spending its money. It’s still shocking to me that the governor’s administration supports these raises . . . I believe that lawmakers have to do more than just discuss the problems with UConn. We know what the problem is and we have talked about the issues with UConn’s spending for quite some time. More discussion is simply not enough.”
Too right, Senator. It’s long past time for action.
Sarah Darer Littman is an award-winning columnist and novelist of books for teens. A former securities analyst, she’s now an adjunct in the MFA program at WCSU (and as such is an AAUP member), and enjoys helping young people discover the power of finding their voice as an instructor at the Writopia Lab.
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