The first job of any trustee is to be a fiduciary, to look after the academic and fiscal health of the institution. When that health is compromised, it’s a trustee’s duty to administer effective treatment.
The University of Colorado recently had a check-up in the form of a report by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), which independently examines top-ranked public institutions. The report, titled “Getting What You Pay For?,” should be an alarm bell for the CU Board of Regents.
At CU-Boulder, students may graduate without taking key courses, like U.S. history or government, economics or literature. Additionally, grade inflation has become extreme. In recent years, A’s and B’s have made up almost three-quarters of all grades awarded undergraduates.
Only about 40 percent of our undergraduate students graduate in four years (for a four-year degree). CU has, perhaps, a partial explanation for this low graduation rate: a correspondingly high rate of substance abuse-related incidents, with 12.7 per 100 students.
This great university has a reputation as a party school. It’s time for mature leadership. When there are few quizzes, tests and classes on Friday, the party will start on Thursday. CU’s own study found that starting at 4 p.m. on Fridays, only 11 percent of classrooms were in use. Better classroom and lab utilization would also diminish future need for additional classroom construction.
In-state tuition and fees increased 29 percent in the last five years. Since 2000, tuition plus fees for Colorado citizens has risen 148 percent. This dramatic increase has occurred over the same time the average buying power of middle-income America has declined nearly 1 percent per year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and Department of Labor. Raising tuition while incomes are falling imposes hardships on students, who are then forced to finance their education through debt. Currently, 45 percent of our students graduate with an average debt of $23,413.
Three years ago, when tuition was increased by 9.3 percent, administrators enjoyed significant raises. Several highly paid administrators got raises of over $10,000, including almost $50,000 for the Boulder campus’ chancellor. Our chancellor has a challenging job, no doubt, but his job is no more important or difficult than many other positions that provide a public service to our society, including the president of the United States or the governor of Colorado.
CU-Boulder continues on an aggressive strategic plan, Flagship 2030, which is setting the campus on a course for the construction of new and expensive buildings, as well as significant expansion in the number of faculty.
An initial $10 million was contributed by the campus from its general funds—an amount similar to the new revenue to be raised by a 3.6 percent in-state tuition increase that the Board of Regents simultaneously approved.
CU must stop attempting to solve its financial problems and desire to expand upon the backs of our students. That’s why I have typically voted against in-state tuition increases each year.
We must step back and decide what is most important for our students. There’s a difference between a “cafeteria line” of choices and a thoughtful liberal arts education. A diploma granted without the study of U.S. history, economics and literature leaves gaping holes in an educational foundation.
The University of Florida has sustained cuts in state funding, as has CU, but its campuses worked together to prioritize, and sometimes eliminate, academic programs and courses in order to reduce costs and improve curriculum. The Boulder campus just finished a prioritization study, which is important, but it will fall short of the mark unless the campus uses the data to reduce tuition.
I have also fought for academic freedom and intellectual diversity, and I am certain there is no such thing as a quality liberal arts education without intellectual freedom and the vigorous exchange of ideas from different perspectives. That’s why CU is now proceeding with a systemwide social climate survey that will give us a good measure of our degree of intellectual diversity. The survey also will tell us whether students, faculty or staff are experiencing discrimination, not just in the traditional protected characteristics, but also on the basis of their political affiliation or political philosophy.
ACTA’s report shows us that across the nation, our public “flagship” universities often fail to live up to their promises. A trustee who merely writes checks and rubber-stamps initiatives doesn’t help improve quality nearly as much as one willing to demand hard data and the accountability to make sure the school is providing the finest possible education at a reasonable cost. Being a responsible regent means asking hard questions and not being content just to be a booster or cheerleader.
CU-Boulder is a fine university with many excellent students, faculty and staff. Every day, its faculty, students and alumni help shape our world for the better. This is not an indictment of the CU community, but rather a challenge to CU’s regents and academic leaders to provide a more affordable and improved educational experience.
I am grateful for this wake-up call to our great university. Trustees have much work to do. Let’s get started on a cure.