Parents Mustn’t Fall for Penn State Claims

In an op-ed in Sunday’s Harrisburg Patriot-News, Penn State President Graham Spanier repeated his now-familiar claims that his institution must receive more from taxpayers than the $165 million Gov. Corbett proposed in his budget. Sadly, President Spanier’s piece relies on exaggerated claims and fails to reach the level of leadership today’s tough times demand.

About those exaggerated claims: After his latest attempt to have Abraham Lincoln speak from beyond the grave (you’ll have to read that part yourself), President Spanier writes, “Public higher education makes our country great, our state prosperous and our future possible.” Forget about freedom, opportunity, the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the civil rights movement, motherhood, or apple pie; taxpayer-funded universities are what makes America great. Got that?

If this were President Spanier’s only dubious assertion, we could forgive it; it’s kind of like a dad thinking his daughter is the smartest and prettiest ever, and I am certainly guilty of that. But there are many more. Since neither you nor I have time to explore all of them, let’s stick to two key areas.

Area number one: President Spanier repeatedly complains of “a decade of flat appropriations” and that Penn State now receives “no more state dollars than it received 10 years ago.” I’ve worked with state policymakers across the country on higher education, and let me tell you: If I had a dime for every time I heard this type of complaint from a university administrator, I could write a check to Penn State that would make up for the Governor’s budget cut in one shot. It’s as if these administrators are competing for whose state has the biggest tightwads for taxpayers.

Well, they can’t all be right, and President Spanier isn’t. His complaints, in this op-ed and elsewhere, avoid the simple fact that because the economy officially entered a recession in December 2007 and is still in a funk, many other states have been cutting their higher education subsidies for years. Just to pick two examples: The University of California saw a 20 percent cut in 2008-09 and this year, Gov. Jerry Brown proposed a fresh 16.4 percent cut. Meanwhile, in Washington State, the Seattle Times reports, “If the Legislature approves the level of additional cuts being proposed this session, the state will have cut higher-education funding by 50 percent since 2008.”

President Spanier would have you believe that “flat appropriations” over the last decade means Pennsylvania taxpayers haven’t ponied up enough. Far from it. It’s a small miracle that Pennsylvania institutions have avoided a reckoning until now, over three years into the recession. Now, with a $4 billion budget gap and a clear mandate from voters not to raise taxes, that is a luxury we no longer have. Yet Pennsylvania taxpayers’ past generosity seems to have inspired feelings of entitlement, not gratitude, among public university administrators.

Area number two: President Spanier writes that “tuition will inevitably go up” if the Governor gets his way because Penn State can’t possibly make enough cuts to keep tuition down. Indeed, he says that Penn State instituted “tens of millions of dollars worth of internal university cuts” over the past decade but still had no choice but to raise tuition. This is our choice, then: Students and their parents can give Penn State more money in tuition, or all of us can give Penn State more money in taxes.

I understand this is a tough, emotional issue. But the choice President Spanier presents is a false one, because there is a lot more cutting and reforming to do at Penn State. This is an institution that has doubled tuition over the past decade, grown its administrative staff per 100 students by 70.8 percent between 1993 and 2007, admitted it doesn’t fully utilize its buildings, bragged to the higher education press about getting rid of 8 a.m. classes, and made optional many of the general education courses that are both cheapest and most important. I fully understand that changing those things would make President Spanier’s life uncomfortable: Most administrators like hiring other administrators, most students like to sleep in, and most faculty members like to teach on their specific interests. But guess what? That kind of transformative leadership is what Pennsylvanians deserve right now—not loud demands for more of our hard-earned money.

As we continue to hear such demands coming out of State College, parents mustn’t fall for any efforts to scare them into thinking their kids’ tuition has to go up—and legislators shouldn’t be fooled into thinking they’ll get the blame—if Penn State doesn’t get more money.