Wednesday, February 29, 2012

NSHE Faculty seek clarity, credibility from new Higher Ed funding formula

Statement made on behalf of the NSHE Council of Chairs and NFA state board to the Committee on the Funding of Higher Education during its meeting Feb. 29, 2012.

I am Gregory Brown, chair of the UNLV Faculty Senate, and I am pleased to welcome the committee to UNLV and grateful for this opportunity to address you today. I speak today on behalf of the NSHE Council of Faculty Senate chairs and by extension the faculties of all 8 NSHE campuses.

I’m particularly honored to be able to speak to you in this role, in conjunction with my colleagues, Professor Tracy Sherman of the College of Southern Nevada and Joanna Shearer of Nevada State College, because it allows me to make a point that is essential for all involved in this process : NSHE faculty do not see this committee’s important work -- nor do we want others to see it -- as an expression of regional rivalry or political score-settling.

Indeed, after decades of working within the constraints of a structurally flawed formula, and in the aftermath of the past four years of unprecedented cuts in public support, we faculty cannot afford to withstand further the cost to our collective credibility and to our academic mission that would result from any attempt to “deliver” for one region or institution over another.

The existing formula has become a labrynthine black box widely perceived to be politicized and which has cost us, as faculty, dearly in terms of our System’s credibility with our students, with the state, with local governments, and with the community. Faculty have seen our programs and students bear the burden of the credibility crisis brought on by the old formula, and we urge you to seek as the highest priority for a new formula to restore to the System of Higher Education the credibility that our collective academic achievement deserves.

We as academics deal with each other by making our evidence known and subjecting our work to rigorous peer review; we believe the formula should be approached in the same way -- with transparency, clarity, comprehensibility as credibility as the utmost goals.

Credibility means in the first instance dealing honestly with our students – and their parents – when it comes time to pay tuition and fees. Considering money paid by students as “state support” for purposes of formula accounting has led to significant confusion. This can be ended by letting the formula distribute state dollars in support of only Nevada students – letting campuses determine how many non-residents should pay their full fare and how many should be on scholarship without impact on formula funding -- and then, letting all students from in-state as well as out of state distribute their share of the cost of the education by their choice of campus and program.

Credibility also means prioritizing academic issues over the political.  And indeed, the faculties of NSHE do not oppose, indeed we welcome, a formula that promotes educational attainment and degree completion.  Despite what is often presumed, faculty do not fear these goals will create irresistible pressure to inflate grades (though such a fear, if it exists, is likely to be felt among contingent faculty on part-time or non-continuing contracts). We take seriously – every week of every semester – our responsibility and our ability to be the guarantors of academic rigor and degree quality and of precise and nuanced assessment of student learning outcomes. (Indeed, at the suggestion of our UNR colleague David Ryfe, the Council of Senate Chairs have formed a faculty task force to advice the Chancellor on ways to measure degree quality for purposes of the formula and beyond.)

Above all, we welcome these new principles precisely because the perverse consequences of the old formula were so deleterious to our work as faculty. The old formula led campuses to push to grow enrollment above all goals; there were no incentives towards or safeguards of degree quality built into that formula whatsoever. So a new formula that encourages degree completion also represents an opportunity to improve our focus on rigor and quality -- rather than diminish it.

Another way in which the formula can restore credibility is to address, reasonably and realistically, but empirically, the cost of degree programs to determine adequate levels of funding. The purpose for which funding formulae were introduced in other states that have multi-tiered systems of higher education, beginning in Texas which remains the model nationally, was to determine the real cost or at least the ratio of costs among different degree programs on different campuses.

The flaws of our old formula are evident in that even in the best of years, Nevada provided only about 85% of what the formula calculated to be the cost of our programs. A credible new formula would not be one that simply presented a bill to the state for the costs of our programs. But a process  that finds a way to begin studying real costs on an empirical basis, or at least builds the study of cost into how the formula will operate once in place, is a crucial step towards long-term credibility. Only in that way can the state, can local governments, can students and can the community understand what the faculty know – that we are operating highly efficiently, at lower cost than comparable institutions in many other states. We know that because our course loads and advising and research work loads are higher than national averages, at costs (primarily faculty compensation and infrastructure) that are slightly lower.

Determining empirically the cost ratios of our programs is essential to achieving another cardinal goal of the faculty for the new formula – ensuring each of our campuses can pursue and fulfill its distinct mission within the System’s strategic plans, both current and future. The actual costs of research universities, of an urban access college that serves largely high-risk students, of one of the nation’s largest community colleges that stretches across three campuses, and of two institutions that serve large rural regions, all have distinct costs associated with those missions.

Finally, a formula that respects and reflects mission differentiation is also crucial, because it is essential to our work together as a coherent System.  We faculty do not fear or recoil from competition and indeed, a formula that allows each campus and program to retain student tuition and fees would reward excellence and prominence, by allowing programs that attract regionally, nationally and internationally to thrive and serve more students, both Nevadans and non-residents.

But as we compete among programs, we do not want performance-based funding to undermine the work we do together across campuses. We work on curricular issues such as course catalog articulation; we collaborate across campuses on research grants and contracts; we support joint efforts to facilitate faster degree completion; and we do not want the current process to become a competition among campuses. We believe that performance-based funding need not and should not pit campuses against each other in a fight to divvy up a smaller pie, but rather encourage collaboration and strategic partnership through additional investment, as reward for achieving an individual campus’ mission.

A new formula cannot do everything to address the challenges facing higher education in our state, but a new formula can and, faculty believe, should be a platform from which a future blueprint for higher education in Nevada can emerge. The current strategic plan, suited to the current environment, is entirely about increasing the number of degrees conferred in Nevada; however, the are other imperatives for the state in higher education including research, including personal development opportunities, including rural and urban access.

The new formula can, and we hope, will allow future NSHE strategic planning to be based not upon one-sized-fits-all goals but to be based upon our multi-tiered, differentiated missions. Investment in higher education can, and we hope will, come to be seen not as a burden to be avoided or as political patronage; with a new formula, it will come to be seen for what faculty know it is: an investment in student learning, in innovative research that leads to economic development, and in an enhanced quality of life and a stronger civic engagement for our state.

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