PSU: Political Stunt University?

University presidents are howling in response to Gov. Tom Corbett’s budget address, in which he proposed giving their institutions less of taxpayers’ hard-earned money.  The loudest protests are coming from Graham Spanier, president of Penn State University.  I see his Ph.D. is in sociology, but judging from his latest performance, he’s an expert in political theater:  According to the Post-Gazette, President Spanier is threatening to close campuses, warning he’ll have to raise in-state tuition, and accusing Gov. Corbett of asking students to bear the brunt of his cuts.

This is the very same strategy that Gov. Ed Rendell executed so well, time after time:  If someone proposes a cut in state spending, scream bloody murder that you’ll have to fire all the police and firefighters.  Next, label it an attack on your choice of the children, the elderly, the poor, the middle class, and/or those in a relevant lawmaker’s district.

The only problem with all these wonderful theatrics is those pesky facts.  While we’ll have much more to say about this in the days to come, consider just two commonsensical points.

First of all, as CF’s Elizabeth Stelle has pointed out, Penn State has been hiring administrators like nobody’s business.  According to a report by the Goldwater Institute, the university’s administrative staff per 100 students grew by 71 percent between 1993 and 2007.  That number happens to be 9 points higher than the number of Penn State students who earn a degree in four years (62 percent).  Penn State’s own statement on the cuts even says that the university has 96,000 students and 47,000 faculty and staff, one employee for about every two students.  Does that sound to you like an institution that has no fat to trim before raising tuition?

Secondly, Gov. Corbett’s proposal amounts to a reduction of less than four percent in Penn State’s budget.  The university’s statement contends that is “the most dramatic appropriation cut in the history of American higher education,” “devastating,” and “catastrophic.”  Those of us who live in the real world know a less-than-four-percent belt tightening is nothing compared to the burdens many Pennsylvania families are bearing during this recession.

Legislators who are evaluating the Governor’s budget, and parents who are being told their kids’ tuition is going to go way up, mustn’t be fooled.  Penn State’s response is a classic political stunt by a huge, wealthy institution that needs to make tough decisions about its own resources before loudly demanding more of ours.