Quality higher education requires investment
The Board of Trustees of the University of Oregon recently approved a new Mission Statement for the University. Its first line declares that the UO “is a comprehensive public research university committed to exceptional teaching, discovery, and service.” The university faculty are primarily responsible for carrying out this core mission. Research and teaching stand at the center of our professional work. Investing in teaching and research excellence builds the long-term academic reputation of a university, something that carries far more value to parents, students, and alums than any other type of branding work.
One indicator of our success in our mission is the university’s membership in the Association of American Universities (AAU), a collection of 62 research universities across the United States and Canada. The AAU only admits universities that demonstrate a serious commitment to research, graduate training, and undergraduate education. One of the yardsticks the AAU uses to measure a university’s commitment to excellence is its ability to recruit and actively retain an excellent faculty.
The academic labor market works like many others. Universities compete to attract bright scholars to their campus by offering them a variety of inducements, from research labs with the latest technology to the prospect of working with the best graduate students. Unfortunately, when it comes to salaries the University of Oregon consistently ranks near the bottom. This hurts our ability to recruit new scholars who bring new energy, new ideas, and new research ideas to campus.
It also undercuts our ability to retain the excellent faculty we do have. Each year, faculty members are poached from the UO to institutions that better support their faculty. Replacing those faculty is costly and takes precious time away from our research, teaching, and students.
Higher education in Oregon has struggled in the last few decades with declining fiscal support from the state. As state support has dwindled, Oregon’s community colleges and universities have taken the brunt of funding cuts. According to the 2014 State Higher Education Finance Report, Oregon now ranks near the bottom—47th out of 50—in public spending per student. The UO has made up for declining state support by raising tuition, relying on students to borrow in order to pay for what used to be considered a public responsibility. At risk from these cuts is a legacy of high quality, affordable higher education for all Oregonians. With overall student debt at over 1.3 trillion dollars in the United States—more than all credit card debt combined—we are fast reaching the limit on the new dollars we can reasonably ask students to spend on public higher education. And yet, our core mission and our responsibility to affordable, quality higher education in Oregon are as important as ever.
We believe that sustaining excellent universities for the state of Oregon requires finding ways to avoid tuition increases while committing fully to the excellent faculty who are necessary for fulfilling our core mission. The absence of a robust state budget for higher education is the greatest challenge facing the University of Oregon, but it is no excuse for not prioritizing the investments that serve the university’s academic mission. We urge our state legislators and the UO Board of Trustees to reinvest in our children’s future, so that we can maintain the excellence demanded of an AAU institution and elevate the academic reputation of our great university.
Over the coming months, United Academics, the union representing 1,800 faculty at the university, and the administration will be engaged in a conversation about investing the resources we have to address this challenge. The union has proposed a wage package that would bring salaries more in line with AAU comparator institutions, making the UO more competitive by investing in faculty who fulfill the university’s core academic mission. We have ideas on how to do this with minimal impact on budgets.
How we resolve this issue may well determine whether we can live up to the goals of the mission the Board of Trustees has set for our university and the future of higher education in the state of Oregon.
President, United Academics of the University of Oregon, AAUP-AFT Local 3209, AFL-CIO