Change or die, a look at the other side of the truth
When my oldest daughter was 9, she asked me the difference between discretion and sincerity. I didn’t know what to respond.
Aesop, the great fabulist of Hellenistic Greece, once said: “Every truth has two sides; it is as well to look at both, before we commit ourselves to either.”
Many centuries after, President John F. Kennedy said: “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest; but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.”
All of us are closely following CSCU President Mark Ojakian’s proposal for a dramatic reform on the state higher education system. Above and beyond politics, or Ojakian’s (aggressively questioned) experience in higher education, he is absolutely right in one simple truth: Our system is unsustainable and this is as simple as change or die.
What we read in the mainstream media has one of two opposing themes:
Either a triumphalist approach about state colleges’ performance — articles that resemble those of government-owned media of Communist dictatorships. “We are doing great,” while the reality is that the system is crumbling —
Or articles reflecting the grim reality of students rallying in fair opposition to tuition increases and reporting that the situation is getting worse.
All the opinions I have read, many of them from colleagues, blame the state for the budget cuts and to defend the survival of Connecticut’s community colleges and state universities as they are.
I agree with the intentions and legitimacy of those passionate opinions, but we are not telling the whole truth, or ignoring crucial aspects of a reality that all of us know.
I will use some figures to illustrate my arguments, but I won’t bore you with unnecessary statistics. I won’t mention names of institutions or colleagues, because this is not about personal attacks. The specific information for those interested is, however, in the public domain and it can be easily found.
I just want to bring my colleagues into a deep and honest reflection and to leave them some questions to answer.
The monster burden of this problem lies in compensation and fringe benefit costs. A myriad of factors has contributed to this situation over the years, mainly in two core aspects:
- This structure was created in times of economic prosperity that are gone and will hardly return on the near future.
- We expect our unions, whose task is to defend our “conquests,” will continue fighting to the death to preserve them.
It is a Gordian knot that Ojakian understood since he took the office.
One community college, with a total enrollment of around 4,000 students and a total full-time staff of approximately 200 employees, has a supervisory-administrative structure of around 30 positions including deans, chairs of academic departments and roughly 20 academic and non-academic directors or equivalent officers. This doesn’t include program coordinators, associate directors, assistant directors, other assistants, etc.
In simple math, that means there is one officer of any ranking for every six full-time staff. Full-time faculties with no supervisory duties are the absolute minority.
According to Transparency.ct.gov, seven of these supervisors received a total compensation (salaries plus benefits) of $1,455,630 in fiscal year 2016. This for only seven employees, and this doesn’t include other costs, such as payroll taxes the college pays for their salaries, etc.
In rough numbers, their average of compensation per student for these seven people would be $364 and the Board of Regents raised students’ tuition last week — again.
If we consider total compensation of all administrative staff, the figure might climb, conservatively, to nearly $4 million, more than 10 percent of the budget shortfall of the entire CSCU system for the next fiscal year. This is the situation in only one of our community colleges.
Is this sustainable? In my humble opinion is not, and this personnel structure, in only one college, is disproportional and massive. It is imperative we restructure and consolidate it.
We have seen many CSCU system high officers lobbying the General Assembly, strongly advocating for our student’s future to “Achieve their Dreams;” The burden their massive compensations create for the state haven’t been mentioned.
The Board of Regents solution is taking from the students’ pockets instead.
We have seen how student enrollment has dramatically declined over the last years. Many adjuncts receive only one contract per semester, if so, but I have also seen full-time faculty members — some of them among the supervisory structure with a six-figure salary basis — teaching up to six classes per semester, some, obviously, in a part-time-additionally-compensated basis, sometimes in two CSCU units.
As per new IRS regulations, effective January 2017, highly compensated employees will have FICA deduction increases, which will raise the cost of employers’ payroll taxes. To grant additional part-time contracts to some full-time faculties will cost colleges more than hiring capable adjuncts.
There are department chairs and program coordinators who work the hardest for the fulltime salary they receive only. Others, instead, grant themselves as many courses as possible, to earn as much money as possible.
Is this in the best interest of our system? Is this their way of helping our students achieve their dream? Is this fair to adjunct faculty? Is this one of the “conquests” our unions are expected to defend?
Per the collective bargaining agreement, full-time faculties are expected to work 35 hours per week, we all know. They are not exempt salaried employees and their time sheets have to be signed by their direct supervisors. But, all of them do?
I do see colleagues who are always on board, usually a lot more than the 35 weekly hours they have to work, but unfortunately, not all of them. Have you seen the same? Is this fair?
Online classes, the favorite that some coordinators grant themselves, have contributed to this situation. You can work from wherever you have online access, but I wonder how, an academic supervisor who is “teaching online” and not within the facility is able to know the amount of time his subordinates are working.
The system is based on integrity and it’s a right of all colleagues to defend this standard, but we are state employees and, sadly, because of many corruption problems Connecticut has had in the recent past, there is a feeling of distrust among citizens regarding our collective integrity.
Do you agree that taxpayer’s rights are above our right to demand respect and trust?
In my humble opinion, and in the same way that all state employees’ compensation is disclosed to the public, an accurate system to control state college full-time employees’ working hours has to be put in place. It will be as simple as to connect parking garage cards, or computer’s log in-out to a payroll program, which will simplify the workload of Department Chairs and Human Resources staffs, bringing savings to operational costs.
The Board of Regents policy allows full-time faculty to hold outside contracts, under the euphemistic name of “Research and Consulting Agreements with public and private entities.”
Faculty members’ outside full-time employment, sometimes managing a private company, on the same daily schedule the college operates, is considered part of this category?
What are the subjects of such “research?” Who revises and authorizes such agreements? How many hours and focus do those “research and consulting” jobs take away from the faculty member’s primary responsibility to his/her college duties and the students?
Is it worth it for Connecticut taxpayers to pay five or six figures to one employee who still has time to run a private business, to devote hours to additional “research” outside of his/her academic unit, or to hold part-time teaching appointments at neighboring private colleges?
Let’s be honest, the day has only 24 hours.
Finally, my dear colleagues, regardless of your job status or position within our system, I don’t encourage you to agree with me, but to reflect on these matters.
We must (and we will) defend our system, but do not forget that the crisis is so deep, that when President Ojakian says that this is to change or to die, he is right, and drastic reforms, while painful, have to be made.
Do not forget that if we see problems, ethically questionable activities or potential violations of policies, or structures that may be bettered, we should not look to the other side simply to avoid conflicts with colleagues and supervisors, nor to protect the reputation of our academic unit with “discretion.”
That is not integrity. It is complicity that fosters a sub-culture of apathy and tolerance that demoralizes and erodes our system from within.
Do not forget that beyond our professional careers, financial interests, personal opinions or political ideas, we are public servants and as such our primary loyalty must to be to our students and the taxpayers, the true funders of our system.
Humberto Castro-Cruz is an adjunct faculty member teaching art at Capital Community College.
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