Speaking Out

Costs and Wastes

Oh, please! You report (p. 2, March 25, 1997) that our tuition increase of 5.3% is "the lowest at Penn in 29 years." Yale has already tried this gambit 4 or 5 years ago, when our president was there, until it was pointed out to them that the inflation rate was also quite low, below 3%. In fact, the real rate of increase in tuition, which should be all anyone cares about, is still outrageously high, over 2% per year, both here and there. But not all of us are suffering from what economists aptly call "money illusion."

Then, the Time cover article, "Why College Costs Too Much" (March 17, 1997, pp. 46-55) appears, telling us many interesting things about Penn. For example, the Queen's picture is on page 47, and the author tells us that she earns $350,000 a year, with a palace (Eisenlohr Hall) thrown in gratis. Yes, Thomas Jefferson, we have royalty here in your U.S.A.they're called C.E.O.s. Of course, she's grinning at us (all the way to the bank?). Meanwhile, the students are warehoused in various highrises at $30,000 a (half a) year and trudge glumly to class to hear their high-priced professors (between $100,000 and $200,000 a year plus all summer off (that's 3 months) and a long break around January 1 [3 or 4 weeks] and other smaller breaks plus a semester off for those with tenure every 7th year plus a day off every week [generally Friday] to earn still more incomethe professors here are the princes, dukes, earls, and lords of the realm).

The Time article gives examples of costs at Penn, but none from the ground, so to speak. Allow me to fill in a few gaps. Here at McNeil, I've been rolling down (being handicapped) to the men's room on the first floor for the past 12 years. I'm hyper-sensitive to water running because, as a child, I grew up in the country, where, unlike here where the supply of water is essentially infinite, we used well water, which was most decidedly not infinite, and if a faucet was left running or a toilet left unjiggled, then the pump pumped mud and was ruined. When you go into the men's room, there are 3 stalls on the left, the far one being for handicapped people, 4 urinals on the left, and 4 washbasins on the right. I sit directly facing a washbasin which has been dripping over 5 yearsit obviously needs a new washer, but nobody gives a damn. At least twice a year, I have to try to bring some gushing urinal under control. And, one time when I arrived, the faucet at a wash basin was going full blast. But that's not all. A computer specialist here actually reacted with surprise when I told him that I turned off my PC. And, like any good citizen, I try to recycle. But I hesitate to peer into the receptacles that are set up all round campus. One time, I found a half-eaten sandwich nestled among the aluminum cans, another time the remains of somebody's lunch, odd, inappropriate things not infrequently.

That Time article presents Rodin with the mother of all image problems. 1994-95, when she arrived, it was free speechPiss Christ, some article in the Red & Blue about Haiti, which infuriated the blacks, and Pioneer, which infuriated the Jews, because it was responsible for the Holocaust (wall-to-wall bodies at Pioneer). But 1994-95 was a cinch. Afterall, Rodin has good legal counsel. 1995-96 was a quiet year: just a couple of blizzards, a murder [sic], and some old building torn down. Then came the crime wave of 1996-97; an undergraduate shot, a researcher murdered, a self-immolation (this was not part of the crime wave but made the national news nonetheless and was a major embarrassment to Penn, contributing to people's sense of mounting chaos on the Penn campus), and countless numbers of students (they were trying to escape the highrises at odd hours and in odd places) mugged. But 1997-98 and this Time expose. Que faire? It will be interesting to watch.

-- Daniel R. Vining, Jr., Associate Professor of Regional Science

Response to Dr. Vining

I received a copy of your letter to Almanac and would like to respond to a few of the points you make.

As one of those who worked to determine the rate of increase in Penn's tuition for the next academic year, I appreciate your concern about the rising cost of higher education. Tuition increases are never painless, and because we understand this, Penn's budget team struggled to keep next year's increase as low as possible. It is a fact that the increase that has been approved5.3 percentis the lowest at Penn in 29 years. It is also a fact that a tuition increase this low will require considerable budgetary restraint because Penn is dependent on tuition as a primary source of revenue. Our efforts to constrain tuition growth reflect the University's commitment to productivity, efficiency, and cost-containment.

Penn is achieving real success in its efforts to contain costs. In FY 96 we reduced administrative costs by some $12 million. Among many areas in which additional savings are projected for FY 97 is one of particular importance to you: energy costs. The University expects to save $3 million in energy expenditures in FY 97, and these savings will recur annually thereafter.

At the same time, it is an unfortunate but unavoidable reality that many costs the University must bear are growing at rates significantly higher than the growth rate of the Consumer Price Index. One of the many examples, that can be citedan example that was noted by President Rodin in the recent Time articleis the fact that an on-line index of physics abstracts now costs $50,400 a year. When the same index was, not so long ago, a series of books, it cost only $7,748. New technologies are bringing wonderful new research capabilities to the University's students and faculty, but these new capabilities also are costing us a great deal of money. In every area where costs are rising at rates higher than the CPI, Penn has taken a consistent approach: as much of the gap as possible will be closed through offsetting efficiencies and cost reductions. But where gaps remain, and the determination is made that further cost cutting will jeopardize the quality of Penn's teaching and research missions, increases in income must be used to close the remaining budget gap.

Finally, I want to make it clear that it is my view, and the view of Penn's entire senior management team, that the University can make no wiser investment than the money it spends on our faculty. I do not agree, as you seem to assert, that many of our faculty are overpaid. Penn is fortunate to have a world-class faculty. This level of faculty cannot be maintained by luck or coincidence: The University can maintain faculty quality only if it pays competitive salaries.

We all must spend Penn's resources wisely and do everything we can to eliminate waste. Thanks for your own efforts in this regard. Please continue to recycle and call your building administrator when you see a plumbing problem.

-- Michael Masch, Executive Director of Budget and Management Analysis


Volume 43 Number 31
April 22, 1997

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