Doing Higher Ed Right

Increasing education funding! Hiring full-time professors! Are these places for real?

Robert Residence Hall, Iowa State University
Iowa State University has consistently done the near impossible for a college: increase full-time faculty hires.

Photo courtesy Manop/Wikimedia Commons

Seems sometimes like every week is a bad week for higher education. Last week was no different: First came news of the University of Akron threatening to shutter 55 degree programs—you know, frivolous ones, like elementary education—broken on the heels of comments by the school’s vice provost, Rex Ramsier, that if his institution stopped using underpaid adjunct labor, it would have to raise tuition 40 percent.

Meanwhile, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting reveals that Ramsier, his six-figure salary, and the adjuncts he loves to impugn are business as usual. According to the report, since 1987, the number of administrators and other nonteaching employees at colleges nationwide more than doubled, “vastly outpacing” growth of not just faculty, but students. So, another week, another set of woes about which I can cry foul, and then get a bunch of condescending responses about supply and demand, as if I have never heard of such a thing.


Instead of bemoaning various and sundry injustices, I’d like to highlight two tiny, shining beacons in what is otherwise a fetid, drying sea, one a-bob with cannibal-rat-infested ghost ships. First, let us laud the great state of Michigan, whose governor, Rick Snyder, just proposed to increase the higher education budget by 6.1 percent. Additionally, let me offer a hearty congratulations goes to the proud trend-resisters at Iowa State University, who have increased faculty hiring while others have slashed it, and decreased administration while others have bloated it.

Granted, Snyder’s proposed $80.3 million increase also comes three years after a brutal 15-percent decrease, so don’t send him any underpants in the mail just yet; it was he who brandished both stick and carrot. Still, though, while most U.S. states have defunded education to such a dramatic extent that “public” universities are but glorified corporate partnerships with five-figure tuition, Michigan’s reinvestment makes it poised once and for all to overtake Virginia and California as home of this country’s finest public university.

According to the Detroit News, the stacks of cash also come with some admirable caveats, including encouraging Pell Grants, and a tuition-increase cap of 3.6 percent. (Universities seem to increase tuition after being given a bunch more money, for reasons which elude me—alas, this is why I have no future in administration.)

Academic departments at Michigan’s colleges and universities will be watching the allocation of funds closely, and it is my sincere hope that they pitch serious fits if they get no new tenure lines while a spiffy new rock wall goes up at their school’s rec center. After all, it turns out that focusing on academics helps student retention more than climbing walls, anyway. That’s the good news out of Iowa State University, which, according to the report by the Delta Costs Project at the American Institutes for Research, is the only—only—institution of higher learning in the entire country to spend the last eight years hiring full-time faculty and shrinking its administration. ISU President Steven Leath explained to the Des Moines Register that ISU wanted to “run a very lean operation and put as much into direct support of students and faculty” as possible, boosting full-time faculty hiring by an astounding 41 percent. (No riot-inducing tuition hike yet, Rex Ramsier!)

Indeed, Iowa State is being lauded as one of the most efficiently run universities in the nation—and its student retention is up 3 percent since 2005. This might not be a spectacular number, but it’s a better increase than its rival, the University of Iowa, a prestigious flagship Research I institution (that, according to the Delta Costs Project, has added much fewer full-time faculty members and many more staff positions).

So yes, Virginia (and every other state), it is possible to put student learning and faculty quality first and for capitalism not to collapse upon itself. In fact, only question the ISU data inspires is: Why, exactly, isn’t every other university also doing this, when it is quite obviously not only possible, but makes for a better-run institution? Why indeed.

Outspoken academics (often of the ever-shrinking tenured minority) counter my frequent cries to assuage the academic labor crisis with insistence that the only answer is a refunding of education at the state level. Well, now the Wolverines are doing it—but will they use that money for good, or for heated VIP skyboxes? And if the reinvestment fails to bring about more full-time faculty or better graduation rates, is there any hope that an American public university can actually operate with the primary goal of educating students ever again?

Then we have equally outspoken administrators, like Ramsier, who insist that it’s just financially unfeasible to use professors who make more than $7 an hour, and that those hires know what they’re getting into, anyway. And yet, Ohio’s ever-practical and unpretentious neighbor a few states to the west has managed it—and continues to manage it.

I hope every university in the country looks to Iowa State’s and Michigan’s shining examples, and realizes that not only will nobody die if we refund public education, but that tuition doesn’t actually have to skyrocket if one deigns to pay professors a living wage. Cannibal-rat-infested ghost ships of academe! Heed the beacons, and hope may remain for you yet. Yes, University of Akron, even you.