Editor's Note: This article was originally published by the Oklahoma Council Of Public Affairs on August 14, 2020 and is crossposted with permission.
Too often, colleges and universities around the country don’t provide transparent budgets. They aren’t accountable to policymakers and taxpayers.
It’s human nature to want to use money flexibly—and usually, it’s good policy to work with that desire. But Oklahomans can’t afford to allow higher education administrators to spend money without strings. Social-justice advocates, concentrated in the administration, have seized control of large portions of higher education. Throughout America, and even in Oklahoma, they use any loose cash to fund social-justice activism—deans of diversity, activist Women’s Centers, general education requirements, and the like.
Universities’ only legal requirement is to report broad categories of data to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), such as instruction, research, and student services. Those categories are so broad that a clever administrator can always shift a social-justice activist from “administration” to “staff” and pretend that he’s cut administrative spending.
When the state budget is tight and higher-ed appropriations are squeezed, university administrators will manage their budgets so administrators don’t get fired—but fewer and worse-paid faculty will teach students warehoused in oversized classes. Social-justice administrators will use taxpayer money to pay for social-justice activism in the guise of education for as long as they can get away with it.
And we know now what “social-justice activism” means—riots in the streets and tearing down the statues of the men who made America.
Oklahomans need to make sure the activist administrators can’t get away with the loot any longer. Regents, policymakers, and taxpayers must demand budgetary transparency. Here are five recommendations to consider.
1. Policymakers should require each public university to publish prominently on its website a collated annual report of the requested budget and approved budget of each budget unit within the higher education institution—in other words, the budget that each department and administrative office requests and receives. Each of these budget units should provide their spending not just by broad IPEDS data divisions such as instruction, research, and student services, but also by listing categories including individual salaries, benefits, travel expenses, equipment and supplies, honoraria, scholarships, sponsored events, and revenues received from external grants. The president, the board of regents, and every individual responsible for a budget unit should attest publicly that these are the full and accurate university expenditures. What each “budget unit” requests and receives is the real budget—the budget the social-justice activists don’t want to expose to outside scrutiny. When policymakers and regents know precisely what social-justice activism costs, they can make corresponding budget cuts, and inform the college presidents and the public what must be removed. If the regents (both the state regents and those of individual institutions) do not reduce the spending for social-justice activism, then the legislature should reduce the total lump-sum system appropriation by that amount.
2. Regents should make sure that budget cuts target administration rather than faculty instruction. Determine the proportion of expenditures devoted to “instruction” in the 2019-2020 IPEDS data submitted by each public university campus, and require each campus to devote at least that proportion to instruction in all future years. Better still, increase the required proportion, so as to claw back the social-justice administration on campus.
3. Regents should also make sure to define “instruction” just to include salaries and benefits for in-class instruction—no academic administration or anything else. They should also require universities to spend a minimum on “full-time faculty instruction,” for faculty who teach at least 12 credit hours each year, to make sure that no administrators got classified as “part-time faculty.” Universities could still dedicate money to research faculty—but they’d have to choose between research in chemical engineering and research for “social justice advocacy and awareness.”
4. Oklahoma’s legislature and governor should also address the U.S. Department of Education mandates and Higher Learning Commission accreditation requirements. Social-justice activists use interlocking bureaucracies to avoid responsibility—an administrator from the University of Kansas deputed to the Higher Learning Commission imposes a race preference requirement on the University of Oklahoma in the name of diversity, and the next year an administrator from Oklahoma returns the favor in Kansas. Unless Oklahoma directly challenges the accreditation and federal mandates, any budget reforms will fail.
5. Oklahoma’s legislature and governor should send official guidance to the board of regents and the college presidents of the public university system, telling them explicitly that budget requirements take priority over any U.S. Department of Education or accreditation mandate. The Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education should also write the Higher Learning Commission asking that they explicitly waive any accreditation requirement that requires spending for administrators or faculty. The regents should also write the U.S. Department of Education to request a guidance document supporting them in this decision. Oklahoma’s state officials should ask Oklahoma’s federal representatives and senators to support these requests.
After the recent unpleasantness involving the reporting of inflated data for two decades, officials at the University of Oklahoma said they now “intend to become an example of integrity in reporting and behavior.” Taking the steps above would show they’re serious.
All this would be good education policy in any case. But as higher education nationwide goes into fiscal crisis, it is imperative that Oklahoma cut higher-education budgets intelligently, so that it can preserve its universities’ educational core while excising their social-justice activism malignancies.
Oklahoma can even make itself a magnet for students around the country by establishing an exceptional system of public higher education—one shorn of social-justice activists and dedicated to providing a cost-effective, rigorous education.
David Randall is Director of Research at the National Association of Scholars.