Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Lifeboat: A Conversation About The Incredible Shrinking Budget

Yesterday we had a big meeting at Zenith: more members of the faculty attended than at any previous meeting I can recall, except for one about ten years ago when our last newly hired president was introduced. The Radical and several co-conspirators used this unusual quorum to kill a major university committee to which they had been elected. It was a hideous, time-waster of a major committee, one that received institutional problems that no one wanted to do anything about, made recommendations after many circular and ill-informed debates, and saw those recommendations sent to The File That Has No Name by the administrator who had been appointed the boss of us. In retaliation -- I mean, response -- to this institutional travesty, we secretly devoted our energy, not to issues that were dumped on our doorstep, but to creating a rationale and a strategy for killing the committee. The problem was gaining not just a quorum, but a two-thirds majority necessary for altering the Faculty Handbook. And then voila! A new president was hired and everyone, we imagined, would come to the introductory meeting to get a glimpse of him. So we put our motion on the agenda, and here was the beauty of the whole thing. Because the people who came were people who are too apathetic to ever come to meetings, but made an exception for that one, they were instantly persuaded that we the committee shouldn't have go to meetings either. They voted resoundingly in favor of our motion before a somewhat dumbfounded set of administrative officers who discovered unexpectedly that they were not the boss of us. No sirree.

What was on the table yesterday was something different: how Zenith will close a yawning budget gap that is conservatively predicted at $15 million: read about our problems here. They probably aren't so different from your problems, right? Except if you teach at a public university or a community college your problems are worse.

I won't go into what was said at the meeting, as it is against my blogger ethic. But one of the things I would like to explore in future posts is the nature of community, and scholars' capacity for empathetic connection -- or lack thereof -- to other types of workers in and beyond our workplace. This becomes particularly apparent at a meeting like yesterday's, when it became clear how very tuition driven Zenith is (I have no idea how this compares to other institutions our size); how volatile we can expect our financial aid budget to be in the next few years (or maybe even starting tomorrow); how much the recession may drive other costs up (or down, in the case of fuel, for example); what the long term costs of certain kinds of temporary disinvestment are (Library, physical plant); and how few options a college has to generate immediate, extra cash to cover its expenses, assuming there is anyone to buy what we would offer.

That I can make this list in such a cogent way is some testimony to the presentation we saw yesterday, which was, I would say impressive and reassuring, to the extent that it addresses my basic problem: I don't want to run the university. I want to know that the people in charge are thoughtful, competent and doing the best they know how to do. But of course, what makes the future very anxious for me and many of my colleagues (in varying degrees) is what I did not put on the list: faculty salaries. And while this has not been decided, it looks like salaries will be frozen for next year. Where else do you get $2.3 million? Everybody pitch in and sell a kidney?

Needless to say a projection that salaries may flatline for an indefinite period produces resentment, fear and rage. So in the remainder of this post, I would like to toss out a couple questions that are worth asking yourself as you process your own resentment about your flat salary projection.

Are you being asked to give back salary? And do you live more or less in debt, assuming that there will always be more money? There is no rule anywhere that prevents academics from being asked to take a salary cut. Therefore, you might consider being relieved that you will have the same salary this year as next: whether it will be worth the same amount of money or not is not the question. No one should assume they will always make more money forever. It is this philosophy, writ large, that has brought us to this pass: salaries will always rise, home prices will always go up, endless amounts of debt can be covered (almost) by next year's raise/bonus, increasing the pool of homeowners, by whatever means, is always better. You see what I mean? Rethink this, not just because you might want to lower your blood pressure, but because your life decisions and future happiness shouldn't always be pinned to having a salary that barely matches your expenditures. While you are at it, start watching Suze Orman on television.

I am getting tenure/promoted this year -- what about that big raise I was supposed to get? Well, I think they should find money in the budget to pay this out, frankly, because it will compress salaries in the middle ranks even more than they are compressed already. But don't forget what you will get for tenure -- a job for life. For life. That's more than the part-time clerical they just let go over there has.

In what way do you, really, in your heart, believe that faculty are the most important people in the institution and that everyone else is dispensable? Examine this, OK? Because it is not just that there are a range of people who directly support your professional existence (IT, librarians, more administrative assistants and secretaries than you know about, deans, blah, blah, blah) but actually, it is only rank snobbery that makes you think your work is inherently better than theirs. You need to know this about yourself and work on it.

Do you pay any attention to the general health of the institution, or how money is being misspent, except when your own self-interest is threatened? When was the last time you took an interest in whether the faculty lines authorized really addressed student demand and were worth committing funds to? Or whether you should stop copying the articles assigned to your seminar on the department machine only because you are too lazy to learn how to put them up on line? Or whether it is really ethical to process all of your pleasure reading through your research account? And furthermore -- that dean who you think is one dean too many -- how would you like to deal with the students who are so strung out at the end of the semester that they are endangering their health? Or the bulemia club over at Tau Theta Zeta? That might be a good job for you -- or you -- or you -- and we could save the money next time a dean vacates his or her job.

Isn't letting the administration get away with a salary freeze just lying down and letting them walk all over us? No, keeping your trap shut, repressing your anger at how you are treated, not disagreeing with anyone who might ever vote on your promotion, and never saying or writing anything you believe until you have a tenure letter in your pocket is letting people walk all over you. Agreeing to a salary freeze, when it is explained as part of a well-reasoned plan is sticking out your hand and playing your role as a partner in the enterprise.

The strangest thing I have heard -- and I have heard it from more than one person -- is the narrative of sacrifice, in which a faculty member claims to have chosen university teaching when other, far more lucrative work was possible, but in an act of self-abnegation chose to teach the unwashed masses who seem to cluster regularly at private colleges and universities. Having made this sacrifice, the story goes, no others should be required: nay, this person should receive raises while others near and far, working class and middle class people working in soulless occupations, lose their jobs.

While it is not required of us to be grateful for having jobs as unemployment gallops to new highs, it is worth remembering that life isn't fair. When we are not being rewarded with cash prizes for our accomplishments, it might be a good time to figure out if there are personal rewards other than money that cause you to stay committed to teaching and the production of knowledge. If there are not, I strongly suggest you use the safety of your tenured position to explore another line of work that would make you happy.

If not, my advice is this. Gratitude for your job security isn't required, but it might be seemly. And since this doesn't seem to be widely known, let me just say: being a university teacher is not the moral equivalent of being a priest, a social worker, a member of the Peace Corps, a safe-sex worker or a community activist, in which you have traded affluence to serve others. If you think that is the entire reason why you chose to teach and write you are, frankly, delusional, and suffer from profound status anxiety.

And just think: on that day that you looked at the two lines at Career Planning, one leading to the Graduate Record Exam, and the other leading to an interview with Bear, Stearns, when you followed your heart and became a scholar, the Goddess might have been actually looking out for you.

Don't disappoint her now.


Lesboprof said...

I know the initial story was a setup for the larger entry, but that was a GREAT story. Kill the committee! Excellent.

I agree with you about just accepting the lack of a raise. Honestly, I would be okay with a raise for people making under 40K, and not for everyone else, if that was affordable--I fall in the latter category, by the way--but I am weird that way.

Anonymous said...

Good. You could add that if these frozen-salaried tenured professors didn't have tenure, they'd have to compete with a whole lot of fine-teaching PhDs bidding down their salaries.

Laraine Herring said...

I work at a state-funded community college and I do have tenure as of last year. I am extremely grateful for that, after having worked as an adjunct for almost 9 years in various terrible working conditions. We will be having salary freezes effective with the next contract. I feel very grateful just to have a job. I'm in a small town with little industry. I make almost 50K and yes, that is enough so that others can keep their jobs. Thanks for your blog -- I really enjoy it.

Anonymous said...

In the 4th or 5th year I was at my university, we received word the Legislature wanted their money back (great....)--about a million or so dollars.

Our Chancellor immediately canceled raises and started sweeping up any "spare" change/non-essential cash--Sponsored Research was pretty bare that year, as was travel funding.

But no one--not a SINGLE person from staff to part-time to full-time faculty--*no one* lost their jobs.

By contrast, friends finishing their degrees said the (different) University they were at fired all the janitorial staff to cope with budget issues.

It's hard to bitch about losing a 2.9% pay raise when the payoff is someone losing their 15K a year job and has little to no skills.

I've always respected our Chancellor for the way he faced that budget crisis.

Anonymous said...

Would you mind commenting on what you think of a dramatic tuition increase for students (which seems likely)? And as a part of that, how you think that plays out for students on fa versus not. I'd be interested to know if Roth talked about it and what your opinions are. Thank you.

Tenured Radical said...

Dear Anonymous 9:22,

I don't think the tuition increase will be much above what it usually is under the current (not yet firm) plan, and that increase is not much greater than it usually is. I could be wrong, but I don't think it will be an unusually big jump. There were only a couple dissenters around financial aid in the meeting I was in: my sense of the faculty is that there is a firm commitment to current fa policies, that most of us believe that need-blind brings us the best students, and that even though the financial aid bite will go up steeply as early as January, it's worth it. Most of us expect that there will be parents who can't pay the bills, or as much of it. Roth's guiding principle is to preserve the student experience, and financial aid and class access are core to that.

There is also active consideration of sources of new revenue, some of which I think are pretty interesting. But best of all, I would argue that the vast majority of the faculty is behind Roth, that Roth and Bruno know what they are doing, and that no one --students, staff -- is going to get thrown under the bus.

Anonymous said...

Good points about attitude and elitism. Heck, I make $25K a year as an adjunct teaching 10 classes/year and my life is a blissful vacation. (It helps that I have no debt). And in today's economy we have to be glad. I know people with college degrees and graduate degrees on their last dime and their last week of welfare unable to even find adjuncting jobs.

Anonymous said...

I say put all Wesleyan endowment in Lockheed Martin stock. Its cheap now

Anonymous said...

What a GREAT posting.

I love your comment on the people who insist on copying 300 pages of (copyrighted) content, because they are too lazy to use our content management system. I actually had a *tenured* faculty member tell me he was "too busy" to have to learn how to use it. Um, what?

And I would take a paycut in a heartbeat (and I don't make much), if it meant the cafeteria workers, the student workstudies, the janitors, the groundskeepers, the security people, the secretaries, etc., get to keep their jobs.

Anonymous said...

Be glad you don't have grad students to worry about as well. The job market is going to dry up for them, I fear, and it is hard to secure additional support.

Anonymous said...

Nice points. As a community college vice president of finance and operations, I can tell you that we are being hammered. The county and state provide about one-third each of our budget. Both have asked for 5% back so far this year.

In examining our budget situation, we try to use surgical precision. A great deal of time is spent looking for funds that will be unspent in salaries, benefits, and contracted services. Budget managers have been asked to review their current budgets honestly and let me know if they may have funds available this year.

My goal has been to paint the picture for the president, and shape the picture the president paints for the campus community and the board. We have been opened and direct with the conversation on the impact of public funding as the economy melts down and enrollment increases. In an organization where tuition covers only one-third of the costs, as demand increases and two-thirds of the budget contracts, we are looking at every line item a second-time.

While we may have a salary freeze next year, and perhaps longer, we are doing our best as a community to ensure there are no layoffs or furloughs. Frankly, I have found furloughs overrated for the revenues saved and the angst created. I am already looking at next year in terms of tuition increases, managing health benefits costs, and locking in utility contracts while commodity prices are down. Personally, one point I try to leave with faculty is that they should keep focused on their instruction. The college will get through this, remaining committed to the entire community.

- The Budget Doctor

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your response- I appreciate it.

Margaret said...

This is such a great post, for all kinds of reasons, but the point that hit home for me most right now is the question of paying attention to budgets.

As a humanities-type (i.e., non-numbers-loving) professor, "paying attention to a budget" is about the last thing I want to do (and the thing I probably have the least talent for). For this reason, I think it's so important that faculty --especially department and division heads-- get training in reading and making budgets. Obviously we can't know everything about how money is spent at our institutions, but in general I feel we should have a much better sense of it than we do as faculty.

Anonymous said...

I'm coming late to this. And Historiann, Dean Dad, and probably others who have discussed the "TR vs. Crazy" debate have pointed out what a rarefied position you're in at Zenith, TR. But I can't help but marvel at what it must be like to teach at an institution where permission to fill faculty lines hasn't long been difficult to get and viciously fought over; where photocopying hasn't been tightly restricted for years; and where you have such a thing as a "research account" (and I'm at a "research university"!). Coming from a place that has been squeezed dry for years BEFORE 9/15/08, even in years when the state was running massive surpluses, it chafes a little to hear someone tell me to suck it up and make sacrifices. A few YMMV qualifiers would have gone a long way in this post.

Tenured Radical said...


What is YMMV?


Anonymous said...

I'm not Shane but YMMV stands for Your Mileage May Vary. I do agree with what Shane says. We are chronically understaffed here at a different university, and have just been given a 10% budget cut. We've been told not to hand out syllabi anymore because they take too much paper and we can't afford the copying.

Anonymous said...

To GDprofessor and all those who are happy to take pay cuts so that lower paid employees don't have to: nobody is preventing you from digging into your too-full pockets and handing dollars out to employees of the university less well-paid than you. The real issue is that you want me to take a pay cut so that those other employees can keep earning. No thank you: I get paid more because I am worth more on the market.

Anonymous said...

Our president sent out email to everyone telling them about a 2.5% give back to the state about a month ago. A week or so ago, I got email (I'm a chair) asking about the "rumor" of a 2.5% give back.

Our current president has never laid anyone off give-backs, of which there have been many. He uses the reserve and forfeits interest to keep everyone on employ.

The lack of faculty attention to matters money is partly an effect of never having had to worry. I have people grousing at me because we don't have an additional course off for the grad advisor or money for another electronic classroom.

But also I'm from Illinois, and we have been distracted of late.

Anonymous said...

To quote you from a previous blog post:

"3. Take a serious look at how large our administration has grown over the last decade, who pays for it, and what justifies it. It is very hard for faculty to understand why we spend every April hiring contingent faculty (fifty or sixty of them across the university) when we seem to add numbers-crunchers, Vice Presidents of This-and-That, and student services workers one after another. If we need all these people, and we don’t need teachers at a university, fine. But someone needs to tell us why. And exactly what our mission is as a liberal arts college if it isn't having enough faculty to have the time and energy to pay attention to students as individuals."

Do you think the university has done this/ is in the process of doing this?

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous at 11:28pm....
I have, at least, part of a response to your perception that central services/administration seems to grow out of proportion or at the expense of faculty growth. I am one of those bean-counters-- the Business Manager of a small liberal arts college--whose work is positioned between those working on the frontline of delivering our academic program and those charged with maintaining the books, ensuring our compliance with the many, many governmental rules and regulations, and reporting how well we are managing our financials to Trustees, parents and alumni. Our faculty want and have the freedom to spend their budgets as they choose. Yet many of them they consistently resist following through on the accompanying responsibility to complete expense reports and appropriately allocating credit card charges on a timely basis. Every week some faculty member is in my office complaining to me that their job is teaching, and that they should not have to take the time to go on-line to communicate how they have spent school funds. As a result of faculty civil disobedience and lethargy, our accounting department has hired three additional FTE to track down receipts and do the work faculty should be doing.

The primary purpose of our institution is to educate. The more resources we can strategically deploy to the frontline of this activity, the better able we will be to achieve our goals. Increased governmental regulartions and reporting requirements continue to increase. Every time Congress passes legistration that touches education, someone, unfortunately, has to do the work of maintaining compliance.

Harry said...

Such a Great Post !

I would like to say thanks to you for sharing this wonderful post with us.


I am learning through distance learning course.