William E. “Brit” Kirwan is the Chancellor of the University System of Maryland. With fiscal and other changes taking place—or feared to be taking place in the near future, we asked him to respond to some questions developed by the Editorial Board of The Faculty Voice. He provided the answers below. Thanks Brit!
TENURE: Will the tenure ranks continue to dwindle in the University System of Maryland (and elsewhere)—with many of those on tenure tracks replaced by non-tenure personnel as retirements and departures take place? And if so, what impact will that have on our intellectual communities and on the quality of our teaching?
The decline in tenure ranks and corresponding growth in adjunct faculty is a national phenomenon and is directly tied to the decline in state support for public higher education. In Maryland, with the University System of Maryland (USM) and our institutions facing an inadequate level of funding, we are left with the unenviable choice of either eliminating sections that enable students to make progress toward degrees, or increasing use of adjunct faculty. We have tried our best to find a balance between these competing pressures. As the economy improves and the state is able to provide additional resources to the USM, we must focus on reversing the trend of excessive reliance on the use of adjuncts. I firmly believe that to give our students the highest quality education, the vast majority of courses should be taught by tenure and tenure-track faculty members. I want to add that we have many talented adjunct faculty members teaching on our campuses. In order to recognize long-serving meritorious adjuncts, we recently passed new polices that give them a form of job security and increased benefits.
FACULTY COMPENSATION: Given the budget squeeze, what do you think will be the faculty compensation and benefits trajectory over the next few years?
Some years ago, the USM Board of Regents established as a guideline that average faculty compensation at institutions should be at the 85th percentile level in comparison to the averages at designated peer institutions. Clearly, we have fallen below this benchmark, which is a matter of grave concern. Currently, all state supported salaries in Maryland are frozen. And while the USM did get some flexibility in terms of “retention funds” to increase the compensation level of critical faculty members we are at risk of losing, this alleviated only a small portion of the problem. Once again, as the economy improves and the USM’s funding level is increased, we must look at increasing both faculty and staff salaries as a top priority. In fact, an element of our recently adopted strategic plan—Powering Maryland Forward: USM’s 2020 Plan for More Degrees, A Stronger Innovation Economy, A Higher Quality of Life—recognizes this concern. It calls for USM and its institutions to address compensation issues as an urgent priority.
RETIREMENT: Do you think that there will be enhanced inducements to retire but also cuts in health and other benefits for those who are retired?
As you know, the state instituted a modest Voluntary Separation Program earlier this year. The plan, which offered very modest financial incentives to resign from state service, was not available to USM employees. The USM is currently considering the possible creation of an alternative, parallel plan for system employees. While no viable plan has yet to emerge, we will continue to work with the Board of Regents, CUSF, CUSS and the other representative bodies to try and develop a feasible plan.
The erosion of health benefits for public employees and retirees is another national trend brought on in part by the nation’s economic decline. Unfortunately, we are seeing the cost of healthcare benefits rise in the form of increased “co-pays” in state after state, and Maryland is no exception. I am gratified to note, however, that the USM administration worked closely with CUSF and CUSS to ensure that the “inevitable” changes in benefits for our staff and retirees were done in a way to minimize the harm to our employees from among the options on the table.
HUMANITIES: Nationally, the humanities are being squeezed. What do you see as the future of the humanities in our System in the near and far futures in the face of the tight budgets?
In this difficult fiscal climate, our arts and humanities programs are indeed under significant threat, especially as they operate without access to the same type of external funding opportunities that exist for the scientific and professional areas. This very challenge is addressed in the USM’s new strategic plan, which articulated “the role our institutions play in promoting a high quality of life in Maryland through the scholarship and creative endeavors of USM faculty in the social sciences, humanities, and the fine and performing arts.” I have long held that an understanding of history, an appreciation of art and literature, insight into philosophy, and an awareness of world cultures are indispensable aspects of a civilized society. We have an obligation to make sure our graduates have the cultural and intellectual underpinnings necessary to enable them to take their place as enlightened and progressive members—and leaders—of society. From my perspective, all of our institutions recognize the importance of the arts and humanities. These disciplines are a vital component of the curriculum at all of our institutions and must continue to be so into the future.
ENROLLMENTS: Some campuses are planning to increase the sizes of their student bodies (especially for students out of state and out of country), in part to add tuition money to the campuses’ resources as some other sources dwindle. What impact will that have on education?
As an important component of the USM strategic plan, we make clear our desire to help the state reach its goal of having 55 percent of the state’s adult population earn either a two or four-year college degree. However, the USM plan makes abundantly clear that in working toward this goal we will not compromise the quality of USM degrees. This means that we will not grow enrollment at our institutions unless the state is able to pay its share of the cost of educating additional students.
GRADUATION RATES: The six-year graduation rates at some System institutions are amazingly low—the lowest is Coppin State University at 13 percent. Is any special effort by the System and/or the Regents called for, or are the current educational contributions sufficient?
Graduation rates are a critical issue at every institution, and improvement in these rates is a central aspect of the USM’s new strategic plan. The concern is especially acute among minority, low-income, and first-generation college students. Under the USM’s Closing the Achievement Gap initiative, which is part of the strategic plan, each campus has identified its gaps in the graduation rates of its students based on race and income. Campuses are expected to cut these gaps in half by 2015 and eliminate them by 2020. I am pleased to note that, according to a report issued last year by the Education Trust, there is no graduation rate achievement gap at Towson University, UMBC and Frostburg State University. This means that on these campuses minority students are as likely to graduate as white students. At our HBU campuses, including Coppin State, the goal is for these campuses to have a graduation rate that equals the average graduation rate across USM for all students.
PERSUADING THE STATE: What actions is the USM administration now taking to persuade (alas, again) the state government that our universities have such a large positive impact on the state economy that reductions in faculty and faculty support will cost the state more than it saves?
Making the case for higher education as a significant “public good” is a huge responsibility, perhaps the primary responsibility, for the Board of Regents and the USM central office. While we have suffered through multiple furloughs, hiring freezes, pay freezes and other reductions in state support, and while the USM is not receiving the level of funding from the state that would enable us to maximize our impact, we are significantly better off than most other states. Across the country, state support for higher education is being decimated. For example, the media have recently reported cuts greater than 30 percent in California and Washington, a 30 percent cut in Minnesota on top of earlier deep cuts, a 40 percent cut in Arizona, a proposed 50 percent reduction in Pennsylvania, a 35 percent cut in Louisiana, and a 15 percent cut in North Carolina. The list goes on and on. By contrast, USM’s budget was cut in the current session of the General Assembly by four-tenths of one percent. And, we are one of only a small handful of systems whose state support has actually risen—albeit very modestly—since the start of the “Great Recession” in 2008. Most other states have experienced deep multi-year cuts over this period. Given the fiscal challenges facing our nation and state, I feel the Board, the USM, its institutions, CUSF and CUSS have done a good job of explaining the essential role higher education plays in advancing the quality of life in the state. As a result, we have received a priority in budget considerations by the Governor and the General Assembly that is unmatched in my memory. We will continue to advocate that higher education funding not just be protected, but actively supported and increased. Because our base budget has been protected, I feel we are better positioned than most other systems and universities to rebound aggressively as the economy recovers.