I have always admired the curbside trash collection system in Lawrence. It's almost always on time, the trash collectors are hardworking and courteous -- even when their goodwill is tested by over-stuffed bins or bulky items. And, they're quick -- as I understand it -- because they are paid by for the job and not just by the hour; every minute they save by not goldbricking means they get off work a minute earlier, which seems efficient and fair.
Lately, however, there's been talk at city hall about changing the system, including using more automation that would require specialty trash bins and such.
I'm naturally conservative; if it ain't broke don't fix it. A Dec. 31st story in the Wall Street Journal suggests Toledo's trash collection system as a case study in the need for caution.
"Barely a year ago, city officials here [Toledo] pledged to residents that they could automate trash collection and balance the trash budget without any cuts to service. Since then, they have been scrambling to deal with headaches associated with the new system and its bin-grabbing trucks, which have left messes on residents' curbs and saddled the city with $1.3 million in unanticipated expenses."
I think our City Hall bureaucrats and often ham-fisted city commissioners ought to examine carefully the Toledo example, and be very cautious about overhauling the trash collection system in Lawrence, a system that seems to be working pretty well.
I was recently enjoying an extended multiple-author "Room for Debate" feature at the New York Times on the topic of why so many scholars from France are moving to the US, manifesting a brain drain of sorts. The discussion can be found at: http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2010/11/28/why-french-scholars-love-us-colleges.
A paragraph in the contribution by Mireille Guilano caught my eye. She writes:
"France’s state-owned higher education system was in sad shape when I was a student there in 1970. The facilities were then and are now run-down, overcrowded, underfunded, and overseen by underpaid and often disgruntled professors and bureaucrats. The students are guaranteed a spot at virtually no cost if they graduate from a French high school, and there is no real urgency for them to graduate in four years. Many stay longer, much longer, especially during hard economic times like today. Plus there is an almost arrogant disconnect between a dated curriculum emphasizing old ideas and the current realities of the 21st century and a global economic workplace."
Substitute "Kansas" or "Kansan" for "France" and "French", respectively, and the paragraph aptly describes higher education in the sunflower state, especially in regard to KU.
As anyone who has read my moderately frequent chat board comments can attest (Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?), I am squarely among those curmudgeonly KU professors who think that college athletics has gone over the top in terms of placing money and elite athletic performance above academics and common sense values. KU Athletic Director Lew Perkins should be packing his bags and not coasting into a lucrative retirement, in my opinion, and former chancellor Bob Hemenway needs to be brought out of retirement to be whacked with a stick for letting Lew and his cronies run wild over the past few years.
That said, I take no delight in the Big XII conference meltdown, but not because I give a rat’s backside about against whom KU sports teams will be scheduled starting two years from now. Rather, I am concerned about two things: KUAC finances and KU academics.
Last year KUAC issued $32.5 million in revenue bonds to invest in facilities improvements. Those bonds will be paid off over 24 years by revenue streams based on ticket sales – especially football ticket sales, media revenues, and donor receipts. I’m already concerned that some anticipated donor receipts – such as the Kivisto pledges, are less than certain. But if KU lands in a conference with less media exposure and less prestigious competition, future donor pledges will probably fall on a less ambitious trajectory than if the Big XII were to survive, as will football ticket receipts and media revenues. In short, KUAC has been built and financed “on the come”, and in a less prestigious conference there will be fewer bucks coming in. In the long run that means either KU fails to keep up in the inter-collegiate arms race or, alternatively, KU athletics consumes more and more resources – private and public – that are desperately needed to rebuild crumbling classrooms and endow faculty professorships to preserve and enhance academic quality.
But the effect on academics could be more direct. Specifically, in an effort to improve retention statistics KU is preparing to increase admission standards to screen out more students who are not prepared for rigorous academic work. Implicit in this strategy is the idea that once the chafe has been separated from the wheat then KU will advance as a college of choice for talented students, both in-state and out-of-state. In other words, KU can increase admission standards without too substantial a decline in enrollment. But what if KU is no longer in a big time athletic conference? I think that the effect on enrollments will be negative – especially for students from nearby states who no longer share an athletic conference with KU (Oklahoma, Nebraska, Missouri, and Colorado). In short, if the expected “college experience” is diminished -- which necessarily includes men’s basketball and football spectatorship (for the worse, in my opinion), KU will on the margin lose admissions competitions for talented out-of-state and even in-state students against the likes of Nebraska, Missouri, Oklahoma, Colorado, and the Texas schools.
This is a pivot point in the history of KU, and not merely football and basketball. Conference realignment, the turbulence and change in KU leadership -- rookie chancellor, new provost, new CLAS dean, and now a transition to a new AD (and supporting cast), and continued state budget woes combine for a perfect storm from which KU could emerge permanently diminished.
Sports do matter. There, dang it, I said it.
A faculty colleague at KU recently asked me if I thought there would be any funds for raises next year. “What planet are you living on?” was my reply. The state of Kansas faces a billion dollar budget shortfall for the next fiscal year, and state leaders are debating how to slash spending, including cuts to programs that provide vital assistance to the most vulnerable people in Kansas. To expect higher education to escape this epic storm would be naïve. It’s not that higher education is suffering a negative shock to the demand for its services. Parents may skip an expensive vacation or delay the purchase of a new car, but few will tell their talented offspring to skip college for a year. Students and parents will still line up and pay tuition, and “best value” schools like KU may even see a surge in enrollment. In short, on the demand side higher education is largely recession-proof. But tuition paid by student families is only part of university funding sources, and tuition is already at an all-time high as a portion of family income. The tax base that supports state allocations that subsidize higher education is taking a big hit. Net asset values for endowed funds have taken an even bigger hit. Finally, the wealth and incomes of donors of all means, but especially those of exceptional wealth and generosity, have been impaired. Every day headlines tell of how businesses throughout the nation are right-sizing to new economic conditions, and it is delusional to think that higher education should be different.Leaders at the Regents institutions have stated that they are committed not to harm core missions of teaching and research, although they have been called upon to cut budgets by nearly 10%. It’s hard to see how this will be accomplished with mere nips and tucks because nearly 80% of KU’s annual budget is attributable to employee salaries and benefits. I suggest that KU and the other Regents institutions consider a 2% salary cut for all employees earning above a threshold level -- say $50,000. If enacted, relatively well-paid university employees -- from coaches to athletic directors to the assorted vice-assistant-executive chancellors/provosts to most tenure-track faculty members-- can join together in being part of the solution to the budget crisis. The nearly across-the-board salary cut I propose should be permanent -- not a one-time unpaid leave with a promise to restore everyone to status quo ex ante under some future scenario. Instead, the usual merit process would resume from the new salary base when future economic conditions improve. In addition, any future incremental resources must be targeted first and foremost at recruiting top-flight new scholars and retaining highly valued employees who might otherwise be lured away to other institutions.Many tough decisions still must be made involving other cuts to next year’s budget, including elimination of some programs and layoffs. But to spare high-paid, mostly tenured faculty members and expect the burden to fall entirely on other employees through layoffs would be unfair and unwise. In particular, lecturers and academic advisors provide terrific bang-for-the-buck in terms of classroom delivery and other dimensions critical to student success. To my faculty colleagues that would object to this proposal I say, “Get real.” Faculty members enjoy very good salaries and benefits and in many cases permanent job security. Yes, our salaries are determined by competitive labor markets, and there are good fundamental reasons why professors in many disciplines earn high salaries. Faculty salaries are determined upon hiring by competition among institutions but thereafter are typically raised by modest annual amounts with occasional targeted bumps in response to credible threats to leave for greener pastures. It doesn’t take a Nobel laureate labor economist to look around the academic landscape today and realize that there are few green pastures out there. Nearly half of all American universities have frozen hiring, and some are furloughing or firing even tenured faculty. If KU leaders could have foreseen our current troubles a year or two ago is there any doubt that raises would have been canceled for the current fiscal year? To ask high-paid faculty to give up a little of their salary seems quite reasonable in this context. Yes, a modest salary cut will affect the family budgets of well-paid employees at KU and other Regents intuitions -- and perhaps even dent the level of economic activity in the city of Lawrence and other host communities. However, those of us employed in discovery and sharing of knowledge with bright young people -- well-paid inside work with no heavy lifting, as one of my colleagues reminds me – can continue in the vocation we love while enjoying great benefits and job security. The same cannot be said for many other Kansans who are suffering. In these trying times we in the academy should not retreat within our ivory towers like prairie Prince Prosperos. The time is ripe for some shared sacrifice.