Ben$on’s Tuition Hike Damage Control Goes Seriously Awry

Following up on last week’s story, briefly discussed here, of University of Colorado President Bruce Benson’s “media relations advice” to quickly pass a large tuition increase on in-state students, citing damaging “opportunities the media has” to question doing so. Coming on the heels of revelations of large salary increases for top CU officials, this little kerfluffle has turned into quite the nasty public relations problem for Benson. The Boulder daily paper and other media continue to make problematic revelations, and students are getting restless.

Friday afternoon, Benson sent out a damage control email to the CU staff and student body. From what we’ve heard about the reaction…Benson may have made his PR problems worse.

The university has had its share of scrutiny from Colorado media recently. In the past month, stories and editorials have covered everything from salaries to proposed tuition increases. Suffice it to say that most have been negative. Many CU alumni and friends have shared with me that they feel the coverage paints an unfair picture of our university. I agree in some cases but not all. Regardless, I want to take this opportunity to address some common perceptions (and misperceptions) in recent reports about CU and provide context that may not always make headlines or sound bites…

Perception: Salaries at CU are out of control, as evidenced by raises for “top administrators.”

Reality: We are in a market economy and are a people-intensive enterprise. Some three quarters of our expenditures are for people. Delivering a quality education at CU means investing in people. Additionally, our business has increased substantially during the recession, with an 11.5 percent increase in enrollment the past decade and record enrollment on our campuses. Degrees awarded over the same period increased 34 percent.

Top administrative raises accounted for a small percentage of the total salary pool. The vast majority went to faculty, who are critical to the quality of a CU education. More than 85 percent of those who received merit raises received less than $4,000. [Pols emphasis]

Perception: Our faculty members [Pols emphasis] are underworked and overpaid.

Reality: While some believe faculty only teach a couple of courses, the reality is our world-class faculty teach many courses, advise and mentor students, conduct scholarly activity, generate research funding, and are active in community and university service…

So folks, please correct us if we’re wrong, but wasn’t the recent scandal over raises given to top CU administrators such as Chancellor Phil DiStefano, who got a $49,000 salary bump last year to nearly $400,000 a year, about administrators? Why then are we talking about “underworked and overpaid faculty?” If we didn’t know better, well, why wouldn’t we think that Benson is making a diversion of faculty members by “defending” them–and not, say, Phil DiStefano?

Of course, by the time you read that, you’ve already had your intelligence insulted with “fact” that “85 percent of those who received merit raises received less than $4,000.” With their great value of a college education, recipients will see this is the inverse way of saying 15% got really big raises, like Chancellor DiStefano! And according to Brittany Anas of the Boulder paper, while only 51% of eligible faculty got raises, fully 71% of administrative staff did.

So other than the fact that Benson’s Republican buddies like to complain about Ward Churchill, why, once again, is he talking about faculty members at all? It doesn’t make sense.

And eerily like the experience of Colorado House Speaker Frank McNulty’s incredibly wrongheaded attempt to conceal the passage of higher per diem pay for rural legislators, Benson may discover that he’s actually made his trouble much worse with these dishonesties. If you look at the pay for even highly-paid administrators, you can see that CU does indeed pay at a consistently lower level for these jobs than the national median. Like Colorado legislators, there’s an objective and very reasonable argument for raising salaries.

Which makes the way it’s been handled by Republicans in both cases even worse.

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  1. Aggie says:

    Higher ed is being slowly strangled by well-intentioned administrators.  The students and faculty suffer because nearly all the growth in higher ed in the last ten years is in administration. We hire more adjunct profs each year, and the quality of instruction is beginning to suffer.  

    Those who supported SB-3 a few years back should be ashamed of themselves.  The legislature was often the only check against rising tuition costs.

  2. c rork says:

    is unconscionable given that he aims for it all to go to administrators. Isn’t CU on this mission to raise $1.5 billion from private sources?

    And every year, the price of getting a degree in this state goes up 15% while state support shrinks. CU would rather try to attract wealthy students from out of state than provide an affordable education for our residents.

    Shame.

  3. cunninjo says:

    Benson touts CU’s increase in institutional aid from $38 million to $120 million over the past 10 years (funded by tuition revenue), but he fails to put that figure in context with other major factors affecting the amount students pay for college. Benson briefly mentions that CU’s enrollment has increased by 11.5% over the last 10 years. What he doesn’t explain is that the bulk of that enrollment growth has occurred over the last 3-4 years coinciding with huge cuts in state funding and huge increases in tuition/fees. While institutional financial aid may have increased, there are now many more students sharing that pot of money. Perhaps that’s why no one ever gives the institutional aid data in the average-amount-awarded form.

    I understand that Benson doesn’t have control over state funding levels, but he was/still is a big advocate of SB10-003, which embodies an academic tuition model designed to relieve a state’s higher ed funding burden and instead pass that burden along to middle and high income students paying more in tuition. It should come as no surprise that following the passage of this legislation authorizing universities to raise tuition by never-before-seen levels that the state now uses it as an excuse to cut higher ed funding – exactly as the model that Benson and all the other institutions lobbied for intends. While this policy may be good for a university’s finances, evident by the sudden rash of raises handed out to university administrators, it is bad for students, particularly middle and upper-middle income students who don’t qualify for need-based aid but also don’t come from a wealthy family.  

    Lastly, average student debt upon graduation is now a meaningless statistic due to the huge tuition increases over the past 2 years. In 4 years show me what the average student’s loan debt upon graduation is. And break it down by income level. If it’s around the same amount as today (plus any inflation) then I will call your tuition policy a success.

    Oh, and stop with the “peer institution” comparison non-sense. That’s also meaningless considering he means other PAC-12 schools, many of which are in California (including USC, UCLA, Cal-Berkeley and Stanford), and likely all of which receive more state funding than CU.  

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