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COMMENTARY: U. has no justification for tuition increase

When we do business with a corporation, the old adage “you get what you pay for” is an accurate description of our transactions with that corporation. It is very clear that for some time, Rutgers has been moving toward a corporate model at a pace that has accelerated significantly in the last five years. So, it is not surprising that our students, who are paying more and more every year for what Rutgers provides, cannot understand why they are getting less and less. 

Students come to Rutgers, indeed to any university, to learn. They learn in the classroom, the laboratory and the library. They learn by doing research under the mentorship of a faculty member. Historically, faculty have been leading scholars in their disciplines, have generally maintained long-term relationships with their universities and have played a significant role in the governance of the institution. Faculty who have long-term allegiances to the University are tenure-track faculty, who cannot be fired at the whim of an administrator. The interaction of students with such faculty has traditionally provided the optimal learning environment.

An important part of learning for our students has been that many of those doing the teaching were role models. For the very large number of our students from underrepresented minorities, the role model was often a faculty member from the same underrepresented minority. For many other students whose aspirations required an advanced degree, their graduate student teaching assistants were their role models.

All that started to change not so long ago, at a rate that has transformed Rutgers. Because we now have many more students paying much more, revenue from tuition and fees has increased significantly. Is all that money being used to improve the quality of student learning? Quite the reverse.

For example, 20 years ago, almost half of our faculty were on the tenure track. By 2017, less than one-third of our faculty were on the tenure track. At the same time the number of tenure-track faculty from underrepresented minorities has decreased even more.

In addition, the number of poorly-paid adjunct faculty, primarily part-time lecturers (PTLs), has increased significantly. Rutgers now has more such adjunct faculty than any other school in the Big Ten. Twenty years ago, approximately one-tenth of our faculty were PTLs. By 2017, about one-third of our faculty were PTLs. Many PTLs need to work several jobs to climb above the poverty line. 

It is virtually impossible for most PTLs to act as committed mentors. Many students stay longer at Rutgers than many PTLs. Given their extremely low salaries and no provision of health insurance or office space, the cost of a PTL is very low. Notwithstanding how poorly Rutgers treats its PTLs, an overwhelming number of them are deeply committed to their students. But there is only so much PTLs can do.

The number of graduate teaching assistants in New Brunswick has decreased by 28% just in the last five years. They have been replaced primarily by PTLs. 

Notwithstanding modest annual salary increases for faculty, the fraction of the student tuition dollar that is being used to create a high-quality learning environment has been decreasing steadily. Students have been paying more and getting less. 

A student might reasonably ask: “So, then, what is my money being used for?” 

One answer is subsidies to Rutgers Athletics, whose total budget deficit from 2013 to 2018 was almost $232 million. That is enough to pay almost 9,000 teaching assistants or 3,000 tenure track faculty members.

But athletics is far from the only place where, as University President Robert L. Barchi said, “dollars are being siphoned from the academic mission.” The administration at Rutgers has grown stratospherically in recent years, in the number of administrators and in the salaries and bonuses they are being paid. 

For example, in 2017, there were 247 administrators receiving salaries in excess of $250,000 of whom 43 were paid more than $500,000. The total cost of this relatively small fraction of the administration was in excess of $82 million, enough to pay the salaries of very many teaching assistants or tenure track faculty. 

There is still more new spending that provides very little, if any, benefit to students. The administration’s alarming drive to transform Rutgers from an institution of higher learning to an efficiently-run corporation has brought us a number of expensive management systems that are even more expensive due to the substantial costs of staff and faculty time required to learn and implement these systems. These systems have not always done what we need. Some examples that come to mind are Responsibility Center Management (RCM), Cornerstone, Academic Analytics, Infosilem and Connect.

While profligate spending in these and other areas is common, regular spending cuts in other areas are equally familiar. Spending cuts in the libraries have resulted in the closing of the media center. Spending cuts in graduate programs have resulted in the loss of teaching assistantships. Spending cuts in the budgets of schools have lowered the quality of instructional programs. 

But we never seem to observe spending cuts in the number of administrators and the salaries they are paid. 

What has been happening at Rutgers for some years now is that students have been paying more and more for less and less. All signs indicate that the siphoning of funds from the academic mission will continue and even get worse. If the corporate model of “you get what you pay for” is the metric that we use to determine value, there is absolutely no justification for increasing the tuition and fees we demand from our students.  

Robert Boikess is a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology in the Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences—New Brunswick.


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