It appears that finally some of our elected officials have begun to take notice of the foul smell emanating from the University System of Georgia finances and indeed the governance. Rep. David Stover, R-Newnan, recently said he is preparing a proposed constitutional amendment that would make the 19-member board elected by the voters.
“We’re in the top five in the country” for tuition increases, Stover said from the floor of the House. “Thirty-one percent. We’re pricing the poorest of our students out of college. We’re driving HOPE scholarship to become insolvent. Thirty-one percent. We’re forcing our kids to leave college when they lose the HOPE scholarship.”
Currently, the Board of Regents are appointed by the governor. Five are appointed statewide and 14 are chosen from each of the state’s congressional districts. Lawmakers have little power over the board. While the General Assembly decides how much money the University System of Georgia is allocated each year, the board has the power to determine how that money is spent.
And that, Stover said, is the problem.
“We have no control in the General Assembly over the Board of Regents,” he said. “It’s time we give control over the Board of Regents to the people of Georgia.”
Stover said his plan would allow voters in each of the 14 congressional districts to elect a board member every four years, and the five members now appointed statewide would be elected statewide.
Below you will find an open letter written by Dr. William Gary Kline who is a Professor of Political Science at Georgia Southwestern State University which explains why this reform is so desperately needed.
An Open Letter to the People of Georgia: Your Higher Education is in Crisis
I have found myself increasingly concerned about the system of education here in Georgia and have been driven by ethical principles and my conscience to oppose the University System of Georgia (USG) leadership structure. I’m convinced that it is failing miserably in its mission to prepare students to live good lives and to promote a better society. Rather, the system has become corrupted and misguided thanks largely to a fraudulent system of crony politics in the state. Instead of considering the best interests of the students and families of Georgia, the Board of Regents (BoR) is engaging in self-serving behavior. The BoR fails the citizens of Georgia and blights our state’s future while members lavish upon themselves resources provided by hard- working taxpayers of the state designated for educating our students. I have come to this conclusion reluctantly, but ineluctably – based on scrutiny of public records, policies, and actions over time of the State Government, the Board of Regents (BoR) and the Chancellor, Hank Huckaby.
An old saying goes, “A fish rots from the head.” The Center for Public Integrity claims that Georgia has the most lax ethics rules in the nation. Georgia was ranked dead last—the most corrupt state in the country—in a 2012 report by the Business Insider. And so it appears that even higher education in Georgia has been infected with the malady of corruption and cronyism. Once I began to investigate the situation, it soon became clear to me that Georgia students, their families, taxpayers, faculty, and staff are all being exploited for the benefit of privileged officials at the top. Aided and abetted by some powerful political allies, the BoR and Chancellor have been entrusted with a “slush fund” of billions of dollars, and they are virtually unaccountable to any outsiders. BoR members and the Chancellor exercise almost total discretion without any mechanisms of public oversight. This cannot continue.
The BoR and Chancellor are appointed by the Governor. Few of these appointees have any experience in higher education other than having earned a college degree at some point. But a body governing higher education without career educators, people who have actually taught in higher education and know the real issues and problems, seems like a counter-intuitive or even irrational idea. Most of these Regents are wealthy, from a business background, and have contributed generously to the campaigns of various Georgia Governors’ campaigns (Republican and Democrat alike). Though the BoR is supposed to be broadly representative of the state, out of 19 members, only one is African American and two are female. They enjoy almost unfettered control over more than $8 billion of Georgia taxpayer money.
My interest in the governance of the USG was initially sparked by a decision made by the Chancellor (Hank Huckaby) and the BoR in May 2015 as spring graduations ended and faculty and students in general dispersed for the summer. The timing was, I believe, strategic – announcing huge salary increases for USG presidents even as student tuition and fees were being raised for the sixth year in a row and salaries remained stagnant for over a decade for faculty and staff. Students and their families would pay more (increasing the burdens of student debt and even pricing some students out of the higher education market) while faculty and staff were told yet again that there was little or no money for raises. Georgia higher education funding has dropped by almost 30% since 2008. Whereas the state picked up about 75% of the costs of a college education in 2008, now it pays less than half. Georgia students and their families are laboring under a crushing debt. According to an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution dated August 7, 2015, “Georgia is home to 1.5 million student loan borrowers, accounting for $44.3 billion in outstanding debt…” – a drag on our state economy that is long term and growing, thanks to decisions made by the State Government, the Chancellor, and the BoR.
So I was disturbed when I learned that just one president alone, Mark Becker of Georgia State University, would enjoy a $500,000 increase over his already lavish salary of more than $660,000 – a sum that is about three times what the President of the U.S. is paid. Another president, Bud Peterson at Georgia Tech, was given a $320,000 salary increase over and above the several hundreds of thousands he was already drawing, thrusting him into the millionaire category. The Chancellor was probably surprised that his decision to turn some USG presidents into millionaires was greeted with a firestorm of protests. The USG Faculty Council, a body representing each institution in the university system, produced a resolution this summer calling on the Chancellor to cease tuition hikes and re-think salary issues. Characteristically, he refused and seemed to scoff at the idea that faculty members would seek to have any say in the matter.
As I looked into the workings of the USG, I found much more that was disturbing—a swamp of cronyism and irrational selfishness drowning out the public interest. I saw that our students and the health of our state are at dire risk. I could not look away any longer, and neither should you, Good Georgians. For ten years straight, the mantra has been: we need to sacrifice for the good of the State because of budgetary constraints. So faculty and staff have soldiered on bravely, sacrificing year after year as their salaries have fallen farther and farther behind the cost of living. Students have sacrificed, paying ever higher tuitions and taking on greater debt to finance their college educations. Some of them have even had to abandon the hope of a college education altogether due to rising costs.
To the extent that the Chancellor has bothered to try to defend such outrageous pay for a favored few employees of the USG, he has said that it is necessary to attract and retain the best leadership. This argument is specious. Why would the Chancellor not apply the same logic to the faculty of our institutions of higher learning? That is, why aren’t the faculty who actually teach our students paid salaries that allow Georgia to attract and retain the best teachers? Can a stellar president (who does not teach, by the way) really promote a healthy environment for learning if teachers and staff are poorly paid and suffering from low morale?
To retain the best leaders, we must also presuppose that our present leadership is capable of identifying who are the best people for such positions (presidents of USG institutions, vice- presidents, and the like). Based on the performance of this Chancellor and BoR, I am far from confident – I frankly doubt – that they have the good judgment, the wisdom, or the integrity to identify good leaders. It is probably a truism that a corrupted system is not generally led by people of great vision or probity.
Moreover, it is not fair to ask faculty and staff to work for salaries that fall steadily behind the cost of living. A decent salary is a matter of fairness. And if Georgia’s institutions of higher learning will not pay teachers adequately, we cannot expect to attract or retain the best educators for our students. Thus, our state will suffer collectively for this absence of vision as a selfish and narrow-minded club of political hacks squanders the public treasury. Why do we tolerate such behavior from our “leaders” in higher education?
To me, teaching always felt like my calling. That is, I share the passion for teaching that so many of my colleagues possess, as well. In general, teachers believe that they are engaged in a noble and worthy endeavor: passing along the hard won knowledge of past generations to the next generation, helping to prepare students for productive lives, inculcating good habits of thought and critical thinking skills for success in life, and helping to develop good citizens and the essential foundations for a better society.
Teachers have the opportunity to mentor students and foster their intellectual growth in ways that enrich their lives and contribute to social well-being.
This traditional belief that an educated citizenry equals a good investment has been almost abandoned by the ruling powers, ironically, at a time when access to quality education has become paramount if Georgia is to compete successfully and move ahead in the global economy. Our youth and their families are growingly weighed down under a mountain of student debt. Faculty and staff are ill-paid and overworked; morale at universities and colleges has plummeted; and it has become more and more difficult to attract and retain good teachers due to low salaries.
The burdens imposed by the BoR under this wasteful and corrupt system of cronyism are too much for Georgia’s taxpayers to reasonably bear. Those who make the rules (and their chosen friends) are the few who have benefitted from the sacrifices of the majority of Georgians. Taxpayers of Georgia are being ill-served; student access to education is being adversely affected and student costs have soared; faculty and staff have endured years of salary stagnation and morale has suffered; and worse, the quality of education has suffered due to low morale and the inability of the state to hire and retain the best educators. When we see this level of ineptitude and duplicity in poorer countries of Africa or Latin America, we call it cronyism and corruption. We Georgians must call the activities and policies of the BoR and the Chancellor by their true name, and so face the problem square on. More to the point, changes for the better are possible. Georgians must come together and demand reforms now. Here’s are a few ideas:
- Let the Governor know how you feel by clicking here. or calling 404-656-1776
- Contact your state legislators to express your concerns and urge Representatives and Senators to act in the public interest, on behalf of the students and families of Georgia. Legislators can be located here
- Citizens can circulate a Change.org petition.
- Initiate a Twitter campaign.
- Contact the public interest group Georgia Watchdogs to voice your opinions.
- Urge family, friends, and neighbors to get involved in a grassroots effort to clean up Georgia government and put education back on a healthy path.
- Students, whose futures are at stake, should organize on their campuses and lobby administrators to keep tuition and fees down and to curb outrageous salaries paid to a handful of favored administrators.
- Faculty and staff should also unite to voice their dissatisfaction with the great disparity in salaries that has been promoted by the BoR and Chancellor across the USG.
- Inform yourself and ask questions of candidates for public office. It’s an election year. Where do the candidates stand on these issues? Let them know that your vote will be contingent on their answers.
Dr. William Gary Kline
Georgia Southwestern State University Professor of Political Science
Editor, Journal of Third World Studies