Some will lament that the issue of academic tenure has now been thrown into the political arena. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, in hot pursuit of the GOP nomination for president, has initiated a campaign to “reform” the concept of permanent faculty appointments at his state’s publicly financed universities. It’s hardly a secret that he hopes here to repeat his earlier surprising victory in which a conservative chief executive in a very blue state took on the increasingly powerful [and political] teachers’ unions and trimed their sails.
Walker’s successful campaign to reign in the teachers’ unions – the obvious corruption of unions contributing to politicians’ campaign funds with their returning the favor in salary increments – was what attracted national attention to him. It is a feat no other governor, with the possible exception of another presidential hopeful, Ohio’s Gov. John R. Kasich, has been able to pull off. But it remains to be seen if lightning will strike twice.
Certainly the rising cost of academic tuition, much faster than inflation or the depreciation of the dollar, has become a national crisis issue. As the old joke goes, only academics now can afford to send their children to college. And the appointment of teachers to lifetime, guaranteed employment – something only available to a few in our federal and state judicial systems – is a start at discussing the many issues involved.
In fact, tuition costs at our universities have been rising for a century. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that they fell behind the rise in household incomes and there is the bite. Higher education cost have increased more than five times since 1985. Even the notorious rise in medical costs jumped less than half that, and the consumer price index rose only 121%.It’s even worse if you look at it in inflation adjusted dollars, from an average cost for all institutions in 1981-82 at $3,489 to $19,339 in 2011-2012.
Ironically and to the consternation of some of its critics, this has been true in no small part because the demand for tertiary education has risen at a phenomenal rate, far beyond the ability of expanding college enrollment to satisfy it. The GI Bill of Rights brought eight million students, many of whom would never in the prewar setting have thought of higher education, into the halls of academe. Since then government and private student loan programs have encouraged still other families to think of college for the first time in their generations.
University of Colorado law professor Paul F. Campos has pointed out that contrary to the mythology government funds for higher education are greater today than they were in what were considered the halcycon 1960s. But that funding is not, by and large, going into the pockets of teaching staff – who are about the same salaries as the 1970s — but rather into salaries for administers who have often doubled since the 1970s. Campos says “…there are no valid arguments to support the recent trend toward seven-figure salaries for high-ranking university administrators…”
That’s why tenure may be a good place to start with reform of university costs precisely because it is the most sensitive – how, when and with what do we reward a good teacher? But it is, hopefully, going to open up a far wider debate with some suggested solutions.