Happy Holidays From the Emerald City

As the fall semester in the USA draws to a close, a few updates for the holiday season:

Emerald City GatekeeperFirst, an eight-day strike by 1,500 graduate students who teach at the University of Oregon concluded today after a twenty-two hour mediation session. The students went on strike during the last week of classes after failing to reach agreement with the university on retirement and sick leave benefits. An interesting cease and desist letter sent by the graduate students’ union, alleging illegal strike-breaking tactics by the university, is here. No resolution yet to the UO’s recently-created board of trustees attempt to acquire unilateral control over all university operations.

Second, the Center for American Progress released an analysis of state funding of public universities since the Great Recession. Between 2007 and 2012, funding per student in Oregon, for example, decreased by 34 percent at the same time enrollment at public campuses increased by 29 percent. The decline in state support coupled with greater enrollment is a national pattern.

Third, as far as I can tell, a breach of contract and age discrimination lawsuit filed by seven former professors at Midway College in Kentucky continues to wend its way through the legal system. Legal buffs can read the complaint here. Midway fired fourteen faculty and sixteen staff in 2013, following double-digit percentage declines in enrollment. The college now has fewer than three hundred traditional full-time undergraduates. Midway is struggling financially with an endowment that barely exceeds its tuition liability — and under Kentucky law, a private institution of higher education must maintain a reserve large enough to refund students’ tuition if the institution closes. Midway’s problems started with the pipe dream of opening a school of pharmacy a few years ago. While trying to get the school built, Midway burned through $4 million of a pledged $12 million donation, at which point the donor turned off the spigot.

Fourth, Benedictine University announced that it is closing all of its traditional undergraduate programs at its campus in Springfield, Illinois. The programs will end in May at the close of the current academic year and seventy-five of the university’s one hundred Springfield employees will lose their jobs. Benedictine acquired the Springfield campus a decade ago. The folks in charge at Benedictine only recently noticed that continuing to operate the campus as is would result in a $6 million deficit by 2018, and that buildings needed $40 million in upgrades if it was to become competitive with nearby universities. Odd that this was a surprise, given the availability of demographic data showing declining numbers of high school graduates in Illinois.

Fifth, Burlington College has hired another interim president. Meanwhile, the closing date for the sale of twenty-seven of its thirty-three acres of lakefront property has been set for January 20. This property was acquired by the college only four years ago, from a local Catholic diocese trying to pay off bills from child sexual molestation lawsuits. It’s obvious that a college with an enrollment as small as Burlington’s would never be able to meet the obligations on a loan large enough to purchase such valuable real estate. Did that deter Burlington’s then-president or the lender? Not one bit. So it’s likely that the plan all along was to use the college as a shell company to transfer this lakefront property to a local developer at far less than its assessed market value. Burlington taxpayers, you lose. Same for Burlington College students. But a big personal financial win for the handful of people who put the deal together behind closed doors.

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