Texas college students footing extravagant bill

By ANGI PATTON (Editorial)
The Houston Chronicle
September 8, 2003

As both benefactors and victims of legislative whim, Texas universities, fed up with rock-and-hard-place living, banned together and waged a campaign to take matters into their own hands. In this year's legislative session, university officials argued persuasively that the budgetary shortfalls facing the state left universities no other choice but to find a new patron.

Addressing the University of Houston Board of Regents in August, outgoing UH President Art Smith conceded, "There is a shift ongoing at this institution, in Texas and across the nation concerning who pays for higher education. The move is away from taxpayers and state legislators to users." Considering a $19 million increase in student fees effective this term at UH, a 21 percent increase in tuition beginning January 2004, and a suggestion that there is more to come, Smith's prophecy has become reality.

These increases come on the heels of a 2002 Chronicle of Higher Education report that revealed four of the top 10 highest-paid university presidents of public universities are in Texas. The kind of leadership needed to grow and manage the corporate-size budgets and complexity of universities does not come cheap, so the rhetoric goes. As evidence of this cohort of great leadership in Texas, universities offered legislators a way out of their budgetary woes by sacrificing the very body that university leaders are paid to protect students.

An indication that universities are in for a public-relations pounding surfaced this summer when The Dallas Morning News reported that during the past four years, in the face of rising costs for students and decline in higher education funding, salaries for many top administrators at the University of Texas System have increased more than 30 percent, a situation at odds with the distress signal being broadcast by university officials.

Google the subject on the Internet, tuition increases, and it is evident that this trend has reached epidemic proportion, traversing the news wire at warp speed. The plight of students is igniting public outcry, and universities seem to be on the losing end of sympathetic supporters.

For example, The New York Times

recently featured a front-page article that couples rising costs with a parallel phenomenon of declining services. In other words, students may be paying more but they are getting less, as courses and programs are over crowded, cut back or eliminated. A similar feature also appeared in USA Today, in which the headline read, "Less bang for more bucks."

The same might be said of university leadership as governing boards remain committed to a policy of "pay them and they will come, pay them more and they will stay" standard of executive compensation in a climate of sacrifice being imposed on students and academic programs. This phenomenon is the subject of a recent Houston Chronicle editorial ("College Costs / Higher education becoming out of reach," Sept. 6) that dismisses the traditional excuse of reduced state funding as the basis of rising costs in higher education. The Chronicle cites a new report by the U.S. House Education & Workforce Committee that concludes the crisis in college costs is due almost entirely to decades of increased spending, a trend that finds college administrators wanting bigger and bigger budgets. Administrative salaries are identified as part of the problem.

At the University of Houston, for instance, the total salary budget for the UH System administration has risen 46 percent over the past five years. If salary increases were visualized on a bar graph, administrative gains would display phallic-like proportions compared with the 9 percent increase in the total salary budget of faculty over the same period.

During this time, the top 10 administrative positions received salary increases on average of 40 percent. In addition, executives who met or, in the case of the general counsel and vice president for administration and finance, almost met the five-year mark received generous retention bonuses based on perseverance rather than performance.

At a time when academic budgets are being cut and the future of public education is compromised, a decision to

increase the salary of UH's new president suggests that administrative compensation remains a priority of the UH Board. This move serves to undermine the university's ability to promote a platform of community-oriented education that appears to be UH's new marketing strategy.

A show-me-the-money motto of compensation is eclipsed by an obvious rebuttal -- show us the leadership. Rather than institutions serving executives with pay and perks, leaders should serve institutions with vision and valor, and remind us of the intrinsic value of education.

The profits of universities are not in endowments, corporate partnerships or stock portfolios. The riches of academia are found in the endeavors of students who are empowered through knowledge to live productive and fulfilled lives, and in turn, make the world a better place for all. This ideal deserves our full commitment. We should be working to make it easier, not harder, for students to obtain an education. Anything less signals a lapse in leadership. Anything less is not worth paying for.

Patton is an associate professor of art at the University of Houston.