Letter to the Editor

By Professor John Davenport

To the Editor,

I am writing primarily to Fordham students and their parents in response to deceptive messages they have received from the Board of Trustees. I am representing only myself here, not any faculty group (and I did not coordinate this comment with the Faculty Senate). In particular, while the crisis over health insurance continues, I write to emphasize two other aspects of our problem that has received too little public attention.

The first concerns what professors actually do. Like many of my colleagues, I have been very upset by statements attributed to Board Chair Robert Daleo which suggest that he sees faculty as lazy whiners. Despite his background in journalism, Daleo is reputed to have quipped that faculty should not complain because, in addition to generous health care, they have “summers off.” These are the two most offensive words you can say to any professor at a major research institution, in which most faculty work all summer to write conference papers and articles or book chapters for publication. Apparently Daleo has no clue what scholarship is, or the vital role it plays as a basis for courses that keep students current with the most important scholarly findings and world developments. And by the way, Mr. Daleo, my own publication record is way behind schedule largely because I had to teach eight out of my first eleven summers at Fordham just to be able to afford a small three-bedroom house, purchased in horrible condition and in a very bad location more than an hour commute from Fordham. That is typical for many Fordham faculty members. Daleo should also consider instructors who are not on the tenure track. We have full-time post-docs teaching three courses a year for about $42,000 a year – the same in nominal dollars that they were paid 12 years ago. (Econ 101: that’s about a 30% erosion in purchasing power). Daleo also loves to boast of how generous our health care coverage has been compared to NYU and Columbia – where professors have significantly higher salaries on average and are often given housing during their first years as new faculty.

The immediate occasion of our crisis is the Board’s decision to order a unilateral reduction from three health plan options within United Healthcare down to just one bare-bones plan. They did this only three years after the administration negotiated a supposedly long-term deal with faculty that reduced our insurance providers from four companies down to just United, in which faculty also agreed to increase their portion of the plan costs by several percentage points. These were enormous concessions from faculty at the time. That’s why to force a further drastic cut in coverage now in direct violation of that agreement is so insulting to faculty. It’s not only (or even mainly) the money, though the estimated costs are very significant.

It’s the Board leader’s sheer arrogance and willingness to engage in bare-faced coercion that so deeply shocks and upsets faculty, who feel treated like we are shift workers for a union-busting strongman. Moreover, this comes just a year after the administration, again apparently at direct Board instruction, decided to impose a salary agreement for the next academic year unilaterally, without any agreement from our Faculty Senate. This was done in completely flagrant violation of the norms and processes that have kept the peace here for decades. This is not much different than the Board sending each faculty member a postcard saying simply “F.U.”

But Daleo and the Board plead in their letters to students and their parents that we must keep costs from rising too fast. They are entirely correct about this; we have a large national crisis with college costs in this country, which in the next few decades may well destroy the finest system of higher education ever created in human history. Giant leaps in health care costs are among the main drivers that have forced nominal (sticker) college prices up at almost twice the rate of average inflation over the last 30 years, even while the percentage of high school graduates attending college at least for a time keeps creeping upwards. Obviously, the federal government has to solve the main problems with health insurance; it could start with a simple fix that allows health insurance companies to operate in all 50 states (creating one national standard to replace 50 sets of state regulations). Even better would be a single payer system that cuts out the 30 percent or so that insurance companies are sucking up as middlemen. But we shouldn’t hold our breath for a moment of sanity to dawn on Washington, D.C.

So I’m with the Board thus far, but then comes their deceptive move: their April 17 letter tells you that “salaries and benefits – most notably, health insurance – account for 63 percent our [annual operating] expenses” (para. three). It intentionally does not tell you that faculty salaries and benefits (including for adjuncts and various part-time administrators who also do some teaching) is barely above half of that 63 percent of Fordham annual spending. The external, independent, and objective 2015 analysis by Howard Bunsis found that Instruction and Academic support (e.g. department secretaries) made up only 54 percent of Fordham’s annual outlays, with another three percent of annual spending for research. So where does the other 43 percent not spent on teaching and research go? Answer: to administration, dorms, and other student life costs. For comparison, in the typical public school district, administration might be 10 percent of operating expenses.

Here we arrive at the great cost driver in American higher education that parents and students often do not understand: administrative costs have nearly doubled in 20 years. Of course much of this is crucial for a college community; career development is vital, study abroad and counseling need more people, good facilities provide a basis for student work and life together and our student life staff is probably stretched thin in some areas (even if maybe they could do without one manager for each dorm). But across American colleges, in central administration, more vice presidents with impressive titles and their attendant associate and assistant vice presidents, along with deans and their attendant associate deans (and deputy assistant interim vice-deans, etc.) keep sprouting up like daffodils in the spring, and naturally, each one thinks she or he needs a larger staff to make the work go easier. Fordham is no exception: as a small sample, our central Academic Affairs has grown from 499 in 2003 to around 620 by 2017; in the same period, Information Technology (IT) went from ‘only’ 67 to a whopping 109; while Athletics grew from 49 to a staggering 122 personnel. Of course they are (almost) all great people who do wonderful work for Fordham; I’m not criticizing any of them personally. But every apparent problem is solved by adding more administrators. For example, last year the administration decided to add a whole new VP office of Diversity, in addition to our already great office of Multicultural Affairs, at a cost of perhaps $400,000 per year (my guesstimate). And in a couple years, Daleo will open a new gym that costs over $1 million. Why, then, does Daleo not address this giant elephant in the room? Is he really blind to it, or is he trying to hide it from Fordham families?

If we are ever going to get to a sustainable budget trajectory that compensates faculty sufficiently to live in the NYC area, Fordham will have to address this administrative growth with serious, major cuts in non-instructional headcount over time. Ideally we would have $1 million or more left over for new faculty-chosen initiatives that would improve the experience for students as well.

—John Davenport, Professor of Philosophy