Recent developments at the University of Vermont (UVM) in Burlington and St. Michael’s College (in neighboring Colchester, VT.) provide prime examples of a fundamental problem in post-secondary schooling in the United States. At UVM, three unionized units of the faculty and non-faculty workforce have contract talks looming. For only the second time since the three units have been unionized, the contracts are up for negotiation at the same time. As they have in the past, the UVM administration is warning of layoffs and other cutbacks as they prepare to negotiate these contracts. Meanwhile, at St. Michael’s, the administration refuses to negotiate changes in the wage structure for the only unionized members of its workforce—the housekeeping/custodial staff. Instead, the St. Michael’s administration cries poverty and attempts to divide the unionized and non-union staff against each other while suggesting to the students that their high tuition is due to the housekeepers wanting to get a livable wage.
Recently, Denise Youngblood, a history professor at UVM and a union spokesperson, told a rally that there was administrative bloat at the college. As anyone who takes a look at the number of Vice Presidents in the Waterman Building’s administrative wing, this comes as no surprise. Yet, the latest president of the university ($410,000/year base salary) denies such bloat exists. I think the figures speak for themselves. According to the figures Youngblood mentioned, “executive salaries (at UVM) … for top level administrators (president, provost, deans and vice presidents) grew 132 percent from 2003-2012, according to a news release. The number of administrators increased from 23 to 35 (or 52 percent) in that period. It said the number of full-time faculty increased 10 percent in the same period and that enrollment grew by 40 percent.” Furthermore, the average administrative salary is $210,851/year. This is more than seven times the annual salary of most housekeepers/custodians at the university.
Of course, there is an administrative salary bloat at UVM. Administrative bloat is standard practice at most US universities and colleges. It also exists at St. Michael’s College, where the president makes a base salary of over 360,000/year. That salary is close to 12 times the annual salary of most housekeepers/custodians at St. Michael’s. Adding insult to injury, the union negotiators’ proposal to provide all its members with a flat 2000/year salary increase over the first two years of the contract currently being negotiated was rejected out of hand by the administration’s negotiating team. This would create something approximating a livable wage for the affected workers. Instead, the administration also wants to increase the percentage the custodians pay into the health insurance plan. At the same time, the St. Michael’s administration claims it cannot give raises to staff in part because enrollments are down. I ask, what is the job of a college administration, especially its president? After over twenty years of working in staff positions at colleges, my best answer is that they are there to attract students to their institution. If they are not doing this (as their argument against staff raises would suggest) than why are they getting paid so much? Just like CEOs of private companies, these administrators are getting rewarded for not doing their job. (To their credit, St. Michael’s administrators did take a five percent pay cut in 2013.)
As someone who has worked at both institutions, was actively involved in organizing the first union local at UVM (UE 287), and similarly involved in subsequent union drives there, I see a common modus operandi present in the approaches taken by both administrations. Succinctly put, that operating procedure involves going to academic and non-academic staff to balance their budgets; budgets usually bloated by an unnecessary preponderance of administrators and high salaries for those administrators. When staff members cry foul and organize themselves into a justified and completely reasonable and legal bargaining unit, administrations hire high-priced union-busting lawyers to defeat the employees’ organization through delays, attacks in the press, and even, on occasion, tactics commonly known as unfair labor practices. Meanwhile, it is suggested to tuition paying families and individuals that the reason their tuition is so high is because of a greedy workforce. This latter reality forces me to provide this observation: The current cost of tuition at St. Michael’s is around $38,000/year not including room and board. The approximate cost of the salary increases proposed by the housekeepers/custodians union negotiating team is around $40,000 each of the two years. That amount is essentially equivalent to the tuition of one more student. The president’s base salary is over $363,000/year. Do the math. At the University of Vermont, not only is there administrative bloat in terms of actual numbers of administrators, there is also bloat in terms of their salaries and bonuses (over $7.3 million in administrative base salaries in 2012).
Post-secondary education is a valuable and important part of any society. It should be available to anyone who is able to qualify and shows an interest. In other words, it should be easily affordable. If there are truly limited funds to make this happen, then those funds available should be going to those who teach, provide support services to students , and to those who maintain the facilities. They should not be going to already overpaid administrators whose jobs often are merely exercises in expanding the bureaucracy designed to keep them employed. Personally, I am convinced that there is plenty of money to fund education at the highest levels in the world. It’s just a question of priorities. The current system prefers to fund war, prison, and financial bailouts, while privatizing everything it can, thereby ensuring that ever fewer residents will be entering the world of college in the future. Despite what the corporate world is telling Americans, postsecondary education is still needed. The only reason they are saying otherwise is their priorities do not include an educated working class.
Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He can be reached at: email@example.com.