Staff Editorial

Higher education cuts will drain top talent

University of Iowa non-tenure track faculty (NTT) and their supporters march up Clinton Street from the Pentacrest to the Presidents Residence in Iowa City on Friday, May. 4, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
University of Iowa non-tenure track faculty (NTT) and their supporters march up Clinton Street from the Pentacrest to the Presidents Residence in Iowa City on Friday, May. 4, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Iowa is at risk of losing some the world’s best scholars.

A bleak state budget forecast and misplaced political priorities are making it tough for our public universities to hire and retain top teachers and researchers. The problem will only get worse in the face of millions in budget cuts approved by state lawmakers this year.

Board of Regents institutions were dealt an $11 million midyear budget cut last month, part of a $35 million de-appropriation package meant to square spending with flailing government revenues. That amounts to about $5.5 million at each the University of Iowa and Iowa State University, while the smaller University of Northern Iowa was exempt from the cuts.

It’s hard to see how any institution could manage such a significant slash so close to the end of the fiscal year. Worse yet, university leaders say they already have been dealing with insufficient state support over the past several years.

To cope, both UI and ISU have shrunk department budgets, left jobs open and slowed salary increases. That’s a poor strategy for retaining talented staff and faculty.

It should be no surprise ISU saw a spike in faculty departures last year with 44 members leaving, up from 24 the previous year. Many did not receive a salary increase in the past year, and most of those leaving said they found a better opportunity elsewhere.

“That was really devastating for morale,” ISU President Wendy Wintersteen said during a meeting with The Gazette’s editorial board last week. “When you have individuals who work as hard as they do at Iowa State University, this becomes problematic.”

Meanwhile at UI, a large group of non-tenure-track faculty are calling for better pay and more stable employment contracts. Dozens of them organized a demonstration last week outside UI President Bruce Harreld’s home, demanding a meeting with the university’s top leader. Harreld has so far denied that request.

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Just like in the private sector, colleges and universities compete with other institutions for the best workers. A state in the midst of a politically charged budget crisis is not very enticing for the world-class academics our schools hope to attract and retain.

Higher education leaders have limited resources to juggle several competing budget priorities, including faculty retention, containing tuition hikes and maintaining public services. They can’t do all of that with the level of government support they have now.

We know from past experience Iowa can offer affordable education and also be home to the nation’s top researchers and teachers. However, it comes at a price our current elected officials apparently are not willing to pay.

• Comments: (319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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