University of Minnesota reform needs workVIRGIL SWING: It’s good to see signs of financial realism continue at the University of Minnesota, the latest being the university regents’ vote to limit the huge rewards that have gone to some folks leaving administrative posts.
By: Virgil Swing, for the Budgeteer
It’s good to see signs of financial realism continue at the University of Minnesota, the latest being the university regents’ vote to limit the huge rewards that have gone to some folks leaving administrative posts.
Perhaps the most egregious example was the more than $500,000 given to Kathryn Martin after she left as UMD chancellor. Her undue reward and those for others came in part because former UM President Robert Bruininks granted waivers from university rules that at least would have limited such payouts.
The recent regents’ action isn’t exactly a huge restriction on the rewards given outgoing administrators. It limits them to six-month (rather than 12-month) sabbatical leaves with pay, with that money to be at their salary as a faculty member rather than the higher administrator pay.
Since there are only relatively few such high-level administrators getting this undeserved largesse, the change won’t make a big difference for a school with serious financial problems.
Still, it’s another step in the right direction. Much more important was a related regent action that requires the university president to monitor such spending on a continuing basis and report on it to the board annually.
For way too long regents have bowed unquestioningly to UM presidents’ actions. The new policy gives them information on compensation for senior administrators and should force them to stay involved.
UM is still a long way from the needed changes to bring spending in line with available money. For decades the main answer was to increase tuition well above the inflation rate and complain that state legislators weren’t giving them enough money. Such relative state-government stinginess for universities exists around the country and shows no sign of ending anytime soon.
UM President Eric Kaler, who succeeded Bruininks, has begun to act like he sees these financial realities. He’s looking into a three-semester system that might lower costs and has vowed to examine administrative costs as a way to hold down tuition.
Unfortunately, all recent actions seem likely to move a glacial pace. There is talk of studies, task forces and other hoop-jumping that will take time. In announcing changes to compensation for retiring administrators, some regents said they’ve considered them for a couple of years. This languid pace for reform contrasts with how well-run corporations act when facing major financial problems.
Many research universities have turned themselves into quasi- businesses in recent years as they seek patents on promising research discoveries — with researchers sometimes even creating profit-making businesses based on such research.
Some of that is good and some is bad, but it would be nice if the resemblance to businesses included making important needed changes quickly instead of running them through ponderous committees and listening to the views of every stakeholder who ever walked across campus.
Still, the bottom line is that the university is moving in the right direction. Perhaps after a few years graduates and dropouts won’t by repaying student-loan debt into their 50s, and prospective students from lower-income families may find the university affordable again — as it was for me in the 1950s.
Change can’t come too soon since the very existence of our big campuses with their Taj Mahal-like buildings are threatened by various forces in the early 21st century.
The number of online college classes being offered goes up all the time. That can be an important money saver for colleges by reducing the need for infrastructure. But what happens if almost all classes move online and campuses begin to resemble western ghost towns?
And many of America’s most prestigious universities (such as Stanford, MIT and Harvard) are offering free courses taught by top faculty members over the Internet. In most cases, those courses don’t earn credits from those schools, but that could change.
And some folks value college courses for what they learn regardless of credits, and may not care if it leads to a degree. So changes at universities must involve a lot more than limiting overcompensation for retiring administrators. The University of Minnesota taken some first steps down the road toward needed reform — but there’s still a long road ahead.
Budgeteer opinion columnist Virgil Swing has been writing about Duluth for many years. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.