Kasich’s Mishandling Of Higher Ed Is A Problem For Everyone
by John McNay

Back in 2007, Ohioans were looking forward to some genuinely positive changes in the state’s approach to higher education. Gov. Ted Strickland recognized that universities and their faculty were genuine assets in building a stronger Ohio and introduced a 10-year plan to improve access and graduation rates. The University System of Ohio, for example, was established and faculty across the state worked together to move the state’s universities to semesters and to make sure that courses, especially the introductory surveys, were compatible and would transfer from one university to another seamlessly. Strickland froze tuition in exchange for increased funding. A lot of creative thinking had started in terms enhancing our university regional campuses and having universities collaborate more closely with community colleges.

A combination of good ideas and imperfect concepts, much of Strickland’s plan was crippled by the economic recession.  Faculty did not always agree with Gov. Strickland and his chancellor, Eric Fingerhut, but were part of the conversation.

With the election of John Kasich, higher education and the professoriate were seen in a very different light. We knew things were going to change when Kasich referred to professors as “eggheads” during an event at Cincinnati State. And then, despite the really great and responsible work done by our universities with Third Frontier research, Kasich announced that he would be funneling that public money into private sector hands instead, saying that business executives would better know what to do with money. In 2011 alone, Kasich gave away $14.9 million from Third Frontier taxpayer funding to economic development agencies mainly connected to chambers of commerce.

A central problem with the administration’s approach to funding higher education is that they consistently have come up with solutions in search of problems while ignoring all of the real, glaring problems. A number of independent studies of higher education demonstrate misplaced priorities at universities, some from no less than the conservative Goldwater Institute. The primary culprits are administrative bloat, spending on athletics, and binging on real estate and construction.

Instead of focusing on these issues, our first encounter with Gov. Kasich and his allies were with union-busting Senate Bill 5. Obviously, this was a ruthless and unwarranted attack against all public employees. But, above all other unions, faculty unions were targeted for elimination by SB 5. Language in the bill said that if faculty did any of the service that is a normal part of our work – curriculum committees, search committees, advisory committees, planning committees promotion committees, etc. – we would automatically become “managers” and thus be ineligible for union membership. Thus, at the heart of SB 5, was a plan to eliminate the strongest advocates for instruction at our public universities.

In this context, it is important to note that instructional costs – professors’ salaries and benefits – are not a burden on the universities and on average make up less than 30 percent of Ohio universities budgets. Given that the primary reason for the universities to exist is teaching students, this should strike anybody as a problem. Further, reflecting the lack of emphasis on instruction is that our universities hire armies of adjuncts who they pay $2,500 or less per course while providing no benefits and little instructional support.

Imagine our surprise when Gov. Kasich named Ohio State University President Gordon Gee to chair a task force on access and affordability. Before finally leaving OSU after his anti-Catholic remarks, investigations into his compensation revealed some shockingly irresponsible facts – not only was Gee’s salary outrageous – he drew more than $8.6 million between 2007 and 2012 – but according to the Dayton Daily News, his expenses were $7.7 million over the same period. Clearly, naming Gee, the poster-child for administrative bloat, to lead a task force on access and affordability shows just how disconnected the administration has been from the reality of university operations.

Keeping in mind that full-time faculty are outnumbered by both adjuncts and administrators, it is hard to believe that the governor has focused most of his time on trying to add to the workload of faculty. Several bills have been introduced proposing either adding courses or increasing workloads by some percentage. All the while boondoggles continue to abound across Ohio. In 2013, when the University of Toledo was claiming to have a budget crisis, the administration chose to pay a financial consultant $1,200 a day for advice. Perhaps they could have made a start by not hiring the consultant! The University of Akron proposed immediately closing 55 degree programs in 2013 and Bowling Green State University laid off 13 percent of its full-time faculty over 2012 and 2013, both universities apparently forgetting for a time what business they are in. In both cases, faculty fought hard to create rationale decisions that would protect quality education.

And then there was the “Charter University” initiative introduced back in 2011. Most of the nation can recognize that the charter school movement has been a disaster. Not only has it produced failing privatized schools but it has undermined our public school system. Basically, the Kasich administration was proposing that, in exchange for “freedom” from state government regulations, the state would provide less money to the universities. Given the charter school track record we were left to wonder how it could be possible that anyone would want to undermine Ohio’s university system, too. But that was the situation we faced. It was easy to demonstrate that similar attempts to privatize state universities had been failures elsewhere – the University of Virginia increased its tuition by over 50 percent in the first five years and similar bad impacts have played out in the states of Washington and Texas. But right-wing ideology often seems impervious to facts.

With great fanfare, the governor introduced the plan. Gradually, however, over several months, as the university presidents studied the options, the obvious became clear to them. Less regulation might be nice but there was no way to make up for the millions in funding the Kasich administration planned to remove through the privatization plan. Faculty members and students added to the pressure by loudly criticizing the destruction of our fine public university system. Gradually, the plan was dropped.

All of this takes place in the context of reductions in funding. Deficits manufactured because of years of irresponsible tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, have steadily reduced funding to the state’s higher education system. Kasich’s last budget did slightly increase funding to higher education but the state’s financial support for higher education remains dismal and behind what it was under Strickland. In 2011 alone, Gov. Kasich slashed the university system budget by 10.5 percent. It has in fact declined sharply over the years. In 1991, according to Policy Matters Ohio, the state dedicated $7.03 out of every $1,000 in personal income to higher education, ranking 38th among the states. Twenty years later, the amount had slipped to $4.57, and the state dropped to 41st.

Going hand in hand with the decline in funding has been the virtual abandonment of student aid. After a series of steady cutbacks, Ohio now ranks last in the Midwest in need-based investment in student aid. In need-based aid, Ohio now invests only about $144 per full-time student. That is 36th in the nation and ranks behind Pennsylvania at $817, Indiana at $776, and Michigan at $194.

The sharpest recent cuts to the Ohio College Opportunity Grant (OCOG) program came in 2009 in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse. The Kasich administration and the legislature has had four years to restore funding and has yet to act. In studies done nationwide, including at my own college, the greatest determining factor on a student’s success in college is the family’s income level. Need-based financial aid is the best way to try to address this central issue for our students and yet the Kasich administration has failed to address this problem.

If the Kasich administration truly wants to utilize higher education to aid Ohio’s economic recovery, it must tackle the real problems and stop pursuing gimmicks that only mask the problems and end up doing more harm than good.


John McNay is a professor of history at the University of Cincinnati, president of the Ohio Conference, American Association of University Professors, and author of “Collective Bargaining and the Battle of Ohio: The Defeat of Senate Bill 5 and the Struggle to Defend the Middle Class”