15 Ways to Take Your Furlough/Voluntary Pay Cut
#3: On Furloughs in an “Arts Cult”

Saturday, January 23, 2010

posted under , , , , , by Unit for Criticism
"Red Dress in F Minor" by Midori Furze

[On January 20, 2010, Interim Chancellor/Provost Robert Easter announced a new Voluntary Pay Reduction program as an alternative to the mandatory furlough program announced in Interim President Stanley Ikenberry's January 5 communication. In response, Kritik's series on the state of higher education has been renamed "15 Ways to Take Your Furlough/Voluntary Pay Cut."

The third contribution to the series, "On Furloughs in an 'Arts Cult,'" is by Ken Beck, an Academic Professional who works in the Department of Dance as a Specialist in Music and a Lecturer. He accompanies dance technique classes, teaches “Digital Media for Dancers,” and maintains departmental media facilities.]

Written by Ken Beck (Dance)

As I read the January 5 email from Interim President Ikenberry concerning employee furloughs at Illinois, I could feel the muscles in my chest tighten, and my appetite vanish. It was not the fact of the furloughs alone that set off the panic reaction so much as the premonition that, along with furloughs, will come the notices of non-reappointment.

An awareness of the visceral response is a natural for me. I have had a long career as a musician in dance studios. Central to the skill set that makes it possible to provide live, improvised accompaniment for a dance technique class is the learned ability to read movement as though it were a musical score. The art of reading movement involves more than eyesight. It entails absolute commitment to the practice of a physically and emotionally demanding form.

From the perspective of the cultural mainstream, that level of devotion may resemble nothing so much as a cult. I didn’t originate this idea. I heard the Department of Dance referred to as “one of the arts cults” by a dry-witted professor in Theater not too long after I arrived in Illinois, in 1998. The metaphor resonates when considering the nitty-gritty of employee furloughs. No cult employs a time clock.

Since I was already at the computer, after reading President Ikenberry’s email, I googled the local news and looked at the instant responses to the announcement already sprouting on line. Distressingly, many respondents reiterated the notion that academics make too much money for what they do. Many people resent the idea that academics do not work “eight to five, five days a week.” These must be the people that, sadly, have not participated in a creative discipline.

It is a simplification, of course, to say that when one is done with an eight to five stint at a “real job”, one gets to head for home free and clear of job-related stress. But in an arts cult the boundaries between work and leisure are completely erased. Even mundane tasks become sources of inspiration, and inspiration can happen anywhere, at any time. Were it not for this kind of commitment to creativity, the innovations and discoveries that have made this institution renowned would not have happened. It is as hard to furlough the members of a cult as to track their hours. You can bar these dedicated employees from their workplace and reduce their paycheck, but they will still be playing hard.

About a week later, I watched Interim President Ikenberry and Interim Chancellor/Provost Easter on WILL TV. I was surprised to learn that furloughs and layoffs will “make the institution stronger.” This idea seemed to undermine the subsequent plea for stronger state investment in higher education. A legislator hearing this from the experienced voice of a revered administrator might be tempted to assume that a stronger public university could be had by simply cutting its budget.

It will be difficult to secure adequate funding as the state of Illinois tries to address its budget deficit. It has so far proved impossible to meet the requirements of the already enacted budget in a timely fashion. Perhaps this is political reality. It is certainly reasonable, conservative thinking to plan for the worst, while hoping for the best.

Meanwhile, among those of us pondering not simply reduced pay, but also notices of non-reappointment, we will be doing our jobs while looking for new ones. We will be at our desks, in our labs, in the theaters, sitting behind pianos, fiddling while Rome burns to the glow of our Bunsen burners or computer monitors. We will endure the distraction of planning for the worst, and lack conviction as we hope for the best.

We are in transition. We were members of an internationally renowned team. Now we are either lucky to have jobs, or will be lucky to find jobs. Some of us will be completely out of luck, money, and health insurance. We won’t much feel like putting a positive spin on it. We think that the state’s economic troubles will not be good for the University of Illinois.

We think that good people will be lost. Many will not be replaced. Some may not be replaceable. We are not shrinking from potentially including ourselves in that reckoning. We think that the burden placed on those that remain will be heavy, and that overburdened people cannot do their best work. We think that a sense of security is necessary for the nurturing of creativity, and when confidence in that security is lost, discovery and innovation are harder to realize.

We can take slight comfort in the certainty that we have plenty of company nationwide. Many are making do with less. Corporations have been snatched up, ransacked, leveraged, gutted, and left to founder. The winners are those few who will fly their private jets into the sunset. History teaches that there is nothing new here. History is full of rescissions, relocations, and reactions.

My furlough days, when I take them, will be given over to political action. What other activity can provide a more satisfying outlet for all of that restless creative energy?


I write just after reading an email from the Interim Provost/Chancellor in which he announces the possibility of “voluntary pay reductions” in lieu of a furlough.

I feel sincere sympathy for the executive administrators who are working on this rapidly developing monetary problem. They must work through these matters linearly, and they must answer to multiple factions. The lawyers, too, are being pushed to the limit. Thank goodness they’re not subject to the Fair Labor Standards Act!

While furloughs raise legal issues, the voluntary pay cuts pose a semantic problem. I thought that “voluntary” meant “of one’s own free will.” The only thing that’s really voluntary about these pay cuts is that one can volunteer to work despite them. Let’s hear it for choice!

Having kept an ear to the ground regarding the state of my employers’ financial well-being since I lost my shirt as the arranger of a gospel show once upon a time, I’ve been wondering whether (or when) I should volunteer to take a cut in pay to keep my job at Illinois. I would have taken a deeper cut than the one now required. I would have slashed it down to just above the mortgage-defaulting, wife-divorcing bone. I would have had my head held high and been proud to serve.

Under the present circumstances, I can’t say that I’ve decided whether I’ll “volunteer” or not. The recent election in Massachusetts demonstrated how unpredictable politics can be. I repeat: not to blame those who must work these things out for us, but down in the trenches where the work gets done, things are just not copacetic.


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Mark said...

Thank you for so eloquently illuminating the problem with the bizspeak shibboleth that no matter how severe the proposed cuts, the institution on the wrong end of them must inevitably become better as a result.

jodee stanley said...

Ken, thanks for posting--as a fellow academic professional, I'm glad to see the situation addressed from our perspective. Much of the news focus on furloughs has been, it seems, on faculty opinion and concerns, but as you and I and our AP colleagues can attest (and NTTs as well), for us the very real threat of non-reappointment looms, and the uncertainty of our futures past June makes it hard to concentrate fully on business as usual, never mind trying to decide between furlough day vs. voluntary pay cut.

Anonymous said...

As this post makes clear, the leaders of UI in this crisis (almost all temporary) are rushing to downsize us. What is their hurry? OK:a furlough/pay cut while the state gets its act together. But why these huge budget cuts on the horizon? What kind of administration rushes to shrink its ranks BEFORE the state legislature singles it out? As Beck makes clear, our leaders should be urging the maximum investment in education possible. Are K-12 leaders rushing to prepare for huge budget cuts and telling the public how it will make education stronger?

LeAnne said...

My own distant ancestor, Moshulitubbee, asked a similar question that Ken Beck’s eloquent essay is asking. What’s the hurry [to cut and reduce] especially when our leaders are somewhat, uh-hem, transitional? Moshulitubbee’s question was raised during talks with federal treaty agents about the necessity of removing our tribe, the Choctaw, from the homelands. Removal, or voluntary separation from the tribe's homelands in 1831 interrupted the growth of our very distinct indigenous epistemology.

Homelands for natives are the place where research innovations occur. For example, experiments in plant propagation take place there, new medicines and herbs are constantly being tested for advances in healthcare, trade with other nations happens there, significant tribal events are recorded there, and intellectual production [read education] is created through tribal language, dance, music, theater, and storytelling. In short, education and research that academics do at land grant institutions is not unlike what the Choctaw educators were doing on our tribal homelands before “voluntary” removal. I know, I know, it’s not a perfect analog to Illinois’ institutional problems, I don’t mean it as such. But I am saying that students of American Indian history will note that “voluntary” removal, or “voluntary” separation is fraught with hidden meanings and agendas. What will be gained by cutting education for Illinois students in the 21st century?

Consider Black Hawk's war, [1832]. Alas, it was in another era of "transition." Black Hawk didn’t agree with the cession of his homeland in the July 15, 1830 treaty that other Sauk and Fox leaders had voluntarily signed [there’s that word again] for him and others. There was warfare, and voluntary militias grew in size. It seems there's always the military option. Some argue that Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis grew in political stature due to their involvement to cut Indians out of this land. What political career[s] are being fashioned during this transition era in American education? How to know? We better begin to help figure this out and soon.

Anonymous said...

Good job, Ken. Thanks for making me aware of your comments. Silence never accomplished anything. A group focused on a cause can be a powerful force. You write with great style. Love, Mom

Anonymous said...

Literate, humane and distinctly pointed. Just as I remember you.