Justin Myers is upset. Like many other Portland State students, Myers takes more than 12 credits, but under the “tuition plateau” he only has to pay for the price of 12.
That could soon change. If a proposal to eliminate the plateau passes, students taking more than 12 credits would be forced to pay for all the credits for which they are enrolled.
For a resident undergraduate taking 16 credits, that would mean a 30 percent increase in tuition.
That is just one of many proposals (see sidebar) to come out from the budget and priorities committee, a special group that has been meeting in private since February to help PSU adjust to barebones state funding.
While the Budget and Priorities Committee does not have the power to make changes, the policy paper the group has written will be the basis of its recommendations to PSU President Daniel Bernstine. Its broad-ranging proposals, some of which have irked students and faculty alike, may shape PSU for years to come.
Myers, who is a student senator, worries that changing the tuition structure hurts those who are least able to afford education. Because the tuition plateau allows undergraduates to take as many as 18 credits for the price of 12, financially strapped students can graduate more quickly by overloading on credits.
By removing the plateau, “we’re punishing students for working harder,” Myers said.
The change has been justified, Myers said, as saving money for students who do not take advantage of the plateau. At present, the students who are taking fewer classes can be thought of as subsidizing those who take overloads.
The actual savings to students who do not overload are not much. For in-state undergraduates taking less than 12 credits, elimination of the plateau results in a 2 percent tuition cut.
Graduate students taking a full load or less would save more. Residents enrolled in nine credits or less would save 10 percent.
But graduate students taking an overload would also pay more. In fall of 2002, there were 504 graduate-level students – roughly one in 10 – taking 16 credits. If the tuition plateau were eliminated, these students would see their tuition increase 60 percent in-state, and a whopping 127 percent for non-residents.
According to the Cathy Dyck of the budget office, roughly a third of PSU students at any time were taking an overload.
Myers finds this number to be misleading. If one in three students in any given quarter are taking an overload, how many students take an overload at some point in the course of their studies? That number, he reasoned, would be much greater.
Another proposal might save money, but at what cost?
One of the most controversial proposals put forth by the Budget and Priorities Committee is the idea of separating PSU from the Oregon University System.
At present, PSU and six other public universities in Oregon are governed by the State Board of Higher Education.
As state funding for higher education dwindles, however, many have wondered whether the cost of doing business as a state institution is worth state support.
Two of the biggest costs are the state benefits and retirement plans. According to Jay Kenton, vice president for finance and administration, there could be significant savings if PSU were allowed to pick its own benefits and retirement plans.
At present, said Kenton, PSU pays roughly 16 percent of a total of $70 million in employee salary to the Public Employees Retirement System, or PERS. In a study he conducted last year, Kenton found that other retirement systems could be paid for at somewhere between 8 and 10 percent of employee salaries, a savings of $4 million or more.
One reason for the savings is that the actuarial tables, the tables that estimate the average time a retired worker will live and hence draw a pension, used by PERS are widely known to be out of date, Kenton said. While the Oregon Legislature has ordered the tables to be updated, a number of employee groups have filed suit, and the legality of the move is not expected to be resolved for some time.
Similarly, Kenton said, money might be saved by withdrawing from the state benefits plan.
Gary Brodowicz, president of PSU’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, concurred.
“We’re lumped in with all other state employees,” said Brodowicz, despite the fact professors are typically healthier. The effect is that “we’re subsidizing riskier groups.”
Yet withdrawal from the OUS board would have more far-ranging results than monetary savings.
The move has been championed by some who believe that PSU must move toward a more entrepreneurial, business-driven approach to education.
The Budget and Priorities Committee’s policy paper cites a paper written by Duncan Wyse, president of the Oregon Business Council extensively.
“The business community has been pushing for autonomy for six years,” said Wyse in an interview. Yet now is not the time to move toward autonomy, said Wyse, adding that an independent citizen review board would be the best way to move toward this. The Budget and Priorities Committee makes no mention of such a board.
Johnson defended the proposal, saying that the charge of the Budget and Priorities Committee was to address as “thoroughly as possible” any change that could help PSU cope with the current crisis.
The move, however, has upset some faculty members, who see the shift to a entrepreneurial model of operation as potentially dangerous to their academic freedom.
Journalism professor Michael McGregor, writing in a commentary published in the Oregonian, warned against “the McCollege mistake,” the effects of big business on learning. In one of the worst examples of the influence of business on academia, “major corporations endowed several faculty positions in (the University of California at Berkeley’s) business school, tacitly influencing curriculum.” The same, he argues, should not be allowed to happen in Oregon.
“I’m concerned about the shift from state support to a market-driven model,” said Jennifer Ruth, a PSU English professor. Ruth worries that this model could threaten the values of an academic institution.
Brodowicz, the president of a PSU professor’s union, concurred about what he termed “the corporatization of higher education”. “The more corporate you get, the less academic freedom you have.”
Ruth is also worried about a “disconnect” between the Budget and Priorities Committee’s guiding documents, the “PSU vision and values” and “PSU priorities” statements and the proposals in the policy paper.
The first priority item is to “attract and retain a faculty of distinction.” This is difficult, said Brodowicz, in an environment where part-time, fixed-term employees are being called on to teach courses more frequently. These employees do not receive benefits, are not in the running for tenure and have extremely limited job security.
“If they’re good enough to hire year after year, then they’re good enough to be hired on a multi-year contract,” Brodowicz said.
Kenton, vice president of finance and administration, said the situation was regrettable. “We can’t tell faculty who are on annual contracts whether we’re going to hire them back next year,” he said. “People need to make decisions based on what they know, but we can’t tell them whether they have a job or not.”
Johnson, the Budget and Priorities Committee chair, agreed the trend of hiring part-time faculty was a problem, though not necessarily one associated with being business-driven.
Instead, it is “a national phenomenon – it’s deeply worrisome to me,” he said. “It’s a very exploitative system of very talented people, and it is ethically troubling.”
Unfortunately it isn’t anything new. Johnson, ever the historian, noted that “the history of the post World War Two American University has been corporatization.”