Trading Academics for Amenities: Move Over Faculty, Make Way for the Hot Tubs

Rec Center in Edinboro's new Highlands "upscale" dorm. Photo: CORRECTION 11/19/2013 - This rec center is NOT located IN the new Highlands complex. It is, however, featured prominently on the PR site for the Highlands.

Miami TshirtI did my PhD work at Miami University. No, not in Florida – Miami University in Oxford, OH. There was a t-shirt in the bookstore that always provided a snarky retort to those who made the assumption that I was writing my dissertation in Florida: “Miami was a university, before Florida was a state.” Nope, I was far from Florida – a bike ride away from the Indiana border and about a half an hour from Cincinnati.

As a Central New York native, I had never heard of Miami University. This was before Ben Rothlesburger would help put Miami on the national map for Division I football and just about the time Wally Szczerbiak would lead the Redhawks  to the Sweet Sixteen in the 1999 NCAA basketball tournament. I found out about Miami because two amazing mentors, Jim Zebroski and Nancy Mack, spent part of a spring break coming up with a list of PhD programs in composition and rhetoric that they thought I should apply to as I was nearing the end of my Masters degree at Syracuse. Miami had one of the top PhD programs in the country in composition and rhetoric and I still think my decision to go to Miami for my PhD was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Many of my fellow doctoral grad students have become leaders in the field – Scott Lyons, Malea Powell, Pegeen Reichert Powell, and Gwendolyn Pough just to name a few.

I loved my time at Miami. My education was stellar and the intellectual commitment of the people I studied with was unparalleled. That doesn’t mean that Miami was some kind of utopia. In 1998, for example, I was one of seven students arrested for protesting a series of racial hate-crimes on campus. I was the one grad student and the only white student arrested in the protest. On the way to jail, we heard police refer to us as the Miami 7. We took the name and used it to fight our arrest and draw further attention to long-standing, institutional racism at the university. We refused a plea bargain and demanded a jury trial. In the year leading up to our trial, the discussion about racism and racial intimidation became intensely complex and complicated, but that did not change our resolve. We fought and we won. We were acquitted of all charges (you can read Pegeen Reichert Powell’s critical reading of the context of the protests and the administration’s handling of the issue here).

Also, like many research universities, Miami relies heavily upon the labor of adjuncts and graduate teaching assistance to teach a significant percentage of their undergraduate, general education courses. Miami University also has two branch campuses in Hamiltion, OH and Middletown, OH – both more urban and working class campuses. Miami’s administrations had a long history of treating their branch campus faculty as second-class citizens in relation to the Oxford Main campus faculty.

Up until 1997, Miami’s mascot was the “Redskins.” Activists had long sought to change the name, which seemed especially important for a university that took its name from the Miami Indian Tribe, in a state that boasted the sambo-esque  “Chief Wahoo” plastered all over Cleveland’s baseball legacy. It was not until leaders of the Miami Tribe made direct appeals to the university to change the name, that Miami adopted the Redhawks as its new mascot.

Miami’s main campus was almost entirely white, suburban, and middle to upper middle class. It has the reputation as a “public ivy” which it cultivates aggressively. In 1996, as I was in the middle of my PhD coursework, the university’s administration through the leadership of the new university president, James Garland, began a process of “transformation” that many of us found deeply troubling. The new plan was to put Miami at the forefront of the corporatization of higher education. Literally. Miami administrators began to refer to Miami as a “corporate university,” a term they still use in their own webpages to describe the period between 1996 and 2009 in the university’s history. Under President Garland’s leadership, Miami went on a building binge, seeking to turn its already manicured lawns into the country-club university in southwest Ohio.

Given Garland’s overt commitment to corporatizing Miami and building lots of beautiful buildings and luxury dorms, it was head-turning to read ProPublica’s interview with Garland published on Monday. The article, “On ‘Country Club’ Campuses: A Public University Ex-President Shares His Second Thoughts,”  is an indictment of the trend in higher education to spend millions of dollars on beautifying the campus in order to attract wealthy students to universities.

Garland’s words could not come at a more opportune time as PA State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) university presidents are moving forward with harsh austerity plans, slashing faculty and gutting academic programs. As I reported last month in “Wall Street on the Susquehanna,” PASSHE university presidents, administrators, and Board of Governors are all crying “budget crisis” and insist that the crisis stems from 1) the 2008 economic crisis; 2) the long-term decline in state appropriations coupled with Governor Corbett’s deep cuts in PASSHE in 2010; 3) declining enrollment; and, 4) “increasing costs” in faculty and staff salaries. The sites of PASSHE’s austerity policies have been aimed squarely at faculty and staff. What PASSHE refuses to even acknowledge is that one of the most significant contributors to the current “crisis” has been a decade long, unfunded spending spree on new buildings and “beautification” of campuses. PASSHE university presidents have bonded-out our futures so they can put their names on buildings.

James Garland seems to now be questioning the choices he made to lead the country club trend while president at Miami. As Garland put it,

As I think back, I didn’t realize it at the time, but in hindsight I worry about whether we did the right thing. As president, you to try to make campus attractive. You do things primarily to maintain financial stability.

I just think there’s a movement these days among universities that are able to do this, to turn themselves into country clubs. But inevitably that comes at expense of academic rigor and the quality of the academic program.

In my tenure we certainly contributed to this trend. And there’s a price you pay for that. For every dollar you put into building a student sports facility –- workout rooms and exercise rooms and squash courts and things of that sort — every dollar you put into that is a dollar you’re not spending on improving classrooms or paying your professors a high enough wage that you can recruit from higher up in job pool.

Garland describes his administration’s decision to sink money into new, luxury buildings as a response to declining state funding and the desire to increase revenue – primarily by recruiting out-of-state students who pay a higher tuition rate.

I felt we were handicapped by our state affiliation because the state regulated our tuition charges. So even though we had the market strength and quality of offerings to have higher tuition charges, the state would simply not let us do it. At the same time, the state kept cutting our budget each year. We were hamstrung.

So we ended up trying to recruit more non-residents from outside of Ohio, and package ourselves as a selective, beautiful liberal arts college.

And so to do that, we took advantage of low-interest rates for municipal bonds and invested in rehabilitating our residence halls and eating facilities and putting in more recreation — workout rooms and lounges, and the kinds of accouterments that really dressed up a campus and made it a much more comfortable and familiar place for upper-middle class students. So those students started applying to us in droves. Application numbers went up, we became more selective, and the SAT scores of the entering class became higher.

And the university began to solve its financial problems. So in that sense, the decision to sort of market ourselves as a kind of elite public university paid off.

According to Garland, Miami University was “on the ground floor” of the movement in higher education to beautify their facilities and appeal more directly to out-of-state and upper-class students as a way to resolve declining state appropriations. However, that approach is not sustainable and becomes exponentially less effective as more universities jump on the bandwagon.

The problematic thing is that it loads the universities up with debt and with everyone doing it, the competitive advantage of doing it is quickly lost. If everyone is trying to recruit from the same pool of students, then there are no winners. Everyone just spends a lot of money and gets the same number of students.

If everyone has a climbing wall and a new recreation center and serves sushi, then it doesn’t become a marketing advantage, it just becomes something you do to avoid falling behind everyone else. And I think that’s happening.

KU - golden_bear_village_south_web
Kutztown University spent over $28 million on a luxury, “garden apartment” style dorm complex on 14 acres in 2003-2004. Photo: STV

Garland’s “second thoughts” point directly to the central problem of PASSHE’s crisis. The problem has virtually nothing to do with “increasing costs” of faculty and staff salaries. As Kutztown University’s, Ken Ehrensal clearly demonstrated in my interview with him back in September, when you adjust for inflation,  instructional costs have declined by nearly 20% and that faculty salaries had declined by over 10% since 1994-95. However, as Ehrensal showed, over the same period of time, non-instructional spending had increased by nearly 40%. What are those non-instructional costs? You guessed it, the costs of new buildings and debt service on the millions of dollars in bonds PASSHE universities have taken out to build them.

What is most striking when you begin to look at the amount of debt that PASSHE universities have taken on to build luxury dorms and offer country club amenities, is that many of the universities that issued retrenchment letters – warnings of coming layoffs and program elimination – are the very same universities that have been stacking up the debt.

Kutztown University administrators – who have postponed deep cuts in faculty and programs until next year – have been on a near drunken building spree since President Javier Cevallos took over the helm in 2002. In addition to the $28 million for “garden apartment” style dorm complex, Golden Bear South, Cevallos and his administration sank over $53 million into building the largest dorm in the state system in 2008 – just as the economy was crashing. The dorm has a mall-like court with an ice cream parlor, a convenient store, and an amphitheater.

East Stroudsburg University’s administration has been on a similar building spree. In 2012, ESU sank $74 million into its new upscale housing complex – Hawthorne Suites and Hemlock Suites. According the Pocono Recordthe new dorms,

provide more comforts than the traditional dorms that have become synonymous with the college experience. Gone is the lack of privacy. Each room features its own bathroom and up to four separate bedrooms in the more expensive suites. ESU’s older dorms feature shared bathrooms for up to 50 students.

Hawthorne Suites and Hemlock Suites are actually owned by University Properties, Inc. (UPI) an “affiliated non-profit corporation of East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania.”  That is precisely the kind of “off-balance sheet” arrangement I exposed in “Wall Street on the Susquehanna” last month.

Hawthorne Suites. Photo: ESU

ESU has also taken on significant debt building its new “Innovation Center,” which, according to union sources, did not quite work out financially the way it was expected to. Instead of the project bringing in funds to help pay down the bond debt, the debt is now being paid for directly out of the university’s Education and General Fund (E&G) budget. ESU, of course, just cut six faculty members, degrees in Music and French, and the Department of Movement Activities and Lifetime Fitness. In addition, seven faculty members were forced to move into other departments or lose their jobs and two unfilled faculty positions will be permanently eliminated. This is the price paid for sparkly new upscale buildings.

Perhaps the most egregious example of the trend to swap academic quality for county club facilities is Edinboro University. Edinboro’s president, Julie Wollman, announced plans to cut over 30 faculty member and eliminate programs in German, philosophy and world languages and cultures. Instead of eliminating programs in music and music education completely, as called for in Wollman’s original plan, these programs will be significantly reduced in size. And yet, you wouldn’t know there was a “crisis” if you were shopping for a luxurious living space on campus. In fact, Edinboro’s administration is unabashed in touting its new “upscale on-campus living” dorm, “The Highlands.” The $60 million+ Highlands facility stands apart from many other residence projects across PASSHE in that the university is promoting it with a high-profile public relations campaign designed to recruit the kind of students that Garland referred to in his ProPublica interview: out-of-state and upper-class. Check out this “student tour” of a Highlands suite:



The story of The Highlands is even more complicated when you get into the details of how the project was completed and the potentially devastating effect is will have on many long-time, off-campus landlords. That is a story I continue to work on and will be posting in the near future. If new PASSHE Chancellor, Frank Brogan’s visit to Kutztown University this week is any indication, it seems that PASSHE administrators are committed to erasing from public discussion any mention of the debt they have piled up in their frantic and irresponsible race to country clubify PASSHE campuses. No, PASSHE seems more likely to continue down the path of “transformation” – that is, more of the same. The possibility of changing course rests largely in the emerging movement of students and faculty who are resisting further efforts to gut public higher education in Pennsylvania. It remains to be seen if the protests will grow into a political force in the coming 2014 election year.

One thing should be clear, however. These protests are not anti-PASSHE any more than my protests in Oxford, OH were hating on Miami University. We fight because we believe in higher education and we love our universities. To stand by in silence and watch the destruction of something you love is deplorable.


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