by Rick Lotspeich
The annual AAUP Summer Institute was held on July 23-26, 2009 at Macalester College in St. Paul Minnesota, and hosted by the Minnesota State AAUP Confernece. My participation at this Summer Institute (the first which I have attended) has to count among the best experiences of my professional life. I recommend it most highly to anyone considering attending the Institute. Why was this so great, and what did I learn? "Many reasons" and "a great deal" are the short answers. Here are more details.
Firstly, the quality of people attending and leading the sessions is very high. It might be partly due to the summer setting, but everyone I met was friendly, helpful and in good humor. At the same time they were serious in purpose and focused on core issues of concern to AAUP and the American professoriate generally. Session leaders were very knowledgeable of their topics and provided ample information in both discussions and documents. Participants came with information of their own and a wealth of experiences to share in both the sessions and time in between. The top leadership of the national AAUP was in attendance and very accessible. My most memorable lesson was directly from Cary Nelson during the river cruise excursion.
Secondly, the logistics were handled superbly. Everything was very well organized. Information was provided in a timely way, many questions were anticipated and answers for all questions were efficiently provided. I think a part of this derived from the very positive attitude of AAUP staffers toward the purpose of our organization broadly and of the Summer Institute in particular. They are genuinely concerned for the future of higher education in America and willing to work hard to make improvements. Participants had choices for accommodations; I chose the dorm room option, which was quite acceptable and convenient. Hotel living was the other option, with transportation to meeting venues provided. Breakfasts and lunches were available near the meeting rooms and provided excellent opportunities to meet new people, continue conversations on session topics or engage in exchanges of experiences within our work environments. Evening dinners and excursions were optional for modest additional cost. I recommend participating because these were great opportunities for informal discussions and networking.
Part of a participant's preparation is to choose sessions in advance of the Summer Institute. As I often experience in academic conferences with simultaneous sessions, I found many more interesting topics than I could possibly attend in the time given. I prioritized choices according to the most pressing faculty concerns at my place of employment, Indiana State University (ISU), namely, governance issues and financial matters. The first session was on the faculty role in accreditation -- a process ISU is currently going through. Although the planning, reports and site visits for accreditation are often dominated by administrators, faculty also have an important part. Leaders of the session encouraged faculty involvement at all stages, emphasizing that we are most effective when we know more about accreditation than our administrators. Key lessons I learned were that accreditation is denied only very rarely, and that where disaccreditation occurs it is often due to grave financial weakness of the institution involved. Wow! From the way our administrators drive organizational and programmatic change citing accreditation concerns, one would think ISU is at risk; but evidently that is not the case.
My second and third sessions were two parts of an extended presentation and discussion of faculty handbooks: their role, their structure, and their legal authority. I suppose the main feature here is the incredible variety of experience. The essential notion of a handbook is a formalized set of rules and procedures that both protects and constrains personnel in a university or college. From a faculty perspective the protection is more significant than the constraint. In the words of one of the session leaders: "A handbook establishes Rule of Law."
Some attendees were seeking to write a handbook, as their institutions did not have one. Others had vague or weak handbooks. I came away with the perception that ISU actually has a pretty good handbook, one that has been tested and has gained some legal standing in a contractual sense. I was surprised to find sections of the ISU Faculty Handbook included as examples in materials provided to participants. Detailed topics in the session included the precise legal standing of handbooks (it varies from state to state according the AAUP legal counsel at the session) and proper procedures for amending handbooks (since they have at times been amended illegitimately). This was a crowded and long two-part session covering a wealth of details on a subject very important to faculty.
The last two sessions I attended both treated financial matters. One was an introduction to the financial statements of a university/college. Understandably, my own focus prior to this seminar had been on our university's budget. However, an expert guide who led the session asserted that budgets are mere plans, subject to change and incomplete in details. The real meat is to be found in the financial statements -- which must be filed and in many cases are public documents. The two key documents are the Balance Sheet, a statement of assets and liabilities that is typically audited by an outside authority, and a Statement of Income and Expenditure, which presents financial flow data. One of the more interesting facts we learned was the high score for creditworthiness that universities typically receive from bond rating agencies; one of the calculations these agencies look at closely, based on the financial statements, is the Viability Ratio: expendable net assets over long-term debt. Another important detail is that subventions to state institutions are considered non-operating revenue, in contrast to tuition receipts. Thus operating revenue less operating expenditure for such institutions is typically negative, the difference covered by subvention. Our session leader also explained a composite index used to evaluate the financial health of higher education institutions in his home state of Ohio. It runs on a scale of 1 to 5, with a value of 3 being good and 4 being very strong. He had calculated this index for a number of institutions represented by attendees in the session, including ISU. I learned that our score for FY2008 was 4.7 -- a very strong performance. Budget crisis? What budget crisis?
The final session focused on the larger fiscal environment of higher education and national trends. We considered the typical practice of parking university funds temporarily in portfolios of financial assets, where they can experience gains or losses. Although U.S. Treasuries are safer than stocks, many university fund managers have been seduced by the higher average returns stocks are thought to provide -- with predictably adverse results during the recent financial crisis. We also learned of the trend over the past 30 years for public universities to rely more on tuition and less on state appropriations. While particular ratios vary a great deal across public universities, this trend points toward an abandonment of higher education as a public interest. Another development is the increase of administrators and professional staff relative to teaching and research faculty. ISU is following the national evolution of university staffing, but is this a wise use of the limited resources of higher education? Not surprisingly, the opinions in this group were doubtful. Gary Rhodes, a leader in this session and General Secretary of the National AAUP, offered a political economy analysis: The administrative leaders of higher education seek a well-controlled work force, and faculty, who traditionally enjoy a high degree of autonomy, are not well-controlled professionals. Indeed!