Your Turn: The University of Kansas crash: 2020 vs. 1933

University of Kansas Chancellor Douglas Girod, under criticism from the Journal-World, recently admitted that KU has lost around 26% of its general operating budget due to the coronavirus lockdown. Now students, staff and faculty are on tenterhooks, waiting for information about budgets, salary cuts and furloughs from an administration that has been less than forthcoming.

Economists tell us the current crash is at least as bad as the Great Depression. So, I read up on what happened to KU back then, in Prof. Clifford S. Griffin’s 1974 “The University of Kansas: A History.” In 1933, the Regents “decided to slash by 25 percent the expenditures for fiscal 1933.” And faculty salaries were “on the table”– indeed, on the chopping block. As Regents Chair Charles M. Harger declared, “I feel that teachers should, like others, bear some of the burden which every business firm feels, and be thankful that positions are held.” Faculty members in Lawrence suffered a 10% pay cut, and those at the medical school, over 5%. The Depression depressed KU’s faculty salaries, already below par, even further — “10 to 23 percent below the Middle Western average” — a situation contemporary faculty will recognize.

Then the Legislature got into the act, slashing about 26% of KU’s state appropriations. (That money was a bigger chunk of the budget back then, but the percentage is the same as the hit to the general operating budget today.) “For the still underpaid faculty members,” Griffin writes, “the moment of truth had arrived. With the salaries of 1931-1932 as a base, the regents pared 15 percent off the first $1,000 or fraction thereof, 20 percent off the next $1,000, 25 percent off the third $1,000, 30 percent off the fourth, and 35 percent off each succeeding $1,000” ($1,000 in 1933 is about $20,000 in 2020 dollars, as of this writing.) However, nobody’s salary would be cut more than 25% — except the chancellor’s. Ernest H. Lindley’s annual salary “went from $10,000 to $7,000” for two years, since the budget was biennial.

Meanwhile, student enrollment fell 9% between 1929 and 1934 — the same amount the 2020 college’s enrollment has dropped below its three-year average. The most KU could do was to send “over four hundred letters to faculty members and Lawrence citizens begging jobs — or even loans — for students who would have to leave school unless they secured help at once. The following fall University officers sponsored a ‘Keep the Student in School Week,’ urging everyone who had some kind of job around his home or business to give it to a student.”

Not a bad idea — and perhaps a “Keep the Staff Member in Rent Week,” too. The Endowment’s COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund might be a point of comparison. But, as the Journal-World reported, only $32,000 has been raised from 67 donors,” $25,000 of which is going to the medical school.

If you have to cut salaries, a graduated system, as used in 1933, seems like the fairest way. Whether 21st century administrators will follow suit is anybody’s guess. While Girod should be acknowledged for the 10% salary cut he and his fellow administrators are taking over the next six months, it is hard to imagine the large and ever-changing roster of administrators accepting a 25-30% cut for any length of time.

We can only hope things will be better this time around. But as François Furstenburg recently wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “university leaders, like their corporate counterparts, are rewarded for their splashy acquisitions and grandiose construction projects, not for cautious stewardship. . . . [B]y freezing out alternative perspectives and voices from their decision-making bodies, they have forgotten what a university is and ought to be about.” KU’s administration, without the participation of University Governance in the decision-making process, imposed Draconian budget cuts even before this crisis began, largely to pay for “grandiose construction projects” from a few years back. But then, that was also a few administrators back.

Given today’s economy, and the record of university executives, the rank-and-file would be wise to prepare for things to get worse — maybe much worse than 1933.

— Joseph Harrington is chair of the Committee on Faculty Rights, Privileges and Responsibilities at the University of Kansas.


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