Provost Spins Unsuccessfully

I used to be one of those people who have Google Alerts set for their names. I’m not anymore, so it’s come to my attention only belatedly that on April 11, the Centre Daily Times ran a response by Penn State Provost Rodney Erickson to the commentary Michael Poliakoff of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and I wrote. That’s what we get, I guess, for urging “this great university and its distinguished leader to seize the opportunity they have to set a national example for excellence in tough times.” It’s deeply unfortunate that a high-ranking official at such an important institution of higher learning would attach his name to the arguments in this op-ed.

For example, the Provost wrote that Michael and I were wrong to say Penn State “demand[ed] more money” in response to Gov. Tom Corbett’s budget proposal. Really? Then perhaps the Provost will explain his university’s own characterization of his boss’s comments. According to a university news release, “At a press conference…Penn State President Graham Spanier said he will do everything in his power to fight the massive, unprecedented cuts in funding for public universities proposed in Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett’s budget unveiled on Tuesday.”

The Provost next claimed that we wrongly accused Penn State of vowing to raise tuition. Again, his colleagues’ words indicate otherwise. See Penn State’s own March 8 statement, in which another administrator says, “A reduction of this magnitude would necessitate massive budget cuts, layoffs and tuition increases, with a devastating effect on many students, employees and their families.”

After that, the Provost wrote that Michael and I “claim ‘Penn State speaks of freezing salaries with dismay.’ This is false.” How, then, does he explain President Spanier’s own message announcing a freeze, in which he wrote that he regretted having to do it and “wish[ed] that circumstances were different?”

The Provost next accuses Michael and me of incorrectly claiming “the university received more state funding over the past decade.” I double-checked the exact version of our piece the CDT published, just to make sure, and I have no idea how anyone could think that. Michael and I simply reported how much taxpayer funding Penn State received: almost $3.5 billion. We asked an equally simple question: “Since $3.5 billion didn’t keep tuition down, were Pennsylvania taxpayers not generous enough, or was Penn State’s spending not prudent enough?”

The Provost’s op-ed answers our question, because he complains for a whole paragraph about “flat state funding.” Remember, “the state” doesn’t have any money of its own—it takes every dime it gets from you, me, and other taxpayers. So the Provost’s complaint (which I’ve heard a million times in many different states) is higher ed speak for, “You should’ve given us more, Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer.”

There are more bogus accusations in his piece, but if you ask me, that kind of entitlement mentality on the part of highly paid administrators (the Provost’s total compensation was listed at $440,968 in Penn State’s most recent Right to Know Law Report) more than proves that the conclusion Michael and I reached was the right one:

Penn State has the opportunity to create a better, more equitable model of higher education. Right now, Penn State is telling parents that unless things change, they will face a hefty tuition increase. But the big changes need to start in Old Main, not the state Capitol.