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Michael Verderame’s Address to the Board of Trustees

November 13, 2009

Thursday, November 12, 2009

posted under , , by Unit for Criticism //

(These comments, slightly edited, were delivered in the public comment section of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees meeting, November 12, 2009, in Springfield).

My name is Michael Verderame. I’m a Ph.D. candidate in English at the Urbana-Champaign campus. I’m also a graduate employee, working as assistant director of the professional writing program and a research assistant, and I’ve also taught eleven classes in the past 3 years. I’d like to speak to you about the University’s fiscal priorities and the state of the University in the wake of the admissions controversy.

As a land-grant institution, the University’s core mission is to provide an affordable and accessible education to the citizens of Illinois, and to serve as a center for world-class teaching, research, and public service. The admissions crisis this past summer has forced all of us to reflect on whether we are fulfilling our core values. We learned over the summer that some administrators played fast and loose with the rules to ensure that politically well-connected applicants received preferential treatment, including diverting hundreds of thousands of dollars in discretionary funds for scholarships. This was a particularly egregious violation of the university’s core principles, and appropriately it attracted national attention and resulted in new leadership. But in a number of other ways, the current administration is still acting in ways contrary to the university’s fundamental mission.

Tuition is skyrocketing, at the same time that financial aid resources are drying up. As you just heard in the University Treasurer’s presentation, tuition revenue has increased approximately 30% in the past four years. As a result, access to a U of I education is increasingly being phased out for students from poor and working-class families. This disproportionately affects students of color. As you heard today in the diversity report, African American enrollment at both the Chicago and Urbana campuses has dropped over the past couple of years.

At the same time that tuition is increasing, the administration is freezing wages for faculty and staff, curtailing benefits, increasing class sizes, and threatening furloughs and layoffs. For the majority of graduate students, who teach nearly a quarter of the classes at the University, our salaries pay well below what the administration itself estimates to be the minimum amount to survive in Champaign-Urbana over a nine month period. Both undergraduate and graduate education at U of I are becoming unaffordable to many students, and as a result our graduates increasingly enter the worst job market in decades burdened by unprecedented levels of debt.

These problems are all interconnected, and all have roots that go much deeper than the current economic recession. For years administrative units have received dramatic budget increases while instructional units are forced to make do with anemic budgets. For instance, in the current budget, while appropriations for instructional units went up less than 1%, appropriations for institutional advancement, public relations, and other administrative units rose between 10% and 12%. The already exorbitant salaries of upper-level administrators rise every year, several percentage points over inflation, while tuition goes up and wages and benefits are frozen.

It’s true that part of this is due to the state’s refusal to fund higher education in Illinois at appropriate levels. It is an absolute scandal that the state provides less than a fifth of the revenue of what is ostensibly a public university. A public university should be primarily financed by public dollars. And I urge you to continue to work with other stakeholders—students, faculty, staff—to lobby the legislature to provide adequate funding.

However, even at current funding levels, the resources that the university does have are often misused, as in the case of money thrown away on the ill-considered Global Campus initiative, or the $300,000 misused by Chancellor Herman to assist clouted applicants, or the half a million dollars the University has had to spend in legal fees because of the admissions scandal. While future state funding is still up in the air and a matter of concern, you just heard a presentation from the University of Illinois Foundation that showed that the University had one of the most successful private donation years on record, and that the endowment has outperformed our peer institutions.

The real problem is not a lack of money. The real problem is that the short-term exigencies of the current financial situation are being used as a pretext to accelerate fundamental changes in the structure of the university that have been gradually occurring over the last forty years: changes such as the defunding of public education and the resulting skyrocketing cost of attendance, the increasing corporatization and privatization of the university, and the trend towards reliance on disposable, contingent labor in place of tenure-track faculty. All of these changes have had severely deleterious effects on the quality of research and undergraduate and graduate instruction at the university, and will continue to do so unless these trends are checked.

At the University now, the upper levels of the administration, enriched by stratospheric salaries and abundant perks, have grown out of touch and unaccountable to students and other stakeholders. It is that lack of accountability that allows a major department at the Urbana campus, Chemistry, to withdraw tuition waivers for a hundred undergraduate teaching assistants, leaving them scrambling for funding in the middle of the year. It is that lack of accountability that enables interim Provost Easter, who makes over a quarter of a million dollars a year, to shrug off the notion of paying workers a living wage as an “extraordinary demand.”

This new Board of Trustees has the opportunity to redress the mistaken priorities of previous administrations. It must ensure that an affordable education is provided to the tens of thousands of students who come to this university to learn and better themselves. It must provide fair compensation to the people who perform the vital functions of the university. I urge you to return to honoring the university’s core commitments of learning and labor.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today, and I’d be happy to take questions.

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