Donald O. Parsons: Where has your tuition gone?

After struggling with courses either closed or crammed into improbably small spaces and taught by adjunct faculty, who are often excellent, but less often available for discussion and/or recommendations “next” semester, a student can reasonably ask, “Where has my ample tuition payment gone?”

As at any university, some of your money goes to purposes, administrative and academic, of questionable value, especially when basic educational resources are strained. What distinguishes GW from other schools is the share of your tuition money that goes to benefit not you, but future GW students. The form of your gift is your acceptance of these classroom deficiencies.

Your perhaps unrecognized role as benefactors of the University is not an accident. As seniors are well aware, the University expanded rapidly in the past few years. Full-time equivalent undergraduate enrollments rose by 50 percent between the fall of 1998 and the fall of 2003, full-time graduate enrollments by 17 percent. Expansion of this magnitude is expensive. Universities typically pace expansion to the administration’s ability to “sell” alumni and other friends of the University on the excitement of the expansion. Unfortunately, the current GW administration’s ambitions are large and its abilities to raise funds small, so GW proceeded in its Great Expansion without external support.

Instead, the University turned to you to finance the expansion. The dramatic increase in the number of students and the very large increases in tuition have led to a revenue bonanza for the University. Alas, the University has not expanded the educational resources to match these numbers. Throughout the Great Expansion, the number of regular tenure-track faculty, generally held to be the permanent core of the University, has been effectively frozen. By not expanding the resources devoted to educate you, the large tuition revenue gains have been converted directly into profits for the University. Make no mistake about it – GW is currently a very profitable nonprofit.

Of course this “surplus” cannot be distributed as dividends to the administration and trustees. Instead it has been used to finance the University’s future physical plant. The 2007 budget, for example, includes a $47 million transfer from operating revenues – largely your tuition and dorm payments – to the capital account and another $13 million from operating revenue directly to construction. To put these sums in perspective, total projected operating revenues are slightly less than $500 million.

The Faculty Senate has become concerned about the decline in educational resources per student. At a Special Meeting of the Faculty Senate on Feb. 3, the administration, represented by Executive Vice President and Treasurer Louis Katz, Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Donald Lehman, and Senior Vice President for Student and Academic Support Services Robert Chernak, provided clear and candid accounts of the state of the University. (See www.gwu.edu/%7Efacsen/faculty_senate/minutes.html).

Their reports broadly confirm the strategy laid out above. Executive Vice President Lehman presented disturbing evidence of the erosion of educational resources at GW in the last five to seven years. He also gave a picture of where this chronic neglect of educational quality places us. In the fall of 2004, for example, part-time faculty, graduate teaching associates and visitors together taught approximately one half (49 percent) of all GW sections and almost the same share of students (45.5 percent). Another 12.9 percent of sections and 11.8 percent of students were taught by contract faculty with a longer, but still limited connection to the University. Regular tenure track faculty, once viewed as the core of the University teaching staff, taught only 38 percent of all sections and 42.6 percent of students.

A refreshing aspect of Executive Vice President Katz’s financial presentation was his open acceptance of alternate strategies, with the sensible warning that additional 2007 expenditures on teaching resources for current students must come largely from either unanticipated gifts from alumni and other donors, or less ambitious capital plans. Given the president’s well-known difficulties as a fundraiser, it seems reasonable to assume that improvements in the educational experiences of current students must come from the slower repayment of debt and/or the placement of new debt. This has consequences. A reallocation of resources to bolster the educational environment of current students may lead to slower expansion of the physical plant, including the future science center and much-needed general classroom and office space.

The Ad Hoc Committee of Concerned Faculty, of which I am chair, has long argued that this diversion of resources from current to future students is excessive. The department chairs of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences recently petitioned the University’s chief academic officer, Executive Vice President Lehman, to lead efforts to rebalance budget priorities between current education and the early completion of building projects in favor of current education.

If you share the view that the administration needs to concentrate more seriously on providing a high quality education to current students, now is the time for you to speak up, individually and collectively.

-The writer is a professor and chair of the Economics Department.

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