February 17, 2018

Mad as Hell at Higher Education | From the Bell Tower

Steven Bell, Library Journal Academic Newswire columnist

Do you think that $180,000 is an outrageously high salary for the president of a community college? Given what we know about the salaries of deans at ARL libraries, it doesn’t seem all the outrageous to me. What if you threw in a few perks? It still doesn’t seem so terrible for what must be a fairly complicated job with a large degree of responsibility, lots of headaches, and long hours. Given the many challenges of higher education these days, from accountability to funding emergencies, it must be both complex and stressful.

Nonetheless, community college presidents in New Jersey came under fire for having what are perceived as outrageously high salaries and perks such as a car allowance or gym membership. It’s bad enough that the state comptroller will launch an investigation – perhaps an even bigger waste of taxpayer money – to determine if the presidents misused funds in any way. But, perhaps most revealing about this article is the reader reaction.

Comments as barometer
Admittedly, it’s hard to know exactly who authors all those comments at the bottom of online news articles. They could represent anyone from John Q. Public to the terminally unemployed to members of the lunatic fringe. What they all seem to have in common is a deep lack of confidence in higher education institutions and those who run them. Many mention their overwhelming student debt and the little they have to show for amassing it. Consider these examples

Another example of the Educational industrial complex. Totally staffed with corruptocrats who minored in political corruption to further their own careers.

Until the state does more than it’s doing to stop these salaries we need to stand up and tell our governor that we will not stand for anymore of these outrageous salaries with perks.

Middleclass is taking a beating and we have to live within our means without any mercy. These fat cats are laughing all the way to the bank because they know we are the sheep and have not done one thing about it but complain.

Most of these Colleges deliver nothing….but high debt to students.

Mixed in, one will occasionally find the voice of reason, a defender of the target of everyone’s derision, but the bulk of the comments reflect a growing anger towards higher education institutions. Faculty fare no better. They are characterized as having cushy jobs that mostly involve wasting taxpayer money while students get nothing in return.

If you need another example, consider the recent controversy surrounding Edward T. Larkin, a professor of German at the University of New Hampshire. Larkin was convicted of exposing himself to a teenage girl and her mother. The faculty union took the position that according to the bargaining agreement Larkin should retain his position at the University, and the courts agreed. Whatever you think about the decision to reinstate Larkin, it was clear from the comments on the news reports that the general public is appalled. It provided a platform for members of the public to sound off about their disgust over faculty privilege in a society where most workers get fired when they break the rules.

We should wonder how all this reflects on those of who work in higher education and what it could mean for future funding. The value of the public’s support, impacted by the media’s portrayal, cannot be underestimated.

Will they take it anymore?
As one commenter above wrote, “they know we will not do anything about it…but complain.” How much longer will that be true? When my university was faced with proposed budget cuts of up to 50 percent, the community did respond – with over 17,000 messages and letters to state legislators. As a result the amount of the cut was reduced to 19 percent, still damaging but not disastrous. The public can turn against us just as easily. Future outcries over wasteful administrations, “jobs-for-lifetime” faculty, or spiraling tuition could encourage national and local funding agencies, and perhaps even private donors, to further reduce already diminishing streams of money to higher education. This is particularly damaging to public higher in America, as the popular refrain has become “from state funded, to state aided to state located.” Those of us who work in higher education need to take proactive action.

One person at a time
You might agree that this problem belongs in the “darn wicked” category. It would certainly help if the media shared news about the important contributions of our institutions to their local economies or social good. Since we can hardly afford to depend on the media, though, those of us working in higher ed should make a greater effort to influence these perceptions, perhaps tackling the challenge one person or one community at a time.

Here are some things we academic librarians can do to improve the deteriorating image of American higher education:

  • As much as possible make sure our academic libraries are open to the public as a community resource; with the beating public library budgets are taking we can offer a supplement.
  • Offer access to the Internet; despite often requiring a university network account it is possible to set aside some equipment specifically for the public.
  • Invite community members to attend library programs.
  • Consider implementing a community borrower’s program so that anyone in your city or state can borrow our scholarly works (too many just sit on shelves anyway).
  • Be an advocate for your library in the community; take every opportunity to be an ambassador for higher education and remind those you encounter about how your library supports the community.

Those are just a few suggestions. I’m sure you and your colleagues can come up with more. The point is that when the public gets mad as hell about something, it’s not easy to turn around. It is powerful, and some will exploit it to further attack public higher education funding. Taking any opportunity to reverse the negative perceptions may help, especially when we can use our resources to bolster those most adversely affected by our stagnant economy. You know you always wanted to be a do-gooder. That’s why you are an academic librarian.

Author Information
Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, will be the incoming vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.
Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.