Wednesday, August 15, 2012

I am stepping aside as NFA state board president

Dear colleagues and readers,

Later this month, I will assume administrative duties in the office of the Provost at UNLV, as Vice-Provost for Faculty, Policy and Institutional Research.  In accordance with NFA state bylaws, I will become an associate member and step aside as board president. As of that date, Angela Brommel, our elected vice-president, will become NFA state board president. Angela and I have been working on a transition plan that will make her NFA president effective upon my resignation and culminate in the regularly scheduled state board meeting on September 14th. Those aspects of UNLV-NFA and NFA communications that have been my endeavor, including this blog, will be turned over to other officers or will cease to publish.

While logistically I will withdraw from the role of the president (and chair of the southern endorsement committee) at that time,  and step aside from the state board after more than 5 years of service, my interest in and commitment to faculty advocacy and the work of NFA -- as well as my personal commitment to all of you, especially those I have worked so closely with for the past few years -- will not cease.

I remain available, at the request of NFA officers at the chapter or state board level, to provide any sort of guidance, information, or support that I can provide to the board -- especially for the important period of the 2013 legislature when we will be actively advocating for restoration of faculty compensation.

(Naturally any discussion of legal defense issues, especially concerning UNLV, must take place outside of my knowledge to avoid any conflict of interest.)

Upon the start of the university academic year, the NFA will communicate to its members and readers important developments over the summer in the governance of the organization and important steps the executive committee have taken to put the NFA on a sound financial and organizational footing, which has been our primary governance goal for several years. It is therefore a propitious moment for me to step aside, as well as a necessary one given my new position, which will still be one primarily of service to UNLV and NSHE faculty but which of course is incompatible with a formal leadership role in the NFA.

As I prepare to step aside, please allow me to close by thanking you -- colleagues, members, fellow officers, general readers, and especially those of you with whom I have worked closely for several years -- to express my heartfelt thanks, my respect and affection, and my continuing commitment to our shared values.

In solidarity,

Gregory Brown

President, Nevada Faculty Alliance, 2011-2012
Vice-President, Nevada Faculty Alliance, 2009-2011
President, UNLV Faculty Alliance, 2009-2011
Secretary, Nevada Faculty Alliance, 2007-2009
Co-Chair, NFA PAC Endorsement Committee, 2006-2012

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Important part of ACA ruling for 2013 state budget

There's an important, and unexpected, component of the ACA ruling that is significant for our state's budget. Previously the Governor has said that while he supports a budget that would not cut higher education, or K-12, and would like to restore public service worker compensation, including faculty and staff pay, and even restore merit pay in the 2013-2015 budget, those priorities would be threatened by prospect of a rapid expansion in the Medicaid caseload as a result of the Affordable Care Act. Indeed, he repeated this concern this morning but noted that the consequences of the decision are "unclear."

He said Nevada "will prepare to meet the serious financial implication of this decision.

An analysis by the state in 2010 found that the law would cost the state $574 million between 2014 and 2019, mostly through increased Medicaid costs.

"The implications for Medicaid costs are still unclear, but Nevada will prepare to meet the serious financial implications of this decision," Sandoval said.

According to UNLV Boyd School of Law professor Stacey Tovino, the one part of the law that the Court struck down was the provision penalizing states if they did not increase their Medicaid caseload by withdrawing all Medicaid funding. Instead, the Court made explicit that States may choose whether or not to expand Medicaid eligibility (and thus Medicaid caseload and budget obligations). From the decision

As a practical matter, that means States may now choose to reject the expansion; that is the whole point.... Some States may indeed decline to participate, either because they are unsure they will be able to afford their share of the new funding obligations, or because they are unwilling to commit the administrative resources necessary to support the expansion.  Other States, however, may voluntarily sign up, finding the idea of expanding Medicaid coverage attractive, particularly given the level of federal funding the Act offers at the outset.
Now, to be clear, this is not to say that we in Nevada should not be concerned with the vexing issue of how to make health care affordable especially for those of the least means. It does not mean that the longstanding Sophie's Choice for states between human services for those in need and public investment in higher education is any less acute. Nor does it diminish the corresponding need for a broad-based source of adequate revenue for the state.

But the decision does give states like Nevada more short-term discretion in how to avoid further cuts to education and to restore competaitve compensation in highly competitive labor markets like academia and does lift what had been presented as an insurmountable burden for the 2013 legislature.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

NSHE faculty (still) have 401-K style retirement plan, not PERS

The Sun writes up some of the funny math in a so-called "study" of state retirement costs but fails to mention the most embarrassing howler in this out-of-state group's under-researched blog post: that since 1970, higher education faculty do not participate in PERS (except those who were enrolled in PERS prior to their employment in NSHE). Although part of the "report" is a list of 200 faculty at UNR and UNLV who will supposedly be paid a total of several hundred million dollars over the next 30 years, in fact over 93% of faculty (including non-instructional academic faculty) at the two universities (and nearly 90% of faculty across NSHE) are in precisely the sort of 401-K style, defined-contribution plan that the sponsors of the "study" recommend because it carries 0 liability for the state after retirement. 

For this reason, the Nevada News Bureau covered the NSHE retirement plan as a "model pension" program over a year ago .

For those interested in some actual, empirically sound comparisons, we can turn to data from the 2011-2012 American Association of University Professors report on faculty compensation and benefits:

The national average for public 4-year universities is that retirement benefits cost the institution $10252 per faculty member, which amounts to 10.8% of total compensation. (And most universities also pay into social security, which on average costs the institution another $5383 per faculty member and another 6.2% of total compensation. Nevada state employees, including NSHE faculty, are not enrolled in social security, so the state does not bear this cost at all, nor are these benefits available to most NSHE faculty -- even though the authors of this "libertarian" study actually recommend social security enrollment as a way to cut costs for states and local governments!

(See Tables 10A and 10B for national averages of higher ed retirement programs.)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Testimony to Committee on Funding of Higher Education

Remarks for Committee on the Funding of Higher Education, May 23, 2012
Gregory S Brown
Chair, Faculty Senate, UNLV (2011-2012)
President, Nevada Faculty Alliance (2011-2013)

Mr Chairman and members of the committee, thank you once again for the opportunity for faculty to address you on the funding formula. By way of introducing several of my UNLV colleagues and some of our students today, I’d like to report some of the reactions of the UNLV faculty expressed in several Faculty Senate discussions of this issue. Among the views that have been frequently expressed are three significant points we support in the proposal before you and two additional issues that we would urge the committee to consider:

1.       We support that this process has generated enough public interest and new thinking that the Chancellor has pronounced the old formula “dead”.  No one has felt more acutely than the faculty the loss of credibility that NSHE suffered from under the old formula, and we welcome a new formula, based upon outcomes, which rewards academic achievement. 
2.     We support the principle that has been frequently expressed as retention of student fees and tuition by the campus. While that formulation makes it sound as if the campuses would be retaining additional revenues, the real principle that has been proposed is that student fees and tuition should continue to be retained on campus but no longer figure in the formula and thereby offset state support. We believe the formula should distribute Nevada general fund dollars according to Nevada’s goals and respect student choice by allowing students to distribute fees and tuition through their enrollment choices

3.       We support the principle of allocating Nevada state dollars to support Nevada students, and keeping non-resident tuition outside the formula.  Not only does this approach create an incentive for programs to achieve national and international prominence but it also clarifies the level of per student funding – Nevada allocation per Nevada student -- so that regional equity can be measured more clearly. 

The two points that our faculty will urge the committee to address are adequacy of funding for the entire System and mission differentiation among campuses, based upon student learning outcomes

1.       The Chancellor’s proposal, as you know, adopts the current fiscal year as its baseline and proposes only to redistribute that fixed sum among our campuses.
a.       We believe that the performance-based funding component, which you will discuss today, should provide a clear rationale for the state to restore some of the public support  that has been cut in the past 4 years – by directing incremental investment to those campuses that have shown efficiency and productivity in generating degrees.
b.      We also believe that the proposed discussion of local support for workforce development at community colleges, which is a part of how 29 of 51 states fund community colleges, is a necessary piece of the long-term solution. 
c.       Moreover, we believe that the proposed research factor for universities is an essential  first step (if financially inadequate in the current proposal) towards providing a stronger platform for the generation of new revenue from grants and contracts.
d.      In short, UNLV faculty believe that while the Chancellor has understandably (for political reasons) presented his alternative funding proposal as revenue-neutral, the committee should not overlook how the formula might establish an adequate level of funding. Even as faculty embrace a formula built upon principles of efficiency and productivity rather than merely cost, the view from the classroom is that adequacy of investment to fund the services our students need has not been sufficiently discussed to date.

2.       Finally and the topic that has generated the most intense discussion among my colleagues, and which several of them will address today, is how our policies differentiate among the different tiers of our System – especially at the level of instruction that is common to all our campuses, lower-division undergraduate courses.
a.       To date, this discussion has been raised almost entirely about cost – whether or not lower-division courses are more costly at a university or college. However, as the Chancellor has repeatedly stated, Nevada (unlike other states) has neither the resources nor the time at this juncture to undertake a cost study to answer that question, so any answer is speculative. Moreover, to focus solely on cost does not, in any meaningful sense, lead us to a new approach to funding higher education based on educational attainment. To focus only on cost in a revenue-neutral environment necessarily pits one campus or tier against another, to the good of none.
b.      If as Regent Wixom has stated, first at the Boards’ strategic planning retreat last fall and then at this committee’s most recent meeting, the purpose of this exercise is to move from a formula based on cost inputs to one based on the value-added  of our outputs, then the real question the committee ought to ask is not if it is more or less expensive to offer lower-division instruction at a university or college – but, instead, what are the student learning outcomes of a lower-division course at a university or college? And, should we expect them to be the same?
c.       Ms. Gansert noted, correctly, at the most recent meeting that “ENG 101” is the same on each campus. She was right to say so. Precisely because ENG 101 (and ENG 102) are the mandatory, introductory writing courses we offer on each campus for first-year students, and these courses do have identical learning objectives for the students in terms of what students should be able to do after they have completed the course.  Consequently these courses have highly comparable syllabi, staffing, and student assignments.  As a result, we would expect them to generate comparable learning outcomes were we to assess the results systematically. The same is true for the mandatory first-year Math courses (Math 120-131) and, by and large, for the mandatory first-year courses that fulfill Constitution requirements  (HIST 100, PSCI 100, 101). All these courses should be expected to have comparable learning outcomes on any campus. However, these courses represent less than 6% of the student credit hours achieved at UNLV.
d.      Nearly 50 % of the credit hours students earn at UNLV are in lower-division courses other than required composition, math or Constitution. Do we expect these lower-division first year courses in Sciences, or Business, or Urban Affairs, or Performing Arts, or History to have the same student learning outcomes at a university as at a college? Our faculty do not believe so.
                                                               i.      We believe for instance that lower-division Science courses that offer opportunities for laboratory research have demonstrated outcomes, in terms of better preparing students for success in upper-division science courses and thus for completing degrees in STEM fields, especially for Latino and African-American students traditionally under-represented in the sciences. I have submitted a short article (“Learning by Doing”) supporting that thesis, based on a February 2012 report from the Presidents’ Council on Science and Technology, that undergraduates exposed to laboratory research in their first year of study at universities like UCLA and the University of Texas were more likely to major in a STEM field and more likely to achieve their degree in a timely manner. I have also submitted a short list of undergraduate summer research opportunities in the Sciences at UNLV that are available to students from their first year on campus.  We will shortly hear from two scientists on this topic.
                                                             ii.      We believe that lower-division courses which offer students the opportunity to conduct research in a research library result in specific and measurable learning outcomes, and we have many lower-division courses that for this reason build library research into the syllabus. I have submitted several examples of syllabi from different disciplines with the library research assignments highlighted, and we will hear more from a librarian shortly.
                                                            iii.      We believe that lower-division learning communities, in which small groups of students enroll for first-year courses in a block schedule of university courses, have achieved measurable improvement in learning outcomes for first-year Greenspun Urban Affairs majors.  We will hear from the director of this program shortly.
                                                           iv.      We believe that the Lee School of Business Global Entrepreneurship Experience program, which offers students, from their first year, direct experiences in global entrepreneurship and in advanced economic research provides a learning outcome is distinct from lower-division courses in the same disciplines on other campuses.
                                                             v.      These examples, we believe, suggest that at the level not of cost but of policy priorities, the state and the System ought – through the new funding formula – to continue to discuss the major philosophical principle that has been articulated in this process, of a focus on student educational attainment. The formula should address what student learning outcomes are achieved, should measure those outcomes in qualitative terms, and should in the end find a way to encourage and reward the distinct achievements rather than argue about cost inputs.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

NSHE Council of Chairs statement on PEBP

This statement was delivered by Tracy Sherman (CSN) on behalf of the NSHE Council of Faculty Senate chairs to the Board of Regents on Friday April 20.

On PEBP, some small but significant steps have been taken in the last few weeks. The PEBP Board at its rescheduled meeting on March 29 did allocate – as NSHE and UNLV representatives had sought – all its projected excess reserve to reduce out-of-pocket costs for faculty and staff and their families in 2012-2013, primarily by enhancing HSA/HRA employer contributions for next year.  

While this will bring some monetary benefit for most faculty and staff for next year (though not, unfortunately, those enrolled in the HMO plan), it is heartening as well that the public discussion of PEBP's excess reserves highlights the point that many faculty and staff believe – and which the NSHE Task Force continues to study  – that competitive health coverage can be made available to NSHE faculty and staff without additional cost to the state.

The PEBP Board also, at the urging particularly of NSHE faculty and staff, approved state subsidies for domestic partners of state public service workers enrolled in PEBP, on the same basis as spouses.  

The PEBP Board, however, chose not to alter the basic plan design, as we had sought, to offer participants a "middle tier" (between HMO and the current high-deductible option) that would offer predictable and clearly comprehensible costs for office visits and prescription drugs. All faculty and stuff should continue to advocate for such an alternative for NSHE in the 2013-2015 biennium, either from PEBP or from another insurance pool.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

NSHE Council of Chairs statement to PEBP board

On behalf of the over 3500 NSHE faculty and professional staff across the state, represented by the NSHE Council of Senate Chairs and by the Nevada Faculty Alliance, we urge the PEBP Board, as it sets rates and considers modifications to plan design for FY2012-2013,  to devote all available resources, including excess reserves and the scheduled increase in employer premiums, to slow the skyrocketing increase in out-of-pocket costs for public service workers and their families. We urge specifically that you

1. Subsidize domestic partners, which we have supported for nearly 10 years.

2. Reduce premiums on all PEBP participants to reverse the alarming increase in the number of our colleagues declining coverage altogether.

3. Address the alarming increase in HMO premiums for southern Nevada.
4. Enhance contributions, at the beginning of the contract year, to the HSA/HRA accounts and clarify how this money can be used.
The faculty and staff of NSHE have expressed, in numerous public venues, our concern over the negative consequences to our System's competitiveness in an active market for skilled academic talent.  Particularly in light of the diminution of salaries by 4.8%, in light of a national trend in which higher ed salaries increased by 1.9% last year, the state of Nevada and thus PEBP ought to be making its highest priority the shaping of a benefits plan that is as competitive as possible given available resources committed by the state and by PEBP participants, of which NSHE workers represent about one third.

Included in that one third are our colleagues among the classified state workforce on NSHE campuses. For these workers, a majority of whom earn less than $50,000 per year, the sharp increases in out of pocket up-front costs resulting from the conversion to a high deductible plan (an increase of several thousand dollars per year for some families) have forced a sharp increase in the number foregoing care, either by opting out of insurance altogether or by declining prescribed cure ,especially by reducing medical dosages below prescribed levels to cut costs.

The impact of the conversion of the PPO to a high-deductible plan, accompanied by a sharp increase in premiums and in co-insurance, and the sharp increase in premiums for HMO enrollees (especially in the south, where rates increased more sharply due to the blending of subsidies) has had a well-documented, negative effect on our workforce. The UNLV survey of faculty and staff conducted in November found that in addition to an unacceptably high 3.2% of workers who declined medical insurance entirely due to costs, over 60% of those who are covered reported either skipping prescribed medications or taking medications less frequently than doctor's orders to reduce out-of-pocket expense.

Lest one think this is merely a matter of faculty and staff cutting back on vanity care, our survey identified three instances of faculty or staff skipping prescribed insulin to control diabetes because they could not afford the cost of either the insulin pump or of the insulin itself at the end of the pay period.

We have therefore urged -- and continue to urge the Board -- to consider a "middle tier" plan, if not for FY13 than for the next biennium, that would allow participants to better anticipate (and budget for) the out-of-pocket cost of medical care through a separate prescription drug deductible and fixed co-pays for doctor's visits.

When an enhancement of coverage options was first suggested to the Board last fall, the response was that modifications to plan design would not be financially feasible or would come at such a high rate of participant premium as to be unviable. However, it appears from the program's last two quarterly financial reports that in actual cash terms, the program is accruing money to its reserve rapidly. Whereas last spring, during the 2011 legislative session, PEBP staff told a legislative committee that if the plan did not switch from a conventional PPO model to a high deductible plan, participant overutilization would drive the program to lose approximately $80m in the 2011-2013 biennium. However, it now appears that at the end of the 2010-2011 plan year, when we abandoned the conventional coverage paradigm, the plan had accrued between $20m and $43m in excess reserves -- above those necessary to meet the cost of care incumbered not but not yet claimed and of catastrophic claims. As of September 30, 2011, the plan had an excess reserve of $43, some $32m above that which PEBP had projected for the legislature in its work program.

And the most recent financial report reports that while the projected end-of-year excess reserve is down to $29.8m (due to the loss of an anticipated $12.5 in federal grants, not due to any increase in claims or coverage), the actual available reserve is up to $55 -- some $44m above what was projected in the budget submitted to the legislature. That is quite far to miss the mark and participants really do deserve an explanation.

Even more so, we deserve health coverage, which is the primary mission of the program, not the controlling of costs or the accrual of reserves. The state has allocated money for health coverage, participants have dutifully paid their premiums and deductibles, and the program appears to have netted at least $10m last quarter. Moreover, next year the program will receive a sharp increase in employer-side contributions, representing an increase in revenue of over 10% (over $30m statewide).

So between this excess reserve of over $40m currently and an increase in revenue of over $30m for FY13, we are urging the Board to lower premiums for all participants and enhance HSA contributions.

A final thought. We are aware that the staff is disposed not to alter the current plan design in order to see how it works out over the course of the 2 year biennium. From a scholarly standpoint, we understand this interest in carrying an experiment through to its conclusion. However, the mission of PEBP is not to show how to get us to use less care; it is to provide to the best of its ability and resources the care we actually do need.

That need is clear, the resources are available, and the time is now. We urge the board to commit to reducing out of pocket costs and enhancing coverage options for next year. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

PEBP Board to consider how to spend down massive excess reserve

The PEPB Board meets this Wednesday, March 14, at 9am and its agenda includes an item to discuss premiums, plan design changes and other measures that might be taken in the coming plan year (2012-2013).

On page 2 of the PDF is the info for agenda item VII which is about setting rates for 2012-2013 including use of "excess reserves". These are the choices they will be presented

a. Options for utilizing Excess Reserves:
i. Amend the base subsidy allocation percentages paid by participants in the Consumer Driven PPO High Deductible Health Plan, the Southern HMO Plan and the Northern HMO Plan as provided in Appendix A of the Duties, Policies and Procedures and/or

ii. Modify the Health Savings Account and Health Reimbursement Arrangement contributions

b. Providing the same subsidy for domestic partners as is provided for spouses

c. Approving the rates, State subsidies and participant contributions to utilize Excess

Page 4-5 states that they now estimate "excess reserves" (above the amount they need to keep on hand for unfiled claims, catastrophic claims and payments into HSA) at $29.8m for the end of this plan year that they could apply to next year as above.

However, note that on page 26 of the PDF is the quarterly financial report for the quarter ending Dec 31, 2011 which shows an actual cash-on-hand above necessary reserves of $55.8m which is a whopping $44m above what they told the legislature they would have on hand at this point in the year.

Faculty and staff wishing to express their views might consider submitting email or calling (800) 326-5496 or contacting the individual PEBP Board members including NSHE representative Jacque Ewing-Taylor before Wednesday morning.