15 Ways to Take Your Furlough/Voluntary Pay Cut #13
"Beyond the F-word"

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

posted under , , , by Unit for Criticism

[In the next in our "15 Ways to Take Your Furlough/Voluntary Pay Cut" series, the head of the UIUC English Department considers the budget crisis from departmental and campus perspectives.]

"Beyond the F-word"
Written by Curtis Perry (Head, English Department)


I have read the previous installments in this series with considerable admiration and have found many of my own concerns about the nature of academic labor and the future of public education reflected in much of what my colleagues (here and at other universities) have had to say. At the same time, I am also becoming aware that my own experience of this year's budget-related strife has been very different than that of most of my colleagues as a result of my administrative roles on campus: I am head of the English Department here, and have served on committees at both the college and campus level charged with advising on responses to the budget crisis since early Fall.

Perhaps because I have sometimes had the feeling of being in the loop, I have not had the same profound experience of alienation and disempowerment that many of my colleagues associate with the sudden imposition of furloughs in January. In the long run, I feel certain that the faculty activism spurred by these feelings will be one overwhelmingly positive result of our present crisis. One hopes that recent campus activism in support of public higher education here and elsewhere is part of a sustainable national movement. In the short term, though, I worry that animosity towards university and campus administration may lead people to wash their hands of budget-review processes just now taking shape that have to be informed by the perspectives of engaged faculty members.

Process, you say?

Decisions about the budget are now being reached in two semi-distinct ways. First, individual colleges are being asked to review their operations and to reduce their budgets, with targets that (my understanding is) will vary according to dependence upon state funding (as opposed to tuition revenue or gift money or overhead from grants). Presumably this will happen in different ways in different colleges—I have been part of an advisory committee made up of various department heads and associate deans charged with advising on a process in Liberal Arts and Sciences, but I have no idea what is happening, say, in the College of Engineering.

Second, a central steering committee is managing a series of review teams charged with the investigation of things that are either funded centrally on our campus or that deal with potential duplications of effort across colleges. With one exception (the review team charged with looking at IT) these teams have been charged with gathering information and reviewing effectiveness and efficiency rather than with recommending any specific amount of cuts. One team might say that massive cuts are called for, while another might say that the things they have looked at are working perfectly. There will be more of these, and you may be asked to serve on one of them. I serve on a committee that has an advisory role in this central process, and it seems to me that the stated principles and criteria have in fact guided the deliberations and choices that have been made at the campus level so far.

These two processes are related—in that savings identified via the central review process will have an impact upon the need for college-based cuts—but each raises different communication challenges and involves faculty in different ways. If you read through the review team charge letters online, you will probably feel that some are important to you and that others are not. But in each case, it is incumbent upon the team itself to seek out adequate input from faculty and/or other relevant, informed, interested parties. Cuts at the college level are more likely to impact faculty work conditions and academic programs, and so it is correspondingly more important for deans to find ways to seek out faculty input in order to make sure that efficiency measures adequately account for what is important to the needs of teaching and scholarly innovation.

In speaking to my colleagues of late, I have had the sense that anxiety about potential cuts at the college level has led to animosity that is aimed primarily at the campus and university system leadership. And, for the record, I do have questions about the amount of administrative overhead that the university system seems to require, such that English as a department is in the red despite the fact that our classes raise approximately $6 million more a year in tuition revenue for the system than our operation costs to run. This disparity has something to do with the fact that revenue needs to be spread around in order to support the broad spectrum of activities characteristic of a great, comprehensive research university. But that's only part of the story. And the gap between what we provide and what is provided for us is where questions about spending really hit home for a department like ours. Nevertheless, I do feel that we as a campus cannot expect to be immune from the economic crisis affecting the state and the whole university system, and that it is therefore incumbent upon all of us (departments, colleges, etc.) to take seriously the need to spend what money we have as wisely as possible.

For faculty—at least for those making enough to be able to absorb the pay cut—outrage over the furlough program has to do with concerns about the perceived nature of academic labor and about the felt need to protect and extend faculty governance in an era that seems likely to be about retrenchment. I share these concerns. But I feel some cognitive dissonance, too, as I hear angry calls for increased budget transparency from colleagues in one ear while attending endless meetings in which various administrative bodies (made up mostly of faculty) attempt to figure out how to get more faculty to become more involved in decision making.

At the college level, this has meant the recent establishment of a new faculty advisory group to supplement the department heads group that I'm part of, and an array of various meetings that the dean holds with different faculty groups. At the campus level, this has been harder to manage centrally since each review team has a very different set of interested parties to consult (though I can tell you that email suggestions through the website are read, have been discussed, and may in some cases lead to new review projects). In any event, though, the question being asked now in the meetings I attend is 'how can we inform the faculty and solicit valuable suggestions' rather than 'how can we keep this process under wraps.' And there are things here at the University of Illinois that are in fact more programmatically transparent than any other university I'm aware of—anyone, for instance, can access a huge amount of budgetary and operational information about all departments and colleges on this campus online anytime at http://www.dmi.illinois.edu/cp/. That's where the numbers behind my calculation of tuition revenue come from, and anyone can use this site to track budgetary data for departments, colleges, and the campus over the last decade.

In my view, the biggest challenge for faculty and administrators seeking transparency on this campus has to do not with administrative malfeasance or creeping corporatization but with a deep structural tension arising from the need for central leadership on budgetary matters within a university culture that has hitherto been unusually decentralized in nature. All kinds of important things seem never to have been tracked very well here, and growth (per DMI, for instance, there are about 1000 more APs on campus now than there were in 2000-01) seems in many cases to have taken place on an ad hoc basis in response to local initiatives without a clear sense of overall impact.

I don't necessarily think that decentralization is a bad thing, either. APs may have been added to the payroll without careful attention to overall budgetary impact, but the administrative labor performed by APs frees up faculty research time. And in general a decentralized mode of governance can be wonderfully creative and responsive precisely because it leaves operational decisions in the hands of the people doing the work. But when central leadership is required (and I do think it is required now) this culture of local governance creates a built-in transparency problem because it is hard for anyone making centralized decisions to feel as though they are acting on good enough information. Nobody I speak to wants to see budget cuts applied evenly across the board, but how can you spread cuts across an institution more strategically if you can't find sound bases for comparisons between departments and colleges, don't have a comprehensive sense of what everyone does, and can't quite pin down what happens with all the dollars in the first place?

This semester's furloughs were part of a hastily implemented plan to meet an anticipated shortfall for the current fiscal year. They were part of the same planning effort involving the Fall rescission (whose impact on faculty may be greater than the furloughs, at least in my department, since we had no cash reserves and are now in the red). If these things seemed clumsily executed—across the board rather than strategic—that had to do partly with haste and partly with the problem of decision-making in a culture where operational wisdom is decentralized.

My understanding is that the campus will now be forced to make some significant permanent cuts for FY 2011. Unless they are imposed by the state against the will of university administration, I do not anticipate more furloughs. Nobody likes them, including administrators, and there is time to plan better. But I do anticipate a year of wrangling over cuts, and I think everyone I work with at any level of college and campus administration would agree that the results of this will be best if faculty and others with a stake in our research and teaching mission are willing to weigh in and ask questions and provide arguments.

There may be low-hanging fruit—central administrative growth that can be scaled back without pushing costs into colleges and departments, operational things we don't really need to be doing—but beyond that the budget review process, boiled down to some kind of essential structure, has to involve this: generate fiscal data and look for inefficiencies, seek out the operational causes of those inefficiencies, and then decide if there is a sufficiently compelling pedagogical or scholarly value to the way things have been done that warrants the extra cost in each case.

Getting a better picture of what we now have on the ground has meant, and will continue to mean, asking questions about budgetary efficiency in research and teaching areas. This is especially true, I think, for the review process now underway at the college level. This will understandably raise red-flags about corporatization. But surely the corporatization that we fear has to involve more than just being aware of the economic bottom line: it has to involve making decisions based on fiscal efficiency without caring adequately about educational and research goals.

To me, the test of the whole process will have to do with the nature of the discussion surrounding the last stage, and it will be essential that faculty and other people involved primarily in the teaching and research that we do be given a fair hearing and opportunity to participate in decision-making when the time comes to weigh pedagogical and scholarly values against the imperatives of cost. I'm pretty sure that the various advisory committees I serve on will not be able to represent the faculty adequately in this, since we all have only limited knowledge of areas outside of our own. So it will be incumbent upon review teams and college administrators alike to make sure that there is real, informed consultation along the way.

My own paranoid vision about the corporatization of the university has to do not with administrative duplicity but with the pervasiveness, in budget-planning meetings, of the business-world maxim that crisis is opportunity. Now, the argument goes, we have a chance to reposition ourselves and to become, in the process, a stronger institution, one that will in the long run be better off than we would have been without the budget crisis and its fallout. As is probably clear from what I've already said, I do think that there are aspects of the operation here that can be improved, so in the weakest sense I guess I do feel that the self-scrutiny provoked by our current crisis may have some long-term positive results.

But I do not trust the crisis-is-opportunity mentality, with its implicit pre-supposition that the way we have been doing things in departments needs correcting, and I am deeply suspicious of an organizational climate in which the new and seemingly-efficient is too likely to seem preferable to the tried and true. No matter how humane and enlightened the process is by which we make cuts, I think things will be lost that are of real educational and scholarly value. And like many of my colleagues, I am worried—not optimistic—about the future of graduate education in the humanities and about the ideal of access to affordable public education.

It will take the intelligence and imagination of committed faculty members to ensure that educational and research goals are being given adequate weight when the time comes for permanent cuts, not because I think our campus leadership is wicked but because without feedback from concerned faculty members they won't know enough to weigh things appropriately. So, yes: organize, critique, resist. But also: show up for campus budget meetings, ask your deans questions, read the documents posted on the campus's budget-review website, use that site to ask questions about them, participate in departmental administration, accept appointments on review teams, and be ready to argue pragmatically with real people for the importance of the things here that matter most to you.

12 comments

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12 comments:

Bruce Rosenstock said...

I appreciate the measured tone of this piece, and I find myself ready to accept the challenge of good faith participation in the process of making decisions about how best to balance financial and academic values. I think that Curtis points to one of the most important areas where this process requires us humanists to raise our collective voice: graduate education. The model of how graduate education is financed is radically different in the three sectors of the university: humanities, sciences, and professional disciplines. The model for the humanities has consistently relied upon our responsibility for teaching the courses necessary for graduation (gen ed, language, etc) and the use of grad students as TAs in these classes. This model is under threat by the alternative model (in place at the University of California, for example) where lecturers assume responsibility for many such classes and where departments are given block grants of NRTF funds (non-resident tuition fee) to distribute to a very few grad students, with those who can establish residency serving as TAs in large classes run, in many cases, by the lecturers. This alternative model creates an entirely different faculty culture than what we have here. It can permanently cripple small departments that rely upon lecturers and are not given tenure-lines to replace lost positions, and in large departments it creates a two-tiered system where lecturers are disenfranchised. We humanists must think very hard about how best to maintain our model of graduate education.

Joyce Tolliver said...

I am very grateful to you, Curtis, for this thoughtful and realistic presentation of what to expect in the upcoming months, and what we, as faculty members, must do in order to ensure that budgetary decisions are made wisely.

Above all, thank you for the many hours you have already invested, and those you will invest, in showing us how to keep the conversation productive.

KBHC said...

Thank you Curtis for your thoughtful post. I have to admit I still have less faith and belief that administrators really want to know what faculty think: I have been in meetings where my feelings have been massaged and validated, but my concerns went poof the moment the administrator walked out of the room. I also, frankly, haven't been invited to many meetings.

There seem to be a lot of university mandates floating around that faculty never saw in draft form, that they never had an town hall meeting during which they could voice their concern. Here are just two examples:

1. I have been told that there is a university mandate to admit more international students because they bring in higher tuition. Because the College of Engineering is internationally recognized, many international students who get accepted here immediately want to go into Engineering. This has led to massive growth in engineering majors in this last admissions process, far beyond what COE explicitly told Central Admin they could bear. They simply don't have the personnel to teach all these students. Why was this corporate goal made without consideration of educational goals?

2. ICES forms will soon be entirely digitized, and this is good in terms of keeping costs down and saving paper. However, statistical analysis of the pilot study of bringing these online has shown that instructors get lower ICES scores this way (there are lots of reasons, and simple ways to deal with them that currently it seems are not being implemented). How will this impact teaching evaluations for tenure and promotion?

I don't want to hijack the comments so I'll end there. However it seems to me as transparency only happens after the decisions have been made, or as a reactive measure to the surprising notion that faculty want a say in the conditions of their work. This is a structural problem, not one where I could even begin to point the finger at particular administrators (and I think the way you describe things from your position highlights the structural, rather than individual, issues nicely). Again, thanks for your post.

Joyce Tolliver said...

Just a clarification to KBHC:

Can you tell us a little more about the mandate you refer to that the University must admit more international students? I missed this one.

The idea of administering ICES forms online was brought to the Senate in February by the folks who were considering it, along with the results from the extensive pilot studies the Center for Teaching Excellence did. Response from Senators was overwhelmingly negative. My understanding is that those plans have now been scrapped. In other words, they listened.

Kenneth said...

I want to thank Curtis for this lucid piece. As the contributor of the third post in this series, this seems like as good a time as any to weigh in on how my thinking has evolved in the intervening months. Luckily for me, much of my thinking has been summed up in Professor Perry's post. I have found the Stewarding Illinois website full of useful information, forthright in tone and substance, and very solicitous of any advice from any source. If only the state and federal governments worked with such reasonable deliberation and transparency!

Just because something is transparent does not make it a thing of beauty .

I'm reasonably sure that the cuts will be equitably discussed and implemented. The trouble is that the larger problem is the political one: how may education be nurtured and protected in this country?

The consensus supposition seems to be that public funding of public education is never going to rebound, even if the economy does. By the time we get to permanent cutting, I believe that it will be plain that it is political will that is lacking, not financial solvency. It will take political will (and action) to rekindle public investment in public education. Unless it is true that the institution is too big for its own good, the present reorganization effort represents a transparent lack of faith.

Ken Beck

David Olsen said...

As a student member of the Academic Senate, as well as several committees within the Senate, I very much appreciated this considered, well-written piece.
As I have seen through my service on the Senate and its committees, it is vitally important for faculty, students, and APs to be fully represented on the Senate's committees. Given the situation in which our university finds itself, involvement in shared governance becomes even more crucial, as the input and decisions made by these groups shapes our future as a University. As I participate in these committees and in the Senate, I see faculty and students choosing not to show up, or even if they do show up choose not to participate actively. While I recognize the strains on the time of faculty (and students), it is important that these members be active in governance. We each need to do what we can to participate in the governance process, whether that be through serving on standing, ad-hoc, or informal groups, or in providing feedback and comments to these groups.
Shared governance only works when faculty and students are engaged in active in the process. I hope this crisis serves as a call to action for more of both faculty and students throughout the University to actively participate in both formal and informal governance of the University.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Why is this conversation taking place on a blog hosted by the Unit for Theory and not by the campus? Is the campus afraid to have comments posted publicly where other people can read them?

Here's what it says at the Stewarding Excellence website: "To make sure no viewpoint goes unnoticed, we have created an online, anonymous form to make it as easy as possible for you to share your views with us." Oh that makes me feel really welcome to discuss my views! And now they've added email addresses so I can send private messages to a "specific project team." What is a project team anyway? Does that sound like something people have at a university?

Look, I've been to the meetings where the Interim So and So tells you all about the agenda he and some other Interim So and So has set. It's all so vague and yet so clearly about downsizing that there isn't anything to discuss.

Kenneth, it's true that we need political will in our state and country to get more support for public education. But this idea of using the state's temporary mess to downsize UIUC isn't coming from the state and it isn't coming from the people of Illinois: it's coming from your interim administration. But don't worry. If you think they should be cutting things like construction projects, research parks, global campuses, and the huge costs of administration instead of cutting faculty lines you can send them an anonymous online form! Wow! I feel so included.

Thanks to the Unit for Theory for having at least the common sense to include an open comments forum when setting up a website. Hello Stewarding Excellence?

Sorry I've got to run now and email my local Project Team. (It would be more sad than it is if it wasn't so funny.)

Unit for Criticism said...

One post was deleted because the anonymous poster had accidentally published it twice.

Lauren said...

Thanks to everyone for these really interest comments and, of course, to Curtis for this most helpful post.

Curtis, Joyce and others who may know: I'd really love to know what if anything is being done about the new budget model (i.e., changes in the compensation for "instructional units" so that units that devote their resources to a lot of teaching are given fairer compensation for the services they provide). My understanding is that reforms have stalled or perhaps been put on hold because of concerns re the budget. And yet this time of great budgetary awareness seems to be exactly the time when we need accurate assessments of different units' contributions toward teaching as well as mechanisms for rewarding it. (To make cuts in the budget without simultaneously making the budget model a fairer and more accurate mechanism of allocation is a bit like cutting what isn't broken while neglecting to fix what is.)

To be clear, I'm not suggesting that we should move to a wholly IU-driven model of resource allocation. That would be a very bad move for students and for research. But I am saying that for years I've heard that the budget model is out of date, inefficient and distorting. And I'd love to learn that this season of budget review will result in the long-awaited revision of the budget model.

Please tell me it isn't true that this important endeavor has been put on hold!

Curtis said...

Hi Lauren,

My understanding is that this was put on hold when Provost Katehi left, but that it is being opened up again. This is one area where the vacuum created by the campus leadership turnover has had an impact: the plan was put on hold because one would prefer to have a new provost hired before taking such a step. But my second- or third-hand understanding is that people see it as a necessary next step. This is all impressionistic on my part, based on conversations in the Fall--it is not something that has been formally discussed in my vicinity of late.

The idea was never to go to direct IU compensation model, and not to departments directly, but to make IUs much more central to the formula by which colleges get their share of the system's money.

As with everything on our campus, there was concern about unintended consequences, so my recollection (from last year) is that the original plan had been to run the new budget model as a computer simulation (or something) in parallel with business as usual for a year or so to try to get a sense of what it would mean for colleges before implementation.

Though I don't have any privileged information about where things are with this now, my sense is that the idea is to move forward like this: cautiously.

Lauren said...

Thanks, Curtis. That is helpful: I too continued to hear about the new budget model in fall but then, more recently, to hear that it was no longer actively under discussion--which I hope is wrong. Sure, it would be great to have the new provost (and president and chancellor) in place before undertaking this substantive fix; but then it would be great to have all of that before doing anything significant to the budget and circumstances will not admit that level of patience--as we have been repeatedly told.

I hope we don't end up putting the cart of budget cuts before the horse of needed reforms to the budgetary model for allocations. That said, certainly it makes sense to test the impact of any new model. It would be very good to get an update this sort of thing.

It would also be good to hear about any plans that are being made, say, to reduce energy costs on campus. In other words, we tend to get a lot of focus on cuts to instructional costs. And sometimes one even gets the impression that the budget under consideration is the salary budget alone. It would be very good to know about other kinds of endeavors that are being undertaken by way of maintaining excellence during lean times. For example to reduce energy costs. I think plenty of people on campus would be very happy to furlough our over-heated buildings and yet I know of no program being implemented (as the Chronicle of Higher Ed reports that at least one academic institution has undertaken) to lower the thermostats as a simple way of reining in out-of-control energy costs.

(BTW: I did realize that plans for the new budget model never intended to convert us to a purely IU-driven model, but wanted to make that clear since I know this is an area of legitimate concern for programs that are vital to a comprehensive liberal arts education and/or world-class university but which do not generate large numbers of IUs.)

Thanks again!

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