Waste not, want not

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For the past several months, various members of the UT community, including students, alumni, legislators and prominent donors, have rallied their support for the University and its administration in light of a political attack on UT, coming in the form of higher education “reformation,” orchestrated by Gov. Rick Perry and his local pet think tank, the Texas Public Policy Foundation. It has been encouraging to see such an outpour of highly vocal support for this University and its teaching and research missions.

The movement has been especially refreshing after months of headlines dominated by talks of budget cuts and faculty layoffs.

And now the “but.” While the UT community has rightfully rallied against a set of misguided proposals, that support should not be allowed to fester into the kind of protectionist mentality that assumes that the University is infallible.

Many of the issues threatening the University over the past year have been a part of the larger dollar-and-cents game being driven by the state budget crisis. For more than a year, the University has known that state funding was almost guaranteed to decrease significantly. The state’s new budget has funding for UT being reduced by $92 million.

Meanwhile, tuition costs at UT and around the country have continued to skyrocket in recent years. Today, one year of in-state tuition at UT costs more than $9,400. Ten years ago, it cost only $4,226. Those drastic increases caused Perry to call for Texas colleges and universities to offer a bachelor’s degree for $10,000. Whether that request is another ludicrous attack on higher education or a responsible attempt to put a check on runaway tuition costs is really a matter of opinion.

However, much of the recent debate has not been so much about funding as it has been about ideology. Prominent voices on both sides have argued over the merits of online classes, the role of research in higher education and whether metrics measuring “efficiency” and “productivity” should be employed.

Perhaps it has been preferable for advocates of the status quo at UT to keep the conversation fixated on broader issues of policy and ideology because when one looks at how money actually gets spent on the Forty Acres, it can paint a troubling picture.

For example, spending on administrative salaries has risen drastically in recent years. From 2003 to 2008, the University went from spending $5.9 million on administrative salaries more than $200,000 to spending $8.2 million.

Additionally, a 2009 survey found the average administrative salary at UT was $123,136 while the average faculty salary was only $85,910. Not only is the University paying its top-level administrators more and more, the number of administrative positions at UT has increased as well.

Likewise, construction is currently underway for a new building to house the College of Liberal Arts, which will cost the University approximately $95.7 million. And yet, in the past two years the University has laid off scores of Liberal Arts professors and has withdrawn funding from entire departments and centers. Here’s hoping future students may appreciate the irony of the situation — that is, if there are still English professors around by then to teach them the proper application of the term.

We can support President William Powers Jr. when he is standing up to partisan attacks and gubernatorial strong-arming. But, that doesn’t excuse wasteful spending or other high-cost initiatives that deviate or even conflict with the University’s mission of providing a first-class education to its students.

Over the past months, students, administrators and alumni have lobbied, debated and pleaded for more funding. That funding will not come, and the time for finger-pointing and grand-standing is rapidly coming to a close. As a university, we can either indignantly bemoan our state or we can look inward and begin the more difficult task of conducting a critical self-reflection as to just what our University has become and what it ought to be.