Double-talking Rep. Smith can't justify UNH cuts, Letter to the Portsmouth Herald, 9/2/11

posted Dec 6, 2011, 3:03 AM by Bill Duncan   [ updated Dec 6, 2011, 3:06 AM ]
9/2/11 Letter, "Double-talking Rep. Smith can't justify UNH cuts" (here is his 9/15 response and my 9/16 response to him)

September 02, 2011 2:00 AM

Sept. 1 — To the Editor:

At a "report back" meeting of our state legislators in New Castle last week, many in the room objected to the dramatic cuts in state support for the University of New Hampshire. Rep. Will Smith, of New Castle, said he felt the cuts were justified because UNH's costs were higher than those of other comparable universities. I asked him which costs did he feel were higher than they should be.

It turned out he had no idea. First, he fell back on the old debate about whether a university system administration is needed. This, of course, is eyewash, which he essentially acknowledged later when he said that USNH couldn't be disbanded because it consolidates a lot of services. In any case, the Legislature could address this directly, though Mr. Smith didn't seem to know that. It is irrelevant as a justification for cutting UNH funding.

Then Mr. Smith said the faculty were overpaid, which he said he knew because the Union Leader had an article listing the top paid faculty. This, of course, is not very useful information compared to the actual compensation surveys UNH could provide (or anyone can see by searching "UNH faculty pay"). These surveys show that UNH faculty pay is less than or comparable to its peers in the region.

It turned out that Mr. Smith had no data to support his assertion that "UNH costs are higher." The point to which he kept returning was that UNH has a difficult relationship with its faculty union. Difficult union relations are indeed a fact of life at UNH, dating from the mistrust engendered in the Sununu era of anti-faculty trustee appointments, but this has not actually led to high faculty costs.

Mr. Smith topped all this misinformation off with that assertion that UNH raised in-state tuition by more than $1,000 back in February, before the budget cuts, and only $250 in June, in response to the cuts. These numbers, from the legislator most directly responsible for the UNH budget in the House, are self-serving and wrong. UNH actually increased tuition by $680 in February and another $650 in June in response to the legislative cuts.

Even this increase was done only after reducing expenses by $27 million. So UNH largely insulated New Hampshire families while sustaining the largest cut in the U.S. in what was already the smallest proportionate contribution any state makes to its university's budget. As a result, tuition is already among the highest in the country and students graduate with higher levels of debt than at any other state university system in the country.

So, I guess, there are really two points here. One is that we can't trust what Mr. Smith says. He is trying to obscure his legislative actions with political double-speak so that his constituents won't hold him responsible. You can't accept what he says at face value. You have to make him justify it.

The second point is that this is not someone seeking to build the best possible public education system in an era of scarce resources. Mr. Smith explained these views at a meeting in June, saying that our public education system is experiencing problems because market forces are not at work. For instance, he said, university scholarships are bad because they insulate the university and lower income students from market forces.

Where does Mr. Smith's logic actually lead? To privatizing UNH?

We seem to have sent to Concord a representative who is seeking to use his elected position, especially his role in the budgeting process, to dismantle public higher education in New Hampshire.

If Mr. Smith responds that I have it all wrong, that he really is an advocate of support for public education, all the better. Either way, he needs to educate his constituents in detail about his position on public education in New Hampshire.

Bill Duncan

New Castle