CINCINNATI – University of Cincinnati administrators and faculty alike are basking in the glow of a No. 1 national ranking in return on investment while dealing with the meat and potatoes issue of hammering out contracts for 1,750 faculty members and 240 office workers.
Last week, President Barack Obama unveiled a plan to control rising tuition costs by holding universities to a national standard of return on investment.
The Policymic website crunched data – on average student debt upon graduation; starting salaries; tuition, room and board for four-year universities; six-year graduation rates; and percentage of students who qualify for Pell grants – and UC was ranked as the best return on investment in the nation. Ohio University ranked second.
“Affordability is an intentional policy,” said Greg Hand, UC spokesman. He pointed to several cost-cutting efforts to make college affordable, including:
• A university-wide efficiency council report that is due this fall
• Efforts to control health-care costs
• Frozen salaries for non-union staff for three of the past five years
• No tuition increases in four of the last 10 years.
• A $16.6 million budget cut in fiscal year 2013 and $3.7 million in cuts for 2014.
The ranking is the latest in a spate of good news for the university, highlighted by this fall’s all-time record enrollment of 42,800 students overall.
Caroline Miller, senior associate vice president for enrollment management, reported to the UC board of trustees on Tuesday that the school’s six-year graduation rate rose this year to 64 percent, up from 62 percent in 2012 and 48 percent in 2003.
And while applications were down more than 5 percent this year – a reflection of a smaller population new high school graduates – freshmen registration rose 7.7 percent.
That success pits unions representing faculty and office workers who want to share in the rising fortunes against administrators trying to control costs and, in turn, tuition.
Administrators were admonished by a fact-finder who was called in to arbitrate a dispute with the union that represents about 240 office workers over wages and health care benefits. The university offered a 1 percent raise to workers effective July 1, 2012 and a 2 percent raise effective last July 1, but the fact-finder recommended this month a 3 percent raise retroactive to July 2012 and a 1 percent raise retroactive to last July.
“Unfortunately, the positions of the parties represented in this dispute represent a trend…where executive compensation is given inordinate precedence, regardless of performance, over compensation for those who keep the machinery of the organization working,” Mollie Bowers, the fact-finder, wrote in her report.
She accused UC administrators of using a “tactic to strip the union of its rights” regarding efforts to alter health care benefits to match those of non-union employees.
William Johnson, who represents the university in union negotiations, said administrators disagreed with some of the fact finder’s observations and therefore did not officially accept them. “We do stand ready, however, to return to the bargaining table with SEIU to discuss health insurance premiums regarding the new health plans,” he said.
Separately, the three-year contract with full-time faculty members expired in June despite ongoing negotiations since March, leaving last year’s contract in effect.
At least 140 faculty members packed Tuesday’s board of trustee’s meeting as a show of solidarity while negotiations continue into a new school year.
“People just standing there sends the message we’re watching and we’re not happy,” said Dr. Deborah Herman, executive director of the UC chapter of the faculty union.
Greg Loving, assistant philosophy professor and president of the union representing faculty, said UC’s average faculty salaries are lower than any of the 50-plus schools that belong to the Association of American Universities, impeding the university’s ability to recruit and retain top teachers.
His union’s proposal for three years of salary increases of 4, 5 and 6 percent would bump UC, which is not part of the AAU, an estimated seven spots in the ranking, he said.
“If we really want to compete academically, that really gets us moving toward that goal,” he said.
Administrators have employed three lead negotiators since bargaining began, which Loving and Herman said has prolonged negotiations. While it’s not unusual for a contract to expire before a new one is signed, this negotiation has stretched on without substantial progress, they said.
C. Francis Barrett, chairman of UC’s trustees, disagreed that the changes in personnel had prolonged negotiations, adding that he has absolute confidence in the management team and is “guardedly optimistic” that differences will be resolved soon.
Hand dismissed the notion that these negotiations were substantially different than those he has witnessed since 1986. “There is not a single thing that has happened in this negotiation that hasn’t happened
previously,” he said.
They are tough negotiations because the results will have “profound implications” for the university’s future, including governance, economics and health care costs, Hand said.
“The people who are involved have the best interests in the university at heart, on both sides of the table,” he said.