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Professor addresses increasing need for financial reform

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(Photo courtesy of HECTOR CASANOVA | TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE)

Higher education is at a crossroads. Its institutions are being squeezed by competitive pressure and poked by stringent governmental and legal oversight. Most schools are headed down the road paved by the corporate model: cut costs, increase revenues and focus on improving metrics and the bottom line. 

While higher education can certainly benefit from greater financial efficiency, I fear that increased administrative concern for money will result in missed opportunities to serve the real purpose of higher education: improving the future of society by empowering minds. I believe we at DePaul have all the ingredients to lead higher education down the road to the greater good. However, we are in need of systemic change in our community.

I am writing this open letter to you, yes you, the one who is reading these words right now. You are an important piece of DePaul University, the faculty, staff, students, alumni, donors and friends who empower this institution with their time and money. True cultural change must come from the bottom up, not the top down. DePaul President Rev. Dennis Holtschneider, C.M., is a wise man in a powerful position, but not even the president of DePaul himself can impart a cultural change. DePaul’s previous provost spent his first quarter here listening to faculty, staff and students from across the university. I believe that he saw the need for a systematic shift at DePaul, but he tried to achieve this change from the top down by removing incumbent deans. This bold, aggressive plan did not work. DePaul paid him $516,551 in a year and showed him the door. I want a cultural change, too, but I think it should start as a fire in the hearts of the DePaul community.

Adjunct professors are being exploited. They are like modern-day indentured servants getting access to academic resources and a title by working hard for absurdly low wages and benefits. However, not all adjunct professors are being exploited. There is no minimum or maximum amount that adjuncts can be paid at DePaul. The amount an adjunct professor is paid is largely a decision of the department chair with the oversight of the dean’s office. Students would be shocked to learn just how much some adjuncts are paid. It is a problem that an adjunct professor can lead a course with 40 students enrolled while being compensated with the tuition dollars of only two students. Students do not know how much their professors are paid at DePaul because we are a private institution that chooses to keep much of its financial decisions confidential.

I am not arguing against high salaries in higher education. University of Alabama’s head football coach Nick Saban may have been the highest paid employee in the industry in 2015, and it is reasonable to argue that he was underpaid based on the income his job performance brought to his university during the year. Imposing ceilings on salaries is not the solution since some of the most productive employees will leave if their pay is restricted. What I am arguing for is greater transparency in the compensation of all of DePaul’s faculty and staff, not just that of our highest compensated employees. In the wise words of philosophical sports personality Jalen Rose, “You never get paid what you deserve in life, only what you have the leverage to negotiate.” Leverage can be achieved in many ways. Some are healthy for the university, such as being so productive an employee that other schools make competing offers. Some are unhealthy, such as leverage obtained by cronyism or political patronage.

DePaul’s adjunct professors deserve fair compensation, and unionization may be a necessary step to achieve that goal. More and more adjunct faculty are unionizing at colleges across the country to gain leverage at the negotiation table. Adjunct faculty, please be careful about how you pursue this critical process of organizing at DePaul. I think that unionizing in a small group is likely to end very badly for you. DePaul is already under tremendous financial pressure primarily due to the budgetary impasse in the state government keeping MAP funds locked up. The Monetary Award Program (MAP) provides taxpayer-funded grants to low-income students from Illinois who attend college in Illinois. Serving students of high potential who have been handicapped by obstacles beyond their control is a key piece of DePaul’s mission.

We have nearly 5,000 MAP-eligible students at DePaul who each receive an annual grant of more than $4,000. That works out to about $20 million a year in state funding missing at DePaul, which would require about a $500 million gift to the endowment to support annually on our own. I suspect that this financial pressure created by the lock on MAP funds is the primary reason that the administration has so strongly discouraged adjunct unionization here through multiple direct email communications to faculty and the creation of the Adjunct Info Hub. Activists will tell you that the information the administration provided is standard union-busting propaganda, and if true, I hope DePaul did not pay too much for it.

DePaul may compensate its adjunct professors a little better than some universities, but that does not mean that adjuncts are fairly compensated for their contributions. Many adjunct professors are confused about why they were not paid for cancelled courses. The reason is that the stated policy of compensating adjuncts for cancelled courses was only recently added, possibly in reaction to the adjunct unionization movement sweeping across the country. Organizing quickly in a small contingent to demand higher pay may result in being told your services are no longer needed. If unionization becomes necessary, pursue it collectively across the widest swath of the university that can be gathered with patient, deliberate effort. DePaul cannot dismiss a negotiation with a union of all of its almost 2,000 adjuncts represented at the table. But a small, unionized group will be powerless. The Office of Academic Affairs has analyzed proposals to increase teaching loads of tenured and tenure-track faculty across the university. In my school, the Driehaus College of Business, some tenured faculty are already assigned eight courses a year.

Students, you have a right to be angry about the state of higher education. You are among the most exploited members of the community. Your tuition dollars can be perceived as supporting the administrative bloat and the rewards of political patronage. Your tuition dollars also can be seen as supporting the sizeable minority of tenured faculty members who use their tenured contract as their personal benefice, who have quit on research and dismiss their poor teaching evaluations out of hand. Understand that the posted tuition price is just the sticker price for a higher education, and the financial aid process allows students from low-income families to get a price far below the university’s posted tuition price.

This need-based price discrimination is one form of discrimination I wholeheartedly support. The political impasse in the state is effectively raising the price low-income students must pay for a higher education. I fear that if the state budgetary impasse continues many of these students will have no choice but to drop out of school and pursue jobs without a degree while burdened by the debt already accumulated, which must begin to be repaid as soon as they leave school. State politicians are culpable for this impending disaster. Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed the bill that would have restored MAP funding, but the leadership in the state legislature sent him a bill that left out currently unfunded higher education costs to public colleges and universities. I think we of good heart in the DePaul community need to raise our voices to both the governor and the General Assembly. If the impasse continues, how many Illinois colleges will be forced to shut down? How many student loan defaults will it take before the federal government cracks down?

I am proud that DePaul has committed to supporting our students with the greatest financial need by covering the unpaid MAP grants awarded by the state to current DePaul students. I am proud of the courage displayed by DePaul’s leadership and trustees to cover the MAP grants to all new entering students. That is DePaul’s Vincentian mission in action. That commitment to purpose is what makes DePaul a special place to work and study.

But great reform is needed. Too much is decided here behind closed doors or in the dark where the great charity and talent in our community cannot see what is happening and what needs to be done. We need to change the rules to instill transparency and accountability in our culture. I support making all course evaluations open to the DePaul community. I support making enrollment statistics public both for past courses and real-time for current and future courses. I support providing accessible audio recordings of key meetings such as those of the faculty and staff councils and of the various promotion and tenure committees. I support making records of all university financial expenditures open to the community at the transaction level, including all forms of compensation. Creating greater transparency and accountability in our culture will boost productivity by proactively forestalling any  institutional fraud and directing resources to their best use.

We, the DePaul community, must engage in open communication with mindfulness toward mutual understanding and respect to address our concerns. Doing so will strengthen our community and empower us with the ability to work together toward the greater good.

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Professor addresses increasing need for financial reform