The REAL issue at URI
Rhode Island has arguably New England’s worst economy. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says some of this may be due to our weak state investments in higher education.
While a political maelstrom and media swirl rages over salaries and benefits for professors at the University of Rhode Island, our state’s politicians are ducking a larger and more important issue: the lagging state investments in our public colleges and universities.
A divided Board of Governors for Higher Education recently scuttled contracts that would have given three-percent raises to URI professors and faculty. And the Providence Journal has characterized the tuition benefits give to URI faculty and their families as a drain on the Rhode Island taxpayer.
The salary issue appears headed to the state labor relations board, because the union representing professors has accused the state of bad faith bargaining. The unions may have a point: They engaged in 11 months of talks that produced a tentative deal. Now after prodding from Governor Lincoln Chafee, the higher education board has said it won’t honor the settlement because it would cost too much and push tuition rates higher.
Higher tuition rates are no small thing, particularly for this generation of debt-saddled graduates who are soon headed into an anemic job market. Blaming tuition hikes on faculty salaries and benefits is the easy path for Smith Hill pols and their media enablers seeking to deflect the blame from a state government that in recent years has slashed investments in state colleges while at the same time lowering taxes for the wealthy.
Facts are stubborn things. What they show is that Rhode Island’s support for its flagship state university is the lowest in New England and far less than our neighbors in Connecticut and Massachusetts. URI faculty salaries are the lowest among New England state universities, except for Maine. Yet Maine is giving its state university nearly $30 million more than Rhode Island allocates to URI.
In-state tuition at URI is high by the standards of Connecticut, Maine and Massachusetts, but is significantly lower than the universities of Vermont and New Hampshire. In 2002, Rhode Island gave URI $84 million. Ten years later that figure is $57 million.
We are the state with the region’s highest unemployment rate and the second lowest education level of its workforce. How will we ever prepare our workers to compete for jobs in the 21st century without investing in our state university?
For decades URI graduates have been crucial contributors to Rhode Island’s economy. Al Verrecchia of Hasbro, Tom Ryan of CVS, Bob Russell of RUSSCO Steel, Sandra Glaser Parrillo of Providence Mutual Fire Insurance and Richard Beaupre of ChemArt are just a few of the state’s top business executives who are URI alums.
It’s easy to point to successful graduates, but other investments are harder to measure. Who can assign a monetary value to what someone learns by collaboration with their peers, or when a young person has an intellectual epiphany that sees work of art or literature an entire new way?
An educated society leads directly to a better economy and an enlightened civic culture. Since the Morrill Act was approved during the Civil War, URI and other land-grant universities have been the fulcrum of upward mobility, colleges where smart, diligent kids who weren’t wealthy got a fine education at a reasonable cost.
A Rhode Islander who attends URI is more likely to remain in our state and contribute to our economy and culture than one who goes to Brown or Providence College. But the declining state support for URI means fewer slots for Rhode Islanders. In 1960, 20 percent of URI’s students came from outside our state. By 1981 that number was up to 30 percent. Now about 40 percent of students hail from outside the state’s borders. There is no secret as to why this is the case. As the General Assembly cuts money to URI, university leaders have brought in students who pay tuition and fees that are substantially higher than what Rhode Islanders pay.
Don’t blame URI. When given the choice between cutting programs and lowering standards or bringing in more out of state students, URI has obviously chosen to recruit more higher-paying-out of-staters. In 1991, the state supported about 30 percent of the URI budget; now that figure is 8 percent.
You may be livid over the mismanagement at URI’s Institute for International Sport. You should be. But this, too, brings us back to the State House, which provided the legislative grants that financed it, with scant oversight of how the funds were spent. This arrangement began during the 1980s administration of disgraced Gov. Edward DiPrete. DiPrete’s chief of staff was Michael Doyle, brother of Dan Doyle, leader of the institute. What did you expect URI brass to do when confronted with a `fix is in’ offer they couldn’t refuse from Smith Hill? (Michael Doyle has since moved on to become one of New England’s top advertising and pr executives).
Tuition waivers for professors’ kids are a common benefit at public and private colleges. It is smart to invest in these sons and daughters of Rhode Island academics. Why has use of the tuition waivers increased in recent years? Probably because soaring college costs are making it harder for the relatives of professors to attend private schools. So URI becomes a victim of its own success, – offering a good value education, attracting students who might otherwise have left the state to study.
If relatives of disabled cops and firefighters are abusing this program, fix it. Don’t use the media cloud of those comparably trivial issues as an excuse to deny this generation of Rhode Islanders a shot at an affordable education, the springboard to better lives, a rebounding economy and, in the end, a better state.