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What higher education needs is an engine, a huge pump engine that taxpayers can file by, with mouths open, to gape at its enormity and marvel at its abilities.

When the Great Salt Lake was flooding and Gov. Norm Bangerter and the Utah Legislature came to the rescue with the $60 million pumping project, the engineers hauled in huge engines that would pump millions of gallons of salt water into the desert.Hoping to shore up public support for the project, the politicians had the mammoth engines, strapped to the backs of trailers, parked in a state government building parking lot on a weekend so citizens could get a good look at where their tax dollars were going and maybe feel better about it.

Working as a general assignment reporter that weekend, I was sent to write a story about the pump engines, but specifically about public reaction. I thought it was a dumb assignment. Who would show up on a cold, blustery day to gaze at a big engine?

Lots of people. Hundreds of people. Young kids and senior citizens and everybody in between.

They oohed and aahed and talked excitedly about the giants. And I learned an important lesson, one that someone in the news business should never fail to remember: Symbols become the message, and they speak loudly. Ad agencies never forget it.

Public schoolteachers got their own symbol last week. Through a stroke of luck (for the teachers, not the governor), Bangerter handed it to the teachers when he said frustrated educators should "take a couple of aspirin and get back to work."

That statement is good enough for the quotable quotes page of Newsweek.

Teachers know a good symbol when they see one. They used it to rally their ranks to the cause. Aspirin and the governor are now inseparable in the minds of teachers - and the public. Bangerter's slip of the tongue now symbolizes what teachers see as state government's simplistic, inappropriate remedy for the disease of inadequate funding eating away at quality education.

Charity organizations, by the way, have used symbols effectively for years. Where would such organizations as the Muscular Dystrophy Association be without Jerry Lewis and His Kids? Where would Easter Seals be without a poster child?

Now, I'm not suggesting a college-professor-as-a-poster-child campaign. But higher education needs a symbol so that its message can be crystallized to an easily recognizable symbol that conveys its needs and frustrations. The general public doesn't realize it, but higher education's needs are as pressing as public education's.

According to the Utah Association of Academic Professionals, the total increase in state funds for higher education from 1986-87 to 1988-1989 was $10.4 million, or 4.1 percent for three years. Inflation rose 11 percent during that time and enrollments increased by 3,000. This year, for the 1989-90 budget, higher education received a $12.5 million increase, or 4.8 percent. Inflation was up 5.5 percent.

Faculty received no salary increases in the 1987-88 and 1988-89 budget years and 0.4 percent in 1986-87. For 1989-90, salaries and benefits went up 3.6 percent, still below the rate of inflation. Utah faculty members earn salaries at least 20 percent below their peers at similar colleges nationwide. In real dollars - actual purchasing power adjusted for inflation - faculty salaries are still at the level of the early 1970s.

Statewide, the libraries at Utah's nine colleges and universities are in such poor shape that legislative analysts concluded it will take at least $77 million to fix buildings and upgrade book and materials collections. Enrollment growth has risen dramatically, forcing Utah Valley Community College and Salt Lake Community College to close classes to new students earlier than usual this year and to put students on waiting lists.

How do you convince the public of those facts with an easily remembered symbol? Higher education needs a huge engine or a bottle of aspirin.