By Robin Brown
— Like public schools across the country, the University of New Mexico is struggling to pay its bills while addressing the concerns of staff, teachers and students.
Shoshana Handel, a graduate program assistant and member of UNM’s Labor Union Coalition, said with the cost of living on the rise, a tuition increase forces students to choose between paying bills and going to school. It isn’t always necessary for administrations to raise costs for students in order to pay employees more, she added. “I think their priorities are off by setting us against each other.”
After four years without raises for staff and faculty, the UNM Board of Regents voted on Tuesday, April 9 to increase wages by 1 percent for staff and 3 percent for faculty in addition to a separate 1 percent raise across the board approved by Gov. Susana Martinez on April 5.
The wage hike coincides with a tuition increase of over 13 percent for part-time students and 6 percent for students taking 15 credit hours or more. This comes at a time when money for the lottery scholarship, which pays for many students to go to college in state, is dwindling. Lawmakers fixed the crisis temporarily by diverting money from the state’s tobacco settlement funds.
Confusion and Contention
Among members of the Board of Regents, the search for solutions to the financial crisis has been difficult.
The board is made up of seven members appointed by the governor and approved by the state Senate. Members make financial decisions for the university, oversee its programs and goals, and they have power to either approve or veto recommendations made by various task forces. Three new regents, Conrad James, Suzanne Quillen and Heidi Overton, were appointed by the governor and confirmed in March.
At their April 9 meeting, board members hesitated to make changes to retirement benefits before finally approving them. There was later confusion about what they actually voted for.
According to the Albuquerque Journal, Regent Gene Gallegos thought he was voting on a plan that didn’t include a separate trust fund for retirees known as VEBA, while the rest of the regents intended to include it. Initially, they considered cutting benefits for retirees under the age of 65 altogether, but decided to raise premiums instead. The increase in spending for pre-65 retiree benefits is considered an unfunded liability by the university.
Retiree Barbara Gabaldon spoke at the meeting. “The idea that retirees should be separated from UNM employees’ insurance pool is just like stabbing us in the back,” she said. “Changing the rules for any employee who is within five years of retirement is a bait and switch.”
“If you make commitments to retirees, then you need to honor those commitments,” said Doris Williams, president of the UNM Labor Union Coalition. She said that while union members applauded pay raises for staff and faculty, the tuition increase and cuts to retirement benefits were a letdown. Williams added that the 3 percent faculty raise should have been extended to other staff, who only received a 1 percent raise.
UNM Staff Council President Mary Clark said the budget crisis isn’t straightforward, given cuts in funding for the university on both state and federal levels. The money has to come from somewhere, she said, and cutting programs such as fine arts or athletics are “horrible decisions that we could potentially be faced with” as alternatives to a tuition increase.
“Each department is individually responsible for their budget,” said Clark. “Our budgets have been cut and cut and cut, so we are very careful about how we spend our money. There’s no big vast amount of money flapping around out there.”
Clark said UNM is struggling to find money for roofing, HVAC systems and other needed repairs. HB 291, which would have provided such funds, died in the house this year. “Now it’s a joke,” said Clark. “We’re not even doing deferred maintenance. We’re just doing what absolutely needs to be done right in front of us. It’s very difficult to deliver services when your money’s being cut.”
Converting Frustration into Signatures
A petition circulated by the Labor Union Coalition last month demanded that the school administration maintain benefits for retirees and raise wages for staff and faculty. More than 1,000 signatures were delivered to New Mexico legislators and the governor’s office.
Handel, the graduate program assistant and union member, helped organize the petition effort. She said support for it was broad, bringing together diverse groups at the university. She said students, staff, faculty and retirees have all expressed frustration about administrative priorities.
Students don’t want tuition to rise, said Handel, while retirees don’t want their benefits cut and teachers and staff want a pay raise as the cost of living rises.
KB Brower is a member of Students United Against Sweatshops, a national organization which supported the union’s petition. She said tuition hikes and stagnant wages at universities are a national problem. “I don’t think the union and employees are asking for a lot. I think it’s very reasonable. I think the living wage is a basic human right that folks need.”
UNM senior Gavin Oullette says he thinks UNM should increase tuition more for full-time students and keep it minimal for part-time students to encourage recruitment. “I think education should be valued more than ‘Get-it-done-as-quick-as-possible.’” Quality of work goes down, he said, when students take on too many credit hours.
Correction, 4/30/13, 10:30 a.m.: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the academic status of Graduate Program Assistant Shoshana Handel. We regret the error.