One issue that arose frequently in the just-concluded state elections was the cost of higher education — specifically, the rise in tuition costs. What hasn't been as often discussed is the corresponding crisis in higher education that rising tuition costs signify. This is a crisis that every resident of Maryland should be concerned about.
The mission of the University System of Maryland (USM) is to provide "high quality, accessible, and affordable educational opportunities" for the people of Maryland and beyond; the root of this mission is the need to support Maryland's economic growth by providing a well-educated work force to serve the state and our nation. Yet, as William Kirwin, USM chancellor, recently noted in a Baltimore Sun op-ed: "state support of public universities nationally, on a per-student basis, has been declining for more than two decades and was at the lowest level in 25 years even before the current economic crisis."
Decreased support can have enormous and grave effects upon the quality of education that Maryland is able to deliver to students at its public colleges and universities. Some of these impacts are obvious or will become so: higher tuition costs, increased class size, and faulty or inadequate technology on campus, for example. But there is another effect — less obvious but perhaps more significant — that budget cuts have had at USM institutions. The effects of the budget crisis on the faculty of Maryland schools fall into two main categories: furloughs and an increased dependence upon "contingent" faculty. Both issues have a direct impact on educational quality.
For the past three years, all faculty at USM institutions have been subjected to mandatory furloughs. In general, the word "furlough" usually connotes "time off" or "leave time." But for faculty members, "furlough" translates simply to "salary cut." Every faculty member has been required to claim "furlough days" that correspond to a real decrease in salary. The only catch is that, to avoid affecting student learning, faculty are required to "take" these furlough days on days when they don't teach. The mistake here is the assumption that taking a furlough day on a non-instructional day means that the quality of teaching won't be impacted. In reality, there is much that faculty do when we aren't in the classroom: formal and informal advising of students, preparing class lectures and lesson plans, serving on academic committees (for example, curriculum committees, assessment committees, planning committees), supervising interns and student teachers, participating in various forms of community engagement, and conducting the research that keeps the information we impart to our students lively, up to date, and on the cutting edge of our disciplines. These essential aspects of instruction are lost when faculty are forced to take furlough days.
In fact, though, few if any faculty take any time "off" for furlough days. We simply have too much to do; most university faculty I know generally work days, nights and weekends out of a sense of commitment and responsibility — as well as the compulsion to keep up with the demands of teaching, grading, research and service.
These burdens are true for all faculty, all of whom are professionals, most with PhDs and many of whom make less than, for example, a university police officer or senior event technician (even before the temporary pay cuts of the last three years). But there is a category of faculty for whom these financial burdens are even more dire: the contingent faculty, nontenured lecturers and adjuncts who work on contracts that are renewed year by year.
Today, more than 50 percent of faculty hold contingent positions; indeed non-tenure-track positions now account for 68 percent of all faculty appointments in American higher education. Yet contingent faculty work for significantly lower salaries — often paid by the course — with little to no health or retirement benefits. This means that they not only have no means of ensuring work for the future, but they are also not saving for the future. Imagine being in such a position as a mother or father, or as someone who would like to start a family, or simply as a single person yearning for a stable and sustainable income. This means that students entering a Maryland public college or university are likely to find fewer full-time faculty with adequate time, professional support, and resources available for their instruction. Many contingent faculty members are excellent teachers, but their abilities are limited by a lack of professional treatment and support. Some lack access to such basics as offices, computer support, and photocopying services. Moreover, the high turnover among contingent faculty members means that some students may never have the same teacher twice, or may be unable to find an instructor who knows them well enough to write a letter of recommendation.
In other words, the problem with the University System of Maryland's decreased support for faculty isn't only about faculty; it's about any student in a USM institution. This is an issue that thus concerns the state as a whole, for USM students are our future workforce, our future leaders. And the importance of educating these future leaders well is, of course, the reason that the USM system exists at all. In other words, this failure in education may be a result of a current crisis, but it portends an even greater crisis in the state as a whole.
This isn't a crisis that the University System of Maryland can solve on its own. As a state institution it is subject to the budget and funding decisions of our governor and state legislators. We are failing our citizens and our state if we don't support higher education. We owe it to the young people of Maryland who can't afford to attend a private college or university to provide access to a comparable-quality education at a public institution of higher learning. We owe it to our economy to take responsibility for providing an excellent education to the next generation of our workers and leaders. And we owe it to ourselves, as citizens of a democracy, to ensure that we continue to be a nation populated with people who can think and can communicate, and who have strong skills of every sort, in every social class.
Jennifer R. Ballengee, an associate professor of English at Towson University, is president of Towson's AAUP/Faculty Association. Her e-mail is email@example.com.