Everything You Know About Higher Education Is Wrong

Everything You Know About Higher Education Is Wrong


**With Contributions from Holly Hassel, Nerissa Nelson, Katie Kalish, and Jill Stukenberg

Everything you know about higher education is wrong. Yes, you’ve read that correctly. This is not by accident. There has been a well funded and politicized movement to discredit institutions of higher education for years as part of a larger project to “help conservatives control the branches of state governments and alter state policy to lower taxes, shrink government and attack labor unions.” And it’s working. What is the answer? Stop falling for it. Stop believing these myths. Reinvest in public education. Stop viewing public employees as your enemy. Let’s start with the top fallacies dominating the narrative, as well as how Wisconsin serves as a useful case study for understanding how the dismantling of public education has happened:

Myth 1) Faculty salaries are responsible for rising tuition costs

Public perception of faculty salaries is often inaccurate, misquoted, and leaves people wondering what faculty members are complaining about. Salaries that are reported often quote the highest salary of a full professor at a large research institution – a very small fraction of the norm. In Wisconsin, we are currently undergoing a massive restructuring which has received extensive media coverage. A news story by Steven Walters is a recent example of faculty salary misinformation, “Why Cross wants universities, two-year colleges to merge.” Walters states, “A Legislative Fiscal Bureau summary said professors on four-year campuses were paid an average of $129,500 per year in 2015-16 — double the $62,300 paid the typical professor on a two-year campus.” When reviewing the Bureau’s report (pg. 34), Walters quoted the four-year figure for a full professor at UW-Madison — the highest ranking faculty member at the most highly compensated institution. The $129,500 per year salary is not even close to the average of most full professors at 4-year campuses. If you were to average the salary, you would have to average all three professor ranks ― Assistant, Associate, and Full ― at all campuses (these figures do not include the salaries of instructors or adjuncts who teach courses on more limited term contracts and are not included in the data collected in the Bureau’s table). The average is $68,659. Even that average is laughable because many faculty at both the two-year and four-year institutions are easily $10,000-18,000 below that average, even at the highest level of professorship.

According to a report from the Delta Cost Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan social-science organization whose researchers analyze college finances “faculty salaries were ‘essentially flat’ from 2000 to 2012.” In addition, though state funding has declined, many universities have increased administrative services. As Scott Carlson notes, “new administrative positions—particularly in student services—drove a 28-percent expansion of the higher-ed work force from 2000 to 2012” and “the number of full-time faculty and staff members per professional or managerial administrator has declined 40 percent, to around 2.5 to 1.” At Cal State, the university system increased its hiring of managers at a steeper rate than its hiring of other employees over the past 10 years.

In my own institution, starting salaries of a professor with a Ph.D. remain at $43,000 and have stagnated. The highest paid professor with a Ph.D. at UW-Marshfield/Wood County, after 23 years of experience and service to our campus, makes $65,521.00. Most of my colleagues have second jobs, some at other institutions and others in any part-time job available. Several who work full-time on my campus and at other institutions are eligible for food stamps and reduced priced lunch programs for their children. They live paycheck to paycheck, working as line cooks and waitresses. They continue to pay off student loans and will do so for the next 25+ years at our rate of pay. These instructors do this work because they believe in the mission of public higher education, because they love to teach and receive tremendous satisfaction from it, and because they are committed to the communities and colleagues the work with.

Myth 2) Tenured professors cannot be fired and have “jobs for life”

This is a widespread misunderstanding in part because tenure looks different in higher education than it does in K-12 education. In colleges and universities, tenure review is a process that takes place over six years, with tenure awarded competitively after a lengthy vetting of both quality and quantity of scholarly productivity and quality of teaching performance. What tenure provides is not a job for life per se (there have always been processes in place to lay off faculty in case of fiscal emergencies or to fire faculty for just cause ― flagrant violations of university policy or dereliction of duty). For a university to function effectively and best serve students, it is important to have a stable foundation of faculty who maintain academic programs, advise students, and serve the institution to improve its quality, to implement new initiatives, and to assess its effectiveness, none of which are part of the job description of part-time, adjunct, or ‘contract’ faculty who work off the tenure track. Tenure maintains that foundation of faculty personnel who have made the same level of commitment to the institution that it has made to them. What does that mean? It means tenure protections are incredibly important, but no one is immune from termination. Having tenure does not protect one from being laid off especially if they don’t continue to excel in the areas of teaching, scholarship, and service. Tenured professors get fired every year for legitimate reasons. Others get fired for illegitimate reasons. But the idea that it is “impossible” to fire a tenured faculty member is just patently false.

Wisconsin was the only state that had job protections for tenured faculty written into state statutes, a primary reason faculty found UW System campuses a desirable place despite comparatively low salaries. However, in 2015, substantive changes were made to tenure and shared governance. As Eric Kelderman notes, “In addition to eliminating tenure from state laws, the legislative committee approved a measure that would allow the university to lay off tenured faculty members without declaring financial exigency — for example, when the university discontinued an academic program.”

Now, just a year after the decision from the board, under the guise of “institutional restructuring,” any tenured faculty may be fired and let go. We saw this happen this year at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point in an initial proposal to restructure the Department of Geography and Geology with limit input from the faculty in the program or who are elected to governance positions charged with maintaining the institution’s academic program. Though it seems as though this proposal is temporarily off the table, the fact it was considered is cause for alarm.

In addition, the University of Wisconsin-Superior, a small (about 3000 students), rural, northern Wisconsin campus, is also suspending 25 programs (options to major or minor in particular fields). As one professor of history wrote, critiquing this change, “Though program ’discontinuation’ requires a prolonged trip through governance, a chancellor can unilaterally announce a program’s ’suspension,’ which seems to mean that the program remains officially on the books but cannot admit new students. So in a couple of years, once the prolonged trip through governance ends, faculty layoffs will ensue immediately, since there will be no more majors left to serve (otherwise, if a program is discontinued with students still enrolled, the university must continue to offer them the courses they need until they graduate).”

Further, the massive restructuring that will absorb the institution of the University of Wisconsin Colleges—the two year, transfer campuses of the system—into comprehensive universities as “branch campuses” has the potential to contribute to program closures, faculty and staff layoff, and curricular elimination if courses are not presently offered by the four-year campus.

Myth 3) Faculty pensions and benefits are bankrupting state economies

Pension is deferred compensation, and is 100 percent funded by money earned by the person benefiting. It’s not a freebie. Employer-subsidized health insurance is a standard benefit for employees of large companies. The level of total compensation for educators is quite a bit less than those with comparable education, training, and credentials receive in the private sector. And employees of private corporations don’t have to dip into their own pocket for supplies they need do their jobs. In addition, many private sector employees also benefit from matched contributions to a retirement account, bonuses, and paid vacation time. Wisconsin has the most solvent pension system in the country.

Myth 4) Freezing tuition is inherently good

On the surface, of course low tuition sounds great for students. When millions of dollars were cut from the University of Wisconsin System, many universities had to get creative with ways of finding tuition dollars. When the state cuts funding and the school’s only source of income is tuition, the school has no other way to generate revenue, especially if the school does not have another source of funding like out-of-state students, international students, or housing and other fees. Faculty also want to keep tuition low, but only if the government and states makeup for that cost difference. And, in Wisconsin and in other states, the state simply has not funded the tuition freeze it has put into place for years. Legislators can argue politically that they’ve managed to keep costs down for students, but without funding the tuition freeze, they’ve actually made it harder for students to graduate on time and get the support services they most need. Individual institutions subsequently have to reduce costs somewhere―and that is often through cutting courses, increasing class sizes, hiring fewer instructors and staff (like advisors, IT help, or financial aid counseling), and reducing offices and support services that provide co-curricular and academic services.

State support for education has decreased precipitously under Republican and Democratic governors alike—and Wisconsin is one of only a handful of states that has not restored public funding for higher education to the level it was before 2009. Instead, year after year, we’ve seen more cuts. When my students’ parents went to college in Wisconsin, they were only responsible for 20 percent of the bill, and the state covered the rest. Last year, my students covered 70 percent of the bill themselves. Now, students and their tuition dollars cover roughly 80 percent.

Think of it this way: Imagine if it cost $100 in the 1960s to run a UW institution. The state, through taxpayer dollars, funded $50 of the total $100 cost. The institution would then have to raise tuition to come up with that other $50. Now, though it costs far more to run an institution, the state is only willing to provide $20. How does the institution make up for that difference? By raising tuition. What happens when the government freezes tuition but doesn’t make up for the loss of those dollars? The institution is forced to cut vital services for students.

Over the years, campuses have had to come up with creative ways to find additional funding, and, as Noel Radomski has argued “unlike the comprehensive and doctoral campuses, the UW Colleges cannot raise tuition revenue by increasing the number of non-resident and international undergraduates and graduate/professional students. Non-resident undergraduate students make up only a tiny percentage of UW Colleges’ enrollment. The UW Colleges do not offer graduate programs. City, county, and state elected officials view international students as outside the scope of the UW Colleges mission ― these campuses are a destination for place-bound students to complete their college education at reduced cost in their local communities.” Because tuition is “soft money” that fluctuates depending on enrollment numbers, this also means that institutions cannot count on it to fund their base obligations―including committed and invested permanent faculty and staff (tenure-line faculty and indefinite contract staff like library directors or student services coordinators). These, ultimately, degrade the overall quality of what an institution can provide to its students in all corners of its operations.

In the state of Wisconsin, the UW Colleges, for example, has had to therefore make some of the deepest cuts due to its inability to raise funds lost by the tuition funding and state support. In the 2013/15 biennium budget, UW-Marshfield/Wood County (one of the two-year transfer campus) reduced its budget by $76,633. In 2014, the UW Colleges cut $2.3 million, and positions were eliminated. We then took a $6.7 million cut — about 2.5 times the previous cut, which meant more layoffs and even fewer resources for students. Tuition would never be as high as it is currently had the state continued to fund public higher education consistently throughout the years. Students are paying more and more for fewer services and course options because tuition is subsidizing the cost of instruction rather than state support.

We have already restructured significantly and this has not done much to help with enrollments. In reality, decline in state support and tuition freezes have forced universities to cut vital services for students like advising, mental health counseling, tutoring services, and areas of support where students need them most.

How did state funding decrease so much over time?

The word “taxes,” has become synonymous with something Americans need to be “relieved from” since the phrase “tax relief” was first invented ― yes invented ― by the same people who decided it would be wise to start using the phrase “climate change” instead of “global warming” because it sounded more benign; by the same people who figured out more Americans would oppose the “estate tax” if it were relabeled the “death tax” because that sounded far more insidious. Language is powerful ― so powerful that we no longer see the constructedness of these labels ― they’re just a given. We see taxation as an affliction or burden and since there is no established frame or language that discusses taxes as an investment or a public good, we default to the idea that tax cuts *are* good ― no matter how paltry or insignificant.

So when Governor Scott Walker claimed he would hold true to his promised property tax cut that would amount to $10 over the next two years for the owner of a median-valued home, a savings of $5 a year for Wisconsin homeowners who meet this criteria, he made the mistake of including the actual dollar amount. When we hear we’re getting a tax break or a tax cut, the average citizen assumes they’re going to be saving hundreds or thousands of dollars per year. In this instance, many pounced on the idea that the dollar amount was so low, and that the cuts proposed were so deep, they’d gladly give back those five dollars if it meant saving jobs, keeping the UW System intact, and if it meant not having to make cuts to programs around the state.

And, when universities are no longer seen as a “public good,” and instead a private and individual investment intended to increase the earning potential of a single person rather than support and advance civic engagement, it’s easier for taxpayers to not want to invest. How else do legislators convince citizens that public universities are not worthy of investment? Republican legislators can paint them as bastions of liberal indoctrination and point to manufactured, republican funded “free speech” crises. Which brings us to our next point:

Myth 5) There is an overwhelming free speech crisis on college campuses

The “myth of the liberal campus” narrative presumes two things 1) a free speech crisis actually exists and 2) that the cause of the crisis is “overly triggered” student activists. In reality, conservatives have orchestrated and funded events on campuses to portray higher education as unstable, worthless, and discriminatory towards conservative ideas. Why? To convince the general public to divest in higher education. As Chris Ladd notes, “Having lost the battle of persuasion, and largely swept from the campus environment, right wing speakers have to be foisted onto universities from the outside. When characters like Ann Coulter, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Charles Murray appear on campus, their appearances are funded by extremist donors and their events are orchestrated by outside groups. Finding students among the organizers, attendees, protestors, or counter-protestors is a challenge. This is theater and the university is a prop.” As this op-ed written by members of the Berkeley Faculty Association Board notes,

The entire right-wing spectacle at UC Berkeley must be seen within this larger context of a long-running war upon public higher education. Its aspects include reducing its tax base, discrediting scientists whose climate-change findings lend support to government regulation of polluting industries, and a culture war upon desegregated communities of learning. Quality mass higher education, intellectually rigorous research and the embrace of diversity are the hallmarks of a public university’s service to democracy … From a public relations perspective, accepting the terms of a right-wing narrative about supposedly illiberal campuses by bending over backwards to subsidize an already well-financed right-wing assault on the university may do more to confirm the erroneous claims of that narrative than to change them. That narrative has become a crucial element in the arsenal of weapons used to attack our democracy. Make no mistake: the groups that attack transgender people, Muslims, people of color, women, legal immigrants as well as undocumented students, are also those that attack science, and feel no obligation to hold their views to academic standards of evidence or coherence. We, therefore, urge the administration to creatively and courageously confront the way free speech is being deployed against our academic freedom, and—in deciding what can take place on our campus — to prioritize the conditions that enable teaching and research.

There is no crisis. There is, however, an effort to convince citizens this crisis exists to yet again justify divestment in public education.

Myth 6) But states are broke! We can’t afford to fund public higher education!

None of the cuts over the past few years needed to happen. Wisconsin faced a $2.2 billion budget hole for 2015-17 because of $2 billion in tax cuts since 2011. Many simply accepted as fact that “cuts need to be made to balance the state’s budget.” What doesn’t get included in the conversation is the fact that our representatives and our governor refused federal funds. If we had accepted the Badgercare Expansion, we’d not only have covered 80,000 more people, but much of this “crisis” would have gone away.

“But what happens when the federal government stops paying for the program,” you ask?

Any state can request a waiver that states that after we no longer receive 100% of the funding from the federal government, we can go back to the current situation and not be on the hook for keeping that specific program going. According to the Henry A. Kaiser Family Foundation,

More states are discussing alternative models through waivers as a politically viable way to implement expansion in order to extend coverage and capture federal dollars … To date, five states have received approval of a Section 1115 waiver to implement the Medicaid expansion (Arkansas, Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and most recently Indiana).

These waivers allow the states to implement the Medicaid expansion while also giving them time to figure out how they will fund these programs in the future once they no longer receive 100 percent of the funding from the federal government. These waivers allow each state to discontinue the program if there are no state monies to fund that particular program once federal money runs out. Wisconsin citizens have been led to believe that this just simply isn’t an option.

This is also reflected in a report from the Wisconsin Budget Project citing, that “State policymakers could free up $782 million by making three changes: capturing our state’s share of the money Wisconsin taxpayers have been sending to Washington for Medicaid expansions; halting the continued phase-in of an ineffective corporate tax break that has mushroomed in cost; and reallocating $211 million that the bill uses for poorly targeted property tax cuts.”

Governor Walker and his Republican counterparts have stated numerous times that they wish faculty spent more time in their classrooms and went so far as to include that language in the most recent budget. He has publicly stated “Maybe it’s time for faculty and staff to start thinking about teaching more classes and doing more work.” Though the governor and I agree on almost nothing, I will say he and I agree on this: I, too, wish I could spend all of my time focused on my job and my students.

I wish I didn’t have to spend time convincing legislators that my colleagues and my students matter.

I wish I didn’t have to spend countless hours convincing my fellow citizens to invest in higher education.

I wish I didn’t have to fight with my own administrators regarding curricular array, quality, and standards within the framework of dwindling funds.

I wish I could focus all of my energy on lesson plans, research, and ways to make sure students are successful rather than on the bottom line of my institution.

I wish that the leaders of my institution cared about my students as much as I do.

What is the answer? After years of fighting, honestly I don’t know anymore. For awhile, I thought I could do enough to convince my fellow citizens to reinvest in public education. I thought, surely, if they had the same information I did, they couldn’t possibly continue to vote for legislators who wish to erode these institutions. But that has not happened. For years, my fellow citizens have voted to defund higher education and in turn, made it more difficult for the most vulnerable students in our state to have access to affordable, quality education and a shot at career stability and success. I don’t know if I will ever be able to convince conservative voters to realize funding higher education is in the best interests of all in my state, but I do ask, at the very least, that progressives and liberals stop reiterating these myths. Stop falling for these untruths, and wringing your hands over “political correctness,” “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and “snowflakes.” Stop buying into these ideologies. You’re not helping, and you’re reinforcing dangerous narratives that have been used for decades to dismantle institutions dedicated to training populations to think critically and navigate our worlds with facts, evidence, and reason.

I’ve been dismantling myths about higher education for years. It would be nice not to have to do this anymore.



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