Friday, March 18, 2011

Take My Phone. Please.

"Why don't you try two Dixie Cups and a string!?"
A couple years ago I began to receive e-mails from a dear friend in the University of California system; in the signature line, the e-mails said: "ACADEMIC OFFICE PHONE DISCONNECTED DUE TO BUDGET CRISIS."  The first time I got this message the initial, draconian cuts had just been announced. Students and faculty were in the streets in California.  Many of us at private institutions were waiting for the ax to fall.  Later, we were accepting the news that there would be no raises the following year, and that by doing this our institutions might be able to avoid the layoffs of adjuncts and staff that many of the public unis were enduring.

Fast forward three years to where we are at Zenith, as far as I can tell.  We ended up laying off lots of those people, and allowing other positions to go unfilled. At street level, things are horrendously disorganized, and you have to make a special call to get someone to vacuum your office.  We have not received a raise that was not instantly swallowed by the increased cost of our benefits.  In real dollars, our pay is static and losing traction; research and conference dollars tend not to meet expenses incurred.

The health insurance situation is pretty scary too.  All employees are being asked to carry a greater share of our health insurance premium this year than last. Full professors are being asked to consider helping the administration to compensate associates and assistants by taking on the largest premiums, which is a major policy shift. Associates are not getting more than a salary bump at promotion, and are being asked to consider subsidizing in the compensation of assistants by paying larger premiums than they do, essentially nullifying much of the raise.  Staff have actually had their total compensation cut as a lesson to all of us about what the future holds.  Furthermore, everyone who works for the university is being asked to accept cuts in compensation so that the university can build endowments to pay for unlimited student financial aid and shave a percentage point off next year's tuition increase.  This will make us the second or third most expensive liberal arts school in the nation, as opposed to the most expensive (which means it is still inaccessible to the vast majority of Americans.)

Now, lest you think I am a lunatic, let me just say:  the fiscal health of the institution might require these things.  I don't really know:  I am surviving these changes by tuning them out and putting my queer shoulder to the wheel of my writing.  Because the misfortunes at chez Radical are slight this year, I also feel that the salary I am not getting could be interpreted as a kickback to the administration in exchange for having not been put in the position of making these decisions and becoming the object of outrage.  They are difficult decisions, with no easy answers, and universities being what they are, would have drawn criticism from some quarter whatever shape they took.

And yet, after almost two decades in which we have repeatedly been promised that Zenith will do something about a compensation rate that lags far behind our peer institutions, one can't help but feel that they have thrown in the towel without admitting that they have done so.  You wish they would bring that big girl out and let her sing so you could stop thinking about it.

But here's the good news.  Austerity has produced some moments of breathtakingly simple, but shining, intelligence, that may pave the way for a leaner but smarter budget.  For example, someone in the Zenith administration had the bright idea of phoning around to ask those of us who had not used the entire budget allocated for conferences already attended if all of our receipts were in.  If so, could we release the money to replenish the budget line so other colleagues might be funded for conference attendance?  My source tells me that they reclaimed $10K this way that otherwise would have been slushed into next year's budget.   I think they should use $500 of it to give whoever thought of this a bonus.

In the spirit of accentuating the positive, I have a suggestion:  why don't you take my phone?

I'm serious.  I don't know how much my phone costs, but whatever it is, it is not worth it.  Here's why:
  • I don't think a student has called me on my land line in over three years.  Students always contact me by email, grab me after class, or drop by my office. Since teaching is 1/3 to 1/2 of my job, and students do not telephone me, this means most of my work would not be impacted by the loss of a land line.
  • In the past year, I think I have received fewer than five telephone calls from administrators or colleagues outside the department and program in which I am appointed.  They contact me by email too.  Those people who know me, or like me, well enough to call me on the telephone, call me on my mobile.  Those people who call me on my office phone often do not get that call returned for several days: I don't check my messages at the office because hardly anyone ever calls me.
  • In the past year, I have probably made ten phone calls to administrators, all of which have been to deans, regarding a student in crisis.  If they are not there, I ask them to return the call to my mobile.
  • In the past three years, I have initiated exactly one conference call from my office phone.  I can now accomplish this on my iPhone.
  • I used to use the university WATTS line for work-related long distance.  I no longer need to do this, as unlimited long distance in the US and Canada is now part of a standard home telephone package and I have unlimited minutes on my iPhone in the US.
  • Because the university stopped printing an annual telephone directory, and fired or reassigned the telephone operators, I have no idea what most people's extensions are and getting them is a tedious task involving the online directory.  Worse, we have a voice recognition directory that gives you the right person about 40% of the time.  "TENURED - RADICAL," you find yourself enunciating into the receiver, for the fourth or fifth time. "Ringing - Benjamin - Clavical," the robovoice intones primly. In addition, because our landlines do not have speed dials, it is just easier to program colleagues' mobile phones (and the office extensions of administrators) into my own mobile. 
  • When I want to talk to colleagues in my building, I get up and stroll down the hall.  Since over half of my colleagues are junior to me, talking in person seems like the more civilized choice.  Furthermore, people under the age of 35 don't even have land lines at home.  Why would they need them at the office?
  • Here is who calls me most regularly on my office telephone:  robocallers and textbook sales people.  Far off in second place are colleagues and administrators; and in a close third are parents, to whom I am mostly not permitted to speak.  In total, I would say I receive ten telephone calls a month on my land line, of which 1-2 are real people; I make about 3 calls a month.
So take my phone, Zenith.  Please.  By doing this, you could free up some money in our zero-sum budget game to reduce the cost of my benefits or bump up my research money.  Or give me a tiny bonus to subsidize my cell phone costs.   Or keep the money and allow me to deduct the cost of my mobile from my taxes as a legitimate business expense.  And it would clear a lovely space on my desk where I could put a vase of spring flowers -- or a box of Kleenex, to prepare for the next round of budget cuts.


Susan said...

When we see the rates for health insurance they are tiered by salary. So someone making half what I do pays about half what I do for the same insurance. Which I approve of.

I'm not quite ready to give up my office phone, because long conference calls work better on its speaker than on my cell phone. But otherwise, the only people who phone don't really know me...

Tenured Radical said...

I've got an idea: a "phone booth," with a Watts line and a little desk, which faculty could schedule for conference calls.

As to the tiered health insurance, on a certain level I agree with you, but Zenith is trying to pretend that they aren't cutting compensation at the higher ranks by doing this, and they are staying utterly silent about what compensation will look like in the future.

It leaves one with the conclusion that faculty compensation has dropped to the bottom of the list, permanently, and that they will be looking for more ways to cut it in the future. Which is really anxiety provoking.

Leslie M-B said...

History faculty here--with the exception of the chair and associate chair--don't have landlines. We do have phone numbers, still, but any calls go straight to voicemail, and then show up as audio files in our e-mail. I don't really need a phone now, though I will say when I was on the staff side of the academic house, a phone was essential.

Challenges: The history department is in a basement, so cell phones don't always get reception. Many people have taken to using Google Voice and Skype, and the department was happy to buy them headsets. Those who haven't adopted these technologies feel kind of screwed when they need to call tech support, because then they find themselves running between the admin assistant's phone and the computers in their offices.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Hah! They were going to take our office phone lines (and I was STUNNED to hear what each one cost!) a couple of years ago. At first, I was offended, but then I realized all the things you said in this post. The only calls I get are for the nursing program. And maybe I could deduct my cell phone bill from my taxes?

And then, one day, we all came into our offices and found... new phones. All with receivers that smelled like they had sat too close to a campfire. So we went from "we're getting rid of your phone lines" to "we're buying fire-sale phones for all our faculty."

And I still don't use the damn thing, except to direct people to the nursing department.

flask said...

you know what?

i'd be a lot more into shared sacrifices if the guys making the big bux were sharing right along with everybody else.

when i see a company where the CEO cuts his own pay in order to keep on his staff at reduced rates so they ALL help save the institution, i am toasty about that.

when people making profits in good times aren't willing to invest in the institutional health in lean times, that's where i lose my patience.

Tenured Radical said...

The only thing I can say about the Zenith administration on this score is that they do seem to work very hard for the $$ they make.

JoVE said...

salary stagnation seems to be the case across the whole economy. If you haven't read this article, I commend it to you for both the stats and what it suggests for higher education policy.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

The only phone calls I ever get on my office phone are from some robocalling outfit (read in a bizarre female robot voice): "Hello. This call is for Schmeggy McFuckewadde. If you are not Schmeggy McFuckewadde, please hang uppe. Mr. Fuckewadde, you owe us a lot of motherfucken money. If you don't pay, we're gonna cutte offe your fucken balls with a rusty fishing knife. Please call us at 1-800-FUK-ASSE to discuss this important matter."

(That's a paraphrase, so don't quote me.)

Anonymous said...

I agree about the campus phone system. Its time has come and gone, though on my campus it is still hanging on. I share a party line phone # with people in another department. Each semester I find myself having to explain 1950s (?) tech to baffled students who thought they called somebody else. Our voice mail system is a hilarious black hole, where students leave messages but we can't retrieve them. Not surprisingly, I actively warn students away from calling me on the official phone # listed in the university database. Chances of reaching me that way are zilch.

On the other hand, what about the folks at the bottom of the food chain (adjuncts), whose salaries might not cover the expense of an ipad and unlimited cell phone plans. We may have fewer calls to make but still need a way to reach the Registrar's office, or colleagues, or student. The University should provide us with some way of making work-related phone calls too, don't you think?

My solution: I have a skype account. It costs me less than $10 a month for unlimited service, including messages. It works anywhere there's wifi, so almost everywhere. If the University wants to ditch my old phone, and if they'd pay some or all of my skype account instead for the months when I'm employed by them, I'd be just fine with that.

Of course that also means the university needs to ensure I have access to a computer, preferably a laptop. (Which my school does, for people who are full time tenured/tenure track and non-tenure track, but not for people who are part time non-tenure and who make up about 40% of our instructional workforce).

Historiann said...

Hear hear. Occasionally students do call my land line, but they always leave a cell phone number. I think that they'd eventually figure out how to reach me by e-mail or drop by to make an appointment.

My only hesitation is that it's unlikely that the coin saved on phones are going to make it back to us in the paychecks. I'd settle for putting it into support for research and conference travel--actually I'd like that even better b/c we don't have to pay tax on that dough!

Anonymous said...

My office phone startles me on the few occasions it rings. We can actually choose individually to give up our phones which helps the dept not cut other things. But I haven't done it yet as I have a school-aged child and sometimes forget my cell. If I gave it up I would have to give the secretary's phone as an emergency; I may do that.

We hired a consultant last year to find ways to say money. Seemed like it might be a waste but they came back and said we had too many administrators. We're going to cut some