Kent State, Chrysler and the holidays

Well, looks like Kent State and Chrysler are closing for the holidays. I expect Kent State will reopen in January. Not so sure about the Detroit automaker.

I’m also not sure that from a practical point of view there is anything wrong with Kent State giving administrative staff an additional four days of paid vacation. (Faculty are off from mid-December until mid-January. Ah, the good old days.) And I’m sure KSU Prez Lefton felt the heat from the staff since Akron U now shuts down every year at this time. The reality is that when a public university is closed there is no lost sales, no diminished income.

Unfortunately, in the context of everything else that is happening in the economy these days, that reality is going to fly smack into the public’s perception that universities (and education in general) are wasteful stewards of taxpayer funds. And that students — and many parents — are getting gouged.

Here’s the reality facing Chrysler and others:

Auto plants normally shut down over the winter holiday, but the new reductions extend the usual closures. Chrysler’s plants had been scheduled to stop production from Dec. 24 to Jan. 2, but now will close Friday and stay dark until at least Jan. 19.

Two factories in Toledo that make the Jeep Liberty, Jeep Wrangler and Dodge Nitro will be closed until Jan. 26, the company said. A minivan plant in Canada and a plant in Detroit that makes the Dodge Viper will remain shut until Feb. 2.

Most of the workers will receive unemployment coverage equivalent to nearly full pay during the furloughs, officials said. Asked whether the announcement might be viewed as a means of influencing politicians who are weighing a bailout, Chrysler spokeswoman Mary Beth Halprin said, “This is really a response to what we’re seeing in the marketplace. . . . We run plants when we have orders. We don’t run plants when we don’t have orders.”

Folks, those are a lot of  jobs here in the Buckeye State. So you can count on the dead tree version of the Akron Beacon Journal printing at least one letter expressing outrage over the KSU holiday closing. And many — inside the university administration and out — will view reader reactions with the usual, “ho hum.”

They shouldn’t. In the not-to-distant future some heads of public universities are going to be traveling  to Columbus asking for money. Dare we call it a bailout? They can’t keep passing the costs along to students in the form of higher tuition and fees. In fact, a recent report by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education says, “The rising cost of college — even before the recession — threatens to put higher education out of react for most Americans.” From The New York Times article:

Over all, the report found, published college tuition and fees increased 439 percent from 1982 to 2007 while median family income rose 147 percent. Student borrowing has more than doubled in the last decade, and students from lower-income families, on average, get smaller grants from the colleges they attend than students from more affluent families.

“If we go on this way for another 25 years, we won’t have an affordable system of higher education,” said Patrick M. Callan, president of the center, a nonpartisan organization that promotes access to higher education.

“When we come out of the recession,” Mr. Callan added, “we’re really going to be in jeopardy, because the educational gap between our work force and the rest of the world will make it very hard to be competitive. Already, we’re one of the few countries where 25- to 34-year-olds are less educated than older workers.”

I guess if you could sell more cars — oops, meant to say enroll and retain more students — then I guess the problem goes away. But I don’t think that is realistic here in Ohio with an aging and declining population. And a lot of those jobs at Chrysler, Ford, GM and related suppliers in Toledo and throughout the state that aren’t coming back were held by middle-class families who were helping first-generation students attend public universities.

OK. Here’s a quiz. Given the continuing need to increase revenue, what will Ohio public universities do?

A — Head to Columbus for more taxpayer money. (Note to administrators: Please drive.)

B — Increase tuition and fees (once the current freeze has been lifted).

C — Reduce administrative costs and operating expenses.

Clearly “C” is out of the question. So if you are looking at either “A” or “B” — you’ll find out that perception, and maybe a few extra vacation days over the holidays, matter.

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