Thursday, January 14, 2010
posted under 15 Ways , furlough , Goodlad , higher education , University of Illinois by Unit for Criticism
[On January 5, 2010, Interim President Stanley Ikenberry announced a four-day furlough for eligible academic professionals and faculty as a “short-term measure to conserve cash” during Spring 2010. The Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory has commissioned a series of posts entitled “15 Ways to Take Your Furlough.” We have invited contributors from a variety of disciplinary and institutional locales (including some from off campus) to discuss the condition of higher education at the University of Illinois and elsewhere.
The below essay by Lauren Goodlad, “The Birth of the Furlough,” is the first of the series.]
The Birth of the Furlough
Written by Lauren M.E. Goodlad (English/Director, Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory)
Among the many remarkable aspects of the year just passed is the appearance of furlough—as both a noun and verb—on the lips of academics across the land. In Santa Barbara and College Park; Phoenix and Frisco; New Brunswick and Champaign-Urbana, 2009 marked the year when “furlough” penetrated the consciousness of public educators.
The furlough’s advent invites a host of questions and concerns. Who doesn’t wonder what this new-fangled practice bodes for the future of public research universities? For states like California and Illinois? Or even the United States?
One may begin by wondering what a furlough actually is. Is it a gussied up pay-cut, the budget wonk’s equivalent of “collateral damage”? Or is it an appropriate mechanism for stanching the red ink when states are no longer able—or willing—to pay for the services on which they rely?
One may also ponder if it’s actually possible to take a furlough when one already works around the clock, six or seven days a week, and twelve months—not nine!—a year. (How many faculty might actually pay to have an un-furlough—an extra day added to every month in order to meet their publication deadlines, finish grading their papers, prep for their classes, advise graduate students, and do their committee work?) Everywhere I turn I find colleagues asking themselves how to manage their mandated days of non-employment. How should they balance their unrelenting commitments against the commandment not to work? And how should they reconcile their temptation to work on in silence against their awareness that a furlough is no private affair between employer and employee—but a topic warranting sustained public discussion.
On the other hand, a too narrow focus on furloughs risks missing the point. To be furloughed is not simply to endure a one-time floating—or, if you like, filching—to allay the afflictions of one’s cash-strapped state. It is to live through a historical moment: not a four-day fluke but a Furlough Era. On one side of the zeitgeist is an economic crisis precipitated by the deregulated financial system that columnist Frank Rich describes as a “plot to wreck America” more lethal than terrorism . On the other hand is a crisis in higher education which has slowly evolved as states like Illinois have withdrawn support, resulting in successive rounds of budget cuts and tuition increases. The brunt of these changes has long been felt by students in need of affordable education; graduate student employees; non-tenure track instructors; and faculty in the arts, humanities, and social sciences.
For students and employees of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (which hosts the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory), the tuition increases we have already seen—which are comparable to those only now being implemented in California—might have presented a manageable (if regrettable) shift toward partial privatization of a once proudly public institution of higher learning and research. Over the last ten years or so undergraduate tuition in LAS has been raised repeatedly (in 2009-10 it is just under $9,500). Meanwhile, the same period has seen permanent budget “assessments” on a yearly basis, including this year’s cash rescission. Why is it, then, that despite the ever greater efficiencies and revenues LAS provides, so many faculty, especially in the humanities and social sciences, have seen so little prosperity in the years prior to the current financial crisis? (We know that one answer is the rising cost of energy; but has that really eaten up the whole of the tuition increases and budget cuts enacted since 2001? And if so, why have the university’s efforts to reduce energy costs been so tepid?)
As many are only beginning to realize, the College’s biggest financial problem is arguably the diversion of LAS tuition dollars to units outside of LAS. In fact LAS generates considerably more than 100% of its operating budget in tuition revenues. When we consider this robust revenue-generating power alongside the fact that LAS relies on the state for less than 20% of its budget, we find that even the 7-10% cut in state funding which we have been told to anticipate ought to present a relatively containable crisis for this ultra-productive academic unit. After all, a 10% cut to less than 20% of the LAS budget means a shortfall of less than 2%. Yet even as I write, LAS administrators are preparing for much deeper cuts of 5, 10, or 15%. Why this discrepancy?
An article by Christopher Newfield in the 2009 issue of Profession suggests one kind of answer . According to Newfield colleges like LAS have long suffered from an unsustainable model of using the tuition dollars generated by low-cost and teaching-intensive programs to offset indirect research costs in other parts of the university. At the public research university Newfield uses for his case study “humanities and social science departments keep only a portion of their enrollment money, about one half and one-third, respectively. The sciences do somewhat better but are not at 100%. In comparison, engineering receives double its teaching workload money. The professional school receives closer to three times its workload money. Were this a medical school, the gap would be far larger” (277). The reason for this transfer of funding from high-enrollment fields with low research costs to low-enrollment fields with high research costs is, Newfield writes, “straightforward, though largely unknown…” High-end research “loses money for universities when one considers the large but underfunded indirect costs that modern research incurs” (277).
At the University of Illinois, diversion of LAS tuition revenues is exacerbated by the inadequate return LAS receives for the teaching it provides to majors in other campus units. While faculty in the humanities and social sciences feel the impact of this invisible subsidization, grad students and non-tenure-track instructors see even less in exchange for the services they provide. Students also bear the costs of these efficiencies as they pay more tuition for less access to the smaller classrooms that many prefer.
This brings us to our present crisis in which LAS, like every other campus unit, must face the shortfalls caused by a delinquent state that isn’t paying its bills on time. Voila le furlough: a “short-term measure for conserving cash” which, according to Interim President Stanley Ikenberry, will generate $17 million. (One might possibly think of it as a tax on university employees in anticipation of the tax increase on all Illinois citizens that our state legislators may enact after their reelections.)
I confess that what concerns me much more than the days of lost pay (much though I regret them) is the mentality of crisis management they may generate. Not the furlough itself, but the furloughisme. The University of Illinois, perhaps unique in the land, is weathering the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression while simultaneously reeling from a crisis of leadership at the highest levels of state and university governance. As the authors of a recent white paper for the humanities note, “The lack of administrative transparency that has characterized the past decade at Illinois has wrought serious damage to all aspects of the university.”
In her brilliant Kritik post last October, history professor Antoinette Burton described this corporate mentality as a “logic of instrumentalization.” It operates by first setting the agenda—articulating “the most important” problems and priorities—and then pursuing that agenda according to its internal dictates. The idea of shared governance with faculty receives lip-service at best. And indeed, how could faculty—or anyone else with a stake in the university’s future—meaningfully participate in governance when access to information is so systematically occluded? Who among us knows the extent of state support which each campus unit enjoys? Knows the budget model used to distribute revenues within and across campus units? Or the rates at which units are compensated for the teaching (“IU”s) they provide? Or the revenues that each unit generates in tuition, research grants, and gifts? Or the ratio between research grants and the share of indirect costs which the university must pick up to make good on these grants?
By far the biggest question that we face right now is this: Is the University of Illinois facing a temporary crisis of state funding or a permanent reduction that requires the reinvention of the university that we know? My sense from the deep budget cuts for which we are now asked to brace is that the answer to this question may have already been decided for us (though by whom it is hard to say). Recent emails from the temporary leaders now holding the bag for the previous administration advise us to “take innovative measures not just to ‘cut budgets’ but to grow revenues and reduce actual costs.” Fair enough. But isn’t that what LAS has been doing for the last ten years? What has it gotten in return for those hard-won efficiencies?
Of course, we must always think creatively and inventively; and there are undoubtedly desirable ways of generating revenue which many might welcome. But what kind of innovations can we reasonably expect if we decide in advance to treat our state like a permanent deadbeat, and to trust our future to a logic of crisis management? The point is not that we may not need or want to innovate and reinvent. But before we rush to introduce contingency plans for a 15% across-the-board cut, shouldn’t we talk about how we innovate and reinvent?
According to the latest estimates, in the last year or so the actual unemployment rate in the United States exceeds 17%. Meanwhile a recent article in the New York Times argues that lack of creativity is what most ails the business culture of today: “students need to learn how to think critically and creatively every bit as much as they need to learn finance or accounting.
What kind of education will the University of Illinois provide to our students to help them create the jobs of future? What will we do for those returning students who need higher education to reinvent themselves in the wake of their permanently furloughed careers? We know that we can offer impoverished programs in the arts and humanities, ever-larger classrooms taught by overworked faculty, and a teaching workforce dominated by underpaid and insecure graduate students and non-tenure track instructors. Is that what our legacy to this state will be?
The costs of 2010’s furlough will be borne by those employees this spring who lose pay for several days of hard work. But the costs of furloughisme at the University of Illinois, and elsewhere, may be borne by the youth of this state and this country. They may be borne by our children and our children’s children.
Let it not be so! I hope that all of us work together, during and after our semester of furloughs, to reject a future dominated by the logic of furloughisme.