Money For Nothing, Leaks For Free 

Tennessee's budget crisis is bad news for higher education.

There's a leak in Tennessee's higher education system. Several, in fact. One sprung in Ashley James' dorm room at the University of Memphis around Thanksgiving. The sophomore broadcast-news major came back to her corner room in Smith Hall one night and found four ceiling tiles on the floor and water everywhere. Other U of M students complain of buckets in hallways and classrooms to catch water dripping from the ceiling.

But there's another sort of leak, one that has nothing to do with water. Last year, the state legislature passed a budget that shortchanged higher education in the state; institutions like the University of Memphis passed on an unprecedented 15 percent tuition hike to their students to make up the money.

So far, next year isn't looking any better. Just last week state legislative leaders were trying to figure out a way to raise over $700 million in new funding to meet minimum budget requirements. But that number doesn't include additional funding for higher education.

"It happens a drip at a time," says Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR) chancellor Charles Manning. "Our system doesn't fall apart one year to the next. It erodes gradually."

At the University of Memphis, things certainly seem to be eroding. According to data from the university's office of institutional research, in the fall of 1998 the university had 508 tenured professors. In the fall of 1999 it had 489; in 2000, 462; and in the fall of 2001, the number had dropped to 451 tenured professors. Over that same time, the number of faculty has actually increased, with the biggest jump in those not on a tenure track.

And while the university has recently built a new library, a clock tower, and the Rose Theatre, its older facilities, such as James' dormitory, are beginning to show their age. James used a combination of plastic bags and bowls to catch the water for about two weeks before the rain subsided and a maintenance crew could fix the problem.

"I immediately went downstairs and filed a report for maintenance. They came the first day," she says. "My mom works for the university and has had problems getting maintenance. I told them, 'I live here. I need help now.'"

James was relatively lucky. When she came back after Christmas, she was still missing a few ceiling tiles and there were still two buckets on the floor, each with about four inches of water in them, but the leak had been fixed. Unfortunately, other major maintenance projects -- about $49 million worth --have been deferred until there's money to fix them.

Under Pressure

Law schools are competitive and aren't normally seen as nurturing environments. But at the U of M, second- and third-year students offer advice to their less-seasoned peers. Choice tidbits of wisdom include "Dress in layers" and "Don't lean back in the amphitheater chairs; they're broken."

"If we had to have a law conference in our building," says Valerie Allison, a third-year law student, "I think it would be embarrassing. It's either extremely hot or extremely cold in the classrooms, but it never corresponds to the weather outside."

Allison says that all the students and professors dress in layers, shedding sweaters and coats when necessary. She can tell you which rooms are always hot and which ones are always cold and which ones have no ventilation.

"I hate to complain about the heating and the air conditioning," says Allison, "but it's hard to concentrate, and in law school you have to concentrate. We always say there must be a psychological experiment going on: 'How do law students behave under pressure and adverse temperatures?'"

Dr. Shirley Raines, the university's 11th president, says maintenance is one of the areas hit hardest by the state's budget.

"Those problems, frankly, are harder for us to address," says Raines. "We have over $49 million in deferred maintenance listed -- as HVAC systems and those kind of things -- because we have a number of aging buildings."

Asked what the staff members tell students when there are complaints such as Allison's, Raines says, "We look to see where we're at in getting that building fixed."

That's really all they can say. Because of the limited funding from the state for construction -- all the new buildings on campus have been paid for by private donations or debt service -- the university's repairs are prioritized. Raines says they try to address the instructional spaces first but that the list changes almost daily. For instance, when the law school library flooded last August, that facility jumped to the top of the list.

"We're systematically fixing the roofs, but we need more money to fix them well. We'd like to replace them instead of just patch them," says Raines.

It's a Band-Aid approach, but right now it's all they've got.

"It's just nuts. We don't necessarily need a brand-new building," says Allison, "but if we're going to pay more each semester, we should at least have a building where you can turn the heat off."

She sometimes regrets not going to another law school, but she partly came to the University of Memphis because the law school has the highest bar-passing rate in the state and passing the bar is, after all, her main goal.

"The teachers do a great job," says Allison, "but it's almost in spite of the building."

A Hypothetical Question

PHOTO BY TREY HARRISON
U of M president Dr. Shirley Raines
Asked what she would do if someone handed her $1 million and told her to spend it today, Raines doesn't miss a beat: "I'd spend it on faculty salaries."

According to the Southern Regional Education Board's (SREB) Fact Book on Higher Education 2000/2001, faculty salaries at Tennessee's public four-year institutions were only at 88 percent of the national average in 2000. That's down from 96 percent of the average in 1995.

"We attempted to address the salary issue," says Raines, "with the 15 percent tuition increase for students. We put those tuition dollars into salaries to keep them competitive." The money gave professors an additional raise over the 2.5 percent increase provided by the state.

Michelle Smith is a senior elementary-education major. A few years ago she participated in a student lobby group that went to Nashville and asked legislators not to cut funding for education. The effort failed; funding was cut.

"One of my professors said to our class, 'I know I'm worth more than the university is paying me,' Smith says. "That was really disheartening. I think the university loses a lot of professors because of that."

While Smith may be disheartened, Raines chooses to look on the bright side.

"We have had a lot of faculty who have left, granted, but we have many brilliant faculty and extraordinary teachers who have decided to stay," says Raines. "It's not that I want to put that million dollars on people who are trying to leave, but what I would do is look at the people doing extraordinary jobs who are committed to this university. Those would be the people whose salaries I would enhance."

Unfortunately, that's only hypothetical. Under the current brain-drain the university has about 10 percent fewer professors than it should have. And if the money isn't there, no one gets a raise, committed or not. One thing seems certain, however: The university can ill afford to lose many more professors.

Sticker Shock

When the TBR, the governing body of Tennessee's public universities and technical centers, decided to raise tuition 15 percent for undergraduates in four-year institutions last summer, it was continuing a trend. In 2000 the TBR voted to raise the tuition 10 percent at the University of Memphis. In 1999 fees were raised 8 percent and in 1998 they went up roughly 6 percent. The bottom line: During the 1995-1996 school year, annual tuition and fees for in-state undergrads was $1,806. Six years later, the price tag is almost double, at $3,470.

Although Raines originally says during an interview that deferred maintenance and the faculty "brain-drain" are the university's two biggest problems, she amends that later: "I guess it depends on how you answer the question. You could say the major problems with the budget have been that we had to increase tuition ... followed by low faculty salaries and deferred maintenance."

Whether or not another tuition increase is on the horizon for this year depends on what the Legislature does during budget sessions. If it passes one of the more politically challenging tax proposals, a tuition increase might not be necessary. But that option seems unlikely.

"It's hard to say how much funding higher education will get," says state Senator Steve Cohen (D-Memphis). "I don't think it will be significant. We've been behind in that area for years. Even if we gave them more funding, we'd still be near the bottom."

According to figures from the SREB, adjusted for inflation, per-student funding for public four-year colleges and universities averaged an increase of $40 from 1995 to 2000 nationally. In Tennessee during that same period of time, per-student funding fell $1,303.

And for the TBR, that means voting for higher tuition.

"I'm pretty sure there will be a tuition hike. What I don't know is how much it will be," says Manning. "As of now, students pay close to half the funding. Unless the state doubles its share, we're going to have to raise tuition."

The state only gives about 84 percent of its formula for funding higher education; that means that instead of students paying about 40 percent of higher education's operating costs, which they do traditionally, they're now picking up almost 60 percent of the tab. For instance, a fully funded formula would mean another $20 million for the University of Memphis alone.

But Raines wants to be clear on one thing: The U of M is still a bargain in higher education. At nearby Rhodes College, annual tuition and fees come to just under $20,000. At LeMoyne-Owen College, the tab is $7,500.

"For instance, an undergraduate, in terms of tuition, still pays just over $3,200 a year. We have people who pay more than that for tuition for preschools for their kids," Raines says.

Even so, with the steady stream of tuition hikes each year, some students are struggling to make ends meet and, according to Smith, don't understand how desperate the university's fiscal situation is. "I think a lot of students say, 'We're paying all this money. I'm working all summer to pay tuition. What do you mean there's no money?'"

When asked about the tuition increase at the law school, Allison seems reticent to talk. Graduate tuition went up about 10 percent last year and increased 15 percent the year before.

"Let's put it this way: Your loans don't correspond to it," she says. "And your job isn't going to pay you any more money just because your tuition increases. You just say, 'Okay, I have less to work with.'"

Less To Work With, More To Do

That's the attitude the TBR has taken as well after hearing about the funding they were getting to work with. In December, the group published "Defining Our Future," a report to the General Assembly on the impact of current and future budget reductions. In an effort to find a way to operate more efficiently with less money, the report outlines six key recommendations, including reducing the cost of remedial education, eliminating off-campus locations that are not cost-effective, and sharing resources. But the report makes clear that it's not a blueprint for success but simply a way to stay afloat.

"We must emphasize that in order to increase education-attainment levels and achieve the level of excellence the General Assembly, the education community, and our citizens desire more funding is required," reads the report.

"We characterize [the report] as things worth doing," says TBR chancellor Manning, "but it won't solve the fundamental budget crisis."

Ideas that can be put in place are being put in place, while others are still in the planning stages. In December, the TBR voted to suspend remedial classes at its four-year institutions and is now looking at a suggestion to reduce the number of hours required for graduation.

"With subjects such as engineering and nursing, basic accreditation requires more course work," says Manning. "But in other areas, we just start to add things in. We'll say, 'This is something our graduates need to know,' and sometimes it's just easier to make another course. We think we can trim it down and still produce educated people."

Essentially, this means that a student who knows what career he wants to pursue after graduation can get his degree faster and at less expense.

"Will they know a little less? Yes, they will," says Manning. "Will it make a significant difference? No, it won't."

Students who are unsure of their career goals when they enter college will not benefit as much, but Manning says that he's not concerned about it limiting the quality of education. The idea isn't ground-breaking; similar plans have been undertaken by Georgia and Florida.

"We needed to take a hard look at what we're doing. This way, we get a little more economy and still get great graduates," says Manning.

Raines says when she came onto the job she wasn't naive, but she wasn't sure what they were going to do to raise the required funding.

"I'm still asking: What are we going to do?" she says. "When I arrived in July, I knew we were facing significant challenges and we still face significant challenges."

One thing her administration is working toward is aggressively asking for alumni contributions and endowments, as well as partnerships with local businesses.

"We simply don't want to be standing there with our hands out for them to help us. We are looking for donors and people who can endow more efforts that they think are in the community's best interest," says Raines. "We also think we have a lot to offer corporate sponsors."

Gracing a wall on the president's outer office is a photo showing members of the administration breaking ground for the FedEx Technology Institute. It is this type of project, she says, that will bring people from all over the world to work at the University of Memphis.

"It is in our very best interest as a community for this university to flourish," says Raines. "Every student who graduates from the University of Memphis will earn four to five times as much in his or her career and pay back into the system three or four times as much in his or her career. That means if we have more college graduates, we're going to prosper economically."

Instead of the funding problem being self-contained at public colleges and universities, both Raines and Manning see the long-term aspects of a far-reaching problem for Tennessee.

"The more pressed we are for money, the harder it will be for the University of Memphis to grow," says Manning, "not just in terms of students, but in terms of its potential: how it could grow and serve Memphis."

Manning cites Nissan as an example. A few years ago, the automaker decided not to build two plants here. It wasn't that the state didn't have an educated workforce that could do those jobs. Rather it didn't have enough of an educated workforce to fill those jobs. Most of the qualified employees already had jobs.

But the problem isn't only one of economics. "Sticker shock" also has Manning concerned. The TBR's main goal is to educate as many Tennesseans as possible. As the price of higher education rises, more and more potential college students decide they can't afford college.

"Their goals and aspirations start to change," says Manning. "They don't believe the funds are there, so they don't take academic courses and they give up."

"I think it will be a very different place in Tennessee in 20 years if we don't do anything about it," he says. "You can put off repairs and use part-time faculty but they don't have the level of commitment to the facility. It's hard to see where you fall off the cliff."

To keep it from going over that cliff, the system needs more funding. But in a state budget filled with needs, including things such as TennCare and pre-K education, the legislators have a hard call to make: deciding who gets what and how much.

Raines and U of M communications director Curt Guenther think it's time the students themselves got more involved with the legislative process. At U of M, students outnumber staff and faculty by a ratio of 20 to 1. Along with their families and friends, they make up a substantial voting bloc. And they are, after all, the ones directly affected by the cuts. Raines and Guenther may get their salaries from the state, but they've already gotten their degrees. In fact, Raines says she wouldn't be where she is today without her public education in Tennessee.

However, Senator Cohen, who's in favor of a lottery and a scholarship program like the one set up in Georgia, isn't sure student activism would make a difference.

"I don't think it would," he says." I don't think it's possible to change the minds of some of the legislators who are not supporting higher education or aren't in favor of meaningful tax reform."

So what exactly does that mean for the state's system? At the TRB, they'll be working toward implementing more of the "Defining Our Future" cost-cutting measures. At the U of M, they're deciding whether they need to limit enrollment to live within the existing budget. And at Smith Hall, Ashley James, whose dorm room began leaking again after thunderstorms late last week, will be hoping for clear blue skies.

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