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UGA needs better foundation from state

The University of Georgia ought to be the brightest jewel in the Peach State crown. Instead, the university's once shimmering ruby looks chipped and dull as our sister states place greater emphasis on higher education and race ahead of us.

UGA salaries have slipped way behind pay scales at similar Southern schools. Key faculty members are exiting Georgia. In addition, plant maintenance and student discipline on the great old campus are virtually ignored. No one in the higher reaches of state government seems to care.

Listen to a few sentences from this private report on current UGA conditions. The author, an expert on higher education, asked that his name be withheld. Parts of his paper sound as if they came straight from Tom Wolfe.

"There are tenements in New Jersey that are nicer than the freshman dorms at UGA. The authorities have frequent middle-of-the-night fire drills because the dorms are such a fire hazard. Rats are as big as small cats. In fact, no cat in his right mind would dare venture into Russell Hall unescorted.

"The freshman rooms are filled with alcohol and drugs. No one ever checks to find out. Students who have 'pledged a fraternity' sleep off the hazing that regularly occurs, sending their grades into the toilet. You should look at the grades of the 'pledges' during the fall semester. Despite laws against hazing, cruel and sometimes dangerous initiation rites are regularly practiced. The more mentionable ceremonies include beatings and forced feedings. Officials say there is no money to address the dorm problem.

"To make matters worse, many important educational programs are lacking basic funding. Fortunately, the university has had reasonably good luck in fundraising from private sources, although its endowment is far below the endowments of Georgia Tech and Emory."

Those words are just the preface for this sad tale. Ordering administrators to enforce common sense rules may solve some disciplinary problems.

Restoring the financial lifeline may not be as easy. Reducing public funding for higher education began almost as soon as Gov. Sonny Perdue and his pals took charge.

Different schools in the system have fared variously. Georgia Tech, for instance, benefits from a 40 percent out-of-state student body, which pays considerably higher tuition. Those extra bucks let Tech breathe easier even when the statehouse is squeezing public funds.

For purposes of this column, we zeroed in on budgeting at UGA, the state's flagship institution.

Check out these fiscal figures:

• In fiscal 2000, UGA's faculty salaries were well above the national average. Since 2000, university faculty salaries across the country have risen by 19.2 percent. At UGA, they have increased only 14.7 percent.

• Among our peer institutions as defined by the Board of Regents, UGA salaries by rank have fallen thusly since fiscal 2000: professor from 8th to 15th, associate professor from 11th to 14th and assistant professor from 8th to 10th. In other words, averaged across all faculty ranks, UGA's pay slipped from 6th to 12th among our peers. UGA's 14.7 percent faculty raises over this period exceeded only those awarded Ole Miss and Mississippi State, once considered the SEC's salary dungeons.

Georgia colleges and universities compete in a national and international labor market. Georgia regularly loses its brightest and best to other institutions. In 2005 and 2006, more than 100 UGA faculty members received official job offers from other universities and industry. Counteroffers kept 66 on our payroll. Even with the added inducements to remain, however, nearly 40 packed up and left.

In other categories, state funding for UGA also seems headed straight into a red-ink sea. For example, with rising petroleum and electricity costs, UGA faces a funding shortfall of more than $6.2 million this year. It endured a similar shortage last year. The university is required to compensate for these shortfalls by cutting allocations for other programs.

Health insurance for employees faces a similar dire situation. During the current fiscal year 2007, UGA reported a $5 million gap between premiums and the state's share of the insurance cost.

The bottom line: In the current fiscal year UGA is short-funded an estimated $12 million for health insurance and utilities.

If current trends continue much longer, UGA may soon be offering one course in freshman English taught by an underpaid assistant professor without health insurance in a classroom without heat or cooling. But the rats will be gone. They can't stand the place.

Of all state responsibilities shrugged off by the current administration, few are more important than higher education. How Georgia treats its big learning institutions sends the world a message about how we view ourselves and our place in a future built on knowledge.

Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. E-mail him at shipp1@bellsouth.net.

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