If you can't make a case for raising tax revenue to fund higher education when speaking before a liberal audience at Town Hall Seattle, then you can't make that case anywhere. Apparently, none of the presidents of Washington's six public universities are willing and able to make that case.
Last night Michael Young (UW), Elson Floyd (WSU), Bruce Shepard (WWU), Les Purce (Evergreen), James Gaudino (CWU), and Rodolfo Arevalo (EWU) sat on stage together to righteously bitch about our woeful lack of higher education funding in Washington state. And woeful it is. Higher education has shrunk from nine percent of state general fund spending in 1991, to only three percent today, and our public universities have seen their state subsidy gutted by over 50 percent in the last four years alone.
"No state has found it necessary to slash higher education to the extent that Washington has," WWU's Shepard complained early in the Seattle Times sponsored forum. As a result, undergraduate in-state tuition has more than doubled over the past three years alone, with another double-digit increase expected for the next academic year.
Yet for all the effort put into illustrating what WSU's Floyd describes as the "real crisis" our public universities find themselves in, there was zero discussion last night about the only possible solution: raising additional tax revenue. The two moderators, Seattle Times editorial page editor Kate Riley and business columnist Jon Talton never raised the issue once, neither of the six university presidents, nor Sally Jewell (REI), Brad Smith (Microsoft), or Laura Peterson (Boeing) on the business panel that followed. It was only when the forum was opened to questions from the audience during the final 20 minutes of the program that the question of tax revenue was finally (and relentlessly) raised. And nobody wanted to answer.
"It's above my pay grade," the UW's Young finally shrugged evasively. Young's total compensation package comes to $802,000 a year, making him the highest paid state employee funded out of general fund tax dollars (Governor Chris Gregoire, by comparison makes $166,891). So if the question of whether to raise taxes is above Young's pay grade, I guess the issue is completely off the table.
As it continues to be today. When pressed repeatedly on the revenue issue in a live chat on the Seattle Times' website, WSU's Floyd refused to bite. "[T]he point that we were attempting to make was that we should not reduce higher education funding beyond its share of the overall budget," Floyd initially responded, preferring to dwell on such catch phrases as "innovation" and "accountability" and "efficiency." When pressed further to list state programs that should be cut in lieu of higher ed, Floyd demurred:
"I have not identified specific aspects of the budget that must be reduced. I believe those decisions should be made at the local agency level. I am convinced that higher education cannot subsidize other parts of state government."
"We are at a tipping point," CWU's Gaudino warned about the drain on university resources and talent. It takes five years to destroy a university's reputation, he explained, but it "will take decades to rebuild." But if facing such an existential crisis our state's university presidents can't bring themselves to argue for new tax revenue, even before a friendly audience, then who will? Certainly not our so-called business "leaders."
"I believe we pay our fair share of taxes in Washington state," said Microsoft executive vice president Brad Smith in response to an audience question he at first attempted to ignore, a sentiment with which Boeing VP Laura Peterson seemed to agree. Boeing posted net income of $4 billion in fiscal 2011 on revenues of $68.8 billion. Microsoft posted $23.2 billion in net income on sales of $69.9 billion.
Yet both executives repeatedly patted themselves on the back for the $25 million each of their respective companies have promised toward a proposed $1 billion university endowment fund intended to help subsidize financial aid... as if that drop in the bucket could possibly make up for the hundreds of millions of dollars Microsoft and Boeing save each year through state tax exemptions, credits and loopholes.
"We want a future that is as bright for people who are born here as for those who we bring in from other places," insists Smith. Yeah. They just don't want to pay for it.
And that was the main take away from the evening, and not just mine. State Representative Reuven Carlyle, one of two state legislators in the audience last night (along with Representative Larry Seaquist) tactfully bemoaned "a lack of financial context," while even Seattle Times executive editor David Boardman remarked on the white space in last night's conversation:
"Town Hall event was powerful pep rally for more money for higher-education," Boardman tweeted, "But little said about where money will come from."
That higher education is facing a funding crisis is not news to the kind of people who would show up for a Town Hall forum on higher education funding. Tuitions are rising, top faculty are being poached, and at 48th out of 50 states in baccalaureate capacity, we continue to fall far short of meeting our state's needs.
Our public colleges and universities are in crisis, that's one thing on which everyone in the room last night agreed. But despite the dire economic consequences of doing nothing, it's a crisis, apparently, that nobody wants to pay to fix.