Some American campuses are still cutting programs and faculty five years into the Great Recession/some-sort-of-recovery. The most recent examples: twelve Pennsylvania universities. One Minnesota university. One in Washington, D.C. One in Vermont. Adjuncts go, of course, but also tenure-track and tenured faculty. These schools are cutting programs and departments, which means tenure’s protection doesn’t matter as much.
Let’s call this strategy academia sacrifices its queen.* That’s a risky chess move where one player gives up their most powerful piece in order to win the game.
I picked this metaphor not because chess is cool, but because it represents the combination of self-destructive sacrifice and hope for gain that administrations are selecting. They cut some academic programs – their core mission! – to save money and their reputation.
And the thing of it is, the thing that keeps me up nights, the horrible truth of the moment is that the queen sacrifice makes all kinds of sense for American colleges and universities.
Consider. Schools are under enormous pressure to cut costs. Students hate the specter of loans, especially traditional-age soon-to-be-grads facing a horrible job market. Parents: the same. Politicians of both stripes (despite Salon’s goofy take) and all levels, including the president, are hammering at campuses to haul down tuition prices. The persistence of the college premium (lifetime earnings boost from an undergrad degree), the actually fairly low amount of average debt… these facts haven’t assuaged the outrage over ever-rising prices.
So what can a campus administration do?
Besides the queen sacrifice, other strategic options are poor. I’m basing this assessment on many conversations with academic economists, campus leaders (deans, CFOs, presidents, CIOs, VPs), state politicians, and board members, plus my ongoing FTTE research.
(NB: what follows includes generalizations. Each campus has its unique situation, obviously, so there are exceptions. I’m talking at a top level about American higher ed as a whole, and the comment box is open)
Cut back country club facilities. To begin with, this argument myopically focuses on schools with such facilities, ignoring many without, such as community colleges and commuter schools. Moreover, campuses have usually refused to do this since the 2008 financial crash, because they believe students and their parents demand climbing walls, splendid gyms, and fine apartments. Some tell me that parents expect this, based on the high tuition price. Put another way, it seems that stopping the facilities upgrade would reduce the number of applicants, which hammers hard on tuition-dependent budgets, academic quality, or both.
Reduce administrative spending. Another non-starter. First, the term “administration” is often misleading, since that header also includes a huge variety of staff jobs: IT, library, counseling, student life, writing centers, security. Second, federal regulations mandate a good many of these positions (the classic unfunded mandate). Third, most campus stakeholders, from faculty to students, wouldn’t want these services reduced (think campus network). Fourth, many schools cut these staff and even upper admin positions following the 2008 crash, and not all have recovered.
Fifth, if we narrow our understanding of “administration” to mean top-level, C-suite types, we find little room to move. As high as some compensation packages get, they don’t amount to much in the total campus budget. Some of those administrators can defend themselves politically, of course, and often receive strong backing from campus boards. On top of that, many institutions justify top-level salaries for presidents and VPs by arguing that that’s the price to pay for talent in today’s culture. Unless we see that culture change or make a convincing counterargument (academic poverty doesn’t cut it), those positions are here to stay.
Get states to spend more on higher education. With the exception of North Dakota and any other state that decides to cash in on the unconventional oil boom, states usually don’t have the extra cash. Depending on the state, their budgets are already occupied by fixed costs, such as medical insurance and pensions. Higher ed routinely loses the political fight against the police-prison complex, too – try telling a legislator they can get away with looking soft on crime, for instance. More, many states want reform across the gamut of education, K-16+, and that doesn’t involve spending more money. Unless those attitudes change and the economy actually grows well for a while, states are not a good place to go for universities.
Did I say “universities”? When we talk about state support we mean only public institutions, excluding the significant number of private campuses.
Get the feds to spend more. See the previous item, or Google “austerity.”
Outsource more teaching to MOOCs. Without diving into this right now, it doesn’t seem to be happening. Campuses are resisting such a strategy, sometimes driven by faculty outrage, sometimes by the souring reputation of MOOCs.
Cut back athletic spending. Even though we know the overwhelming majority of college athletics do not make profits for their schools, American higher ed just doesn’t want to do this. We keep pouring money into sports of all kinds (for example) for a variety of reasons, well- or ill-informed: to appease alumni; to get more male applicants; to appease state officials; to maintain school spirit or campus identity; to boost diversity. No matter the economics, no matter the scandals, no matter the math or other evidence, American colleges and universities are not going to cut sports. Nor do I hear many outcries in favor of this, curiously.
Replace tenure-track faculty with adjuncts. Well, we’re already doing that. Adjuncts do the majority of college and university teaching. That’s how we afford to stay in business at all, in most instances. In fact, laying off adjuncts (not renewing contracts) is a first budget-cutting measure for many schools.
So what other options are out there? Multi-campus mergers are possible, and some are happening, but that’s not feasible for many schools for reasons geographic and political.
Sacrificing the queen, as awful as it is for an academic mission, as morally wrong it surely is, looks like a bad but viable option.
Tenure makes it obviously hard to remove a faculty member, but ending their program enables it. Instructional staff compensation is the leading budget item of most institutions, after all, and tenured faculty are far more expensive than adjuncts, especially when you include benefits (soaring medical), and as they age.
What happens to the curriculum? Obviously it dwindles, department by department. But this is less of a threat than it once was. The strategy in the air these days is for schools to not offer something for everyone, but to focus on distinctive specialties. Despite Rebecca Schuman’s plea, students are quite capable of learning away from one campus. Urban and suburban campuses often have relationships with local institutions, so a student interested in Russian might find a class nearby. There’s also that whole online learning thing.
What about a well-rounded education? Campuses might see themselves as not having to provide this themselves. They can outsource pieces of it (see preceding). And few Americans seem to be able to make a convincing case that ever-escalating tuition is a realistic price to pay for broadly educated graduates.
What happens to the humanities and non-quantitatively-intensive social sciences, frequent targets of queen sacrifices? The short answer is “they suffer”. Again, campuses can outsource classes, either to bricks and mortar institutions. Or humanists can make a more effective case for themselves, and convince everyone – politicians, parents, deans – that they are worth the very high price.
What about the morale slam to surviving faculty? It’s bad. Campus leaders make economic arguments, but these cannot fully fix things. Losing colleagues and friends does not make a professoriate happy.
What about school spirit, if students take more classes elsewhere? One can balance the “spirit” lost by this presumed dilution against the spiritual gains of tuition savings.
To repeat: I do not see the queen sacrifice as a desirable move for American higher education. I do not relish the reduction of programs, nor the devastation inflicted on the lives of faculty. But this seems to be a strategy colleges and universities can choose in our current climate, and we must discuss it openly.
*Thanks to social media friends who helped me with this metaphor, like Matt Thomas, Pat Parslow, Chris Warren, Michael David Cobb Bowen, and more. Ron Briggs suggested going all in (poker), which I like, but still has too positive a ring to it, despite everything.