Colleges prepare to sacrifice the queen

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.

chess sacrifice, from MorrisCountyLibraryWhat if this isn’t a blip, but a trend?

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.

(photo by Morris County Library)

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36 Responses to Colleges prepare to sacrifice the queen

  1. Timothy Scholl says:

    It is an interesting analogy, Bryan; one that can be extended, even to a positive direction. With apologies for the rather heavy-handed metaphorical extension, sacrificing the queen is a strategy to survive and win the game. But, it requires that one use the other pieces to their best advantage. Is there (or perhaps I should state -Where- is there) opportunity for higher education (in general) to make use of the pieces in the game. It strikes me that the higher education system remains queen dominated and perhaps the sacrifice will allow for other opportunities to show their full potential.

    Because I lack your scope of understanding to different higher educational models, and because my knowledge of chess is rudimentary, I will leave the particulars of this metaphor extension to you. 🙂

    • That’s excellent, Tim. Yes, the player needs to make full use of the other (remaining) pieces.
      So that’s partly my point about the new strategy of market differentiation in higher ed. If your campus is just ok at, say, biology, but has an amazing history program, throw resources at the latter. That’s how the argument runs.

  2. Thoughtful post, Bryan. For me, there are few points here that need further exploration in terms of state spending:
    – “Higher ed routinely loses the political fight against the police-prison complex… Unless those attitudes change and the economy actually grows well for a while, states are not a good place to go for universities.”

    Yes, and no. This has been true, but I think it’s shifting. Incarceration rates are actually falling ( nationwide. In New York, where I live, Gov. Cuomo has actually been closing prisons, 13 total so far ( At the same time, state funding for CUNY (where I teach) has stabilized (though not gone up). It’s a complicated picture, to be sure, but I’m not willing to cede the political fight for funding higher ed to the ‘police-prison complex’ just yet.

    The second point that you noted in passing in that same section is:
    – “When we talk about state support we mean only public institutions, excluding the significant number of private campuses.”

    Right, I agree. The real story you leave out in the post overall is the dramatic rise of “for-profit” colleges. Of course, there are plenty of critiques of these institutions for the way they fail students, but to really take a 20,000 ft -view of the economics of higher ed you’ve got to include those as well.

    You say:
    – “Instructional staff compensation is the leading budget item of most institutions”

    Maybe so, but this is not the reason public institutions of higher ed are struggling. There’s lots of debate still about the cause of increased tuition ( and struggling institutions. To suggest that it’s instructional staff compensation that’s the root of the problem seems a little ‘waiting for superman’-esque in its implications (sure if we could get rid of those darn people with tenure, then all would be well). I’m not sure that’s instructional staff compensation is the problem.

    I’m thinking a lot about these issues these days, Bryan and always appreciate your insights.

    • Thank you for the considered reply, Jesse. I appreciate your reflections and the references supplementing them.
      Let me address your objections in turn.

      Prison: I sincerely hope the US reduces its prison population, which has been a global disgrace. I’m not so sanguine about states reducing their police/prison funding, however. Too many states have overcrowded their prisons, so cutting their population might not drop the total number. Moreover, too many costs are sunk: buildings (maintenance), staff (pensions). That said, perhaps educators should urge states to continue this decrease, and agitate for the feds to end the war on drugs, which yields so many prisoners.

      For-profits: honestly, I’m not sure how they fit into the queen sacrifice. Do you think non-for-profits will see them as potential places for students to go, following a curriculum reduction?

      Instructional staff: to be clear, I’m not “suggest[ing] that it’s instructional staff compensation that’s the root of the problem” of tuition raises. I’m noting that instructional staff compensation is the leading budget item for campuses. The causes of tuition rises are, as you say, complex, but that doesn’t change the total budget picture.
      Put another way, this blog post doesn’t address the historical reasons for the tuition boom. It’s about the present picture, and how that leads leaders to certain choices.

      Similarly, I don’t see instructional costs as “the reason public institutions of higher ed are struggling”. If we’re only talking about publics (not privates), then other factors are to blame, including: declining state funding; the financial crisis and its impact on investments, local economies, and state budgets. It also depends on the state.

      Keep the thoughts coming!

  3. VanessaVaile says:

    I’m running this past my New Faculty Majority readership…telling them they won’t like it but not to be ostriches—read it anyway. You might be able to hear the shrieks all the way from wherever you are and may wake up to crop of chop from the top comments waiting here for you.

  4. Whoopie! Let’s make everybody who teaches Walmart workers so administrators and football coaches can have millions more in pay!

  5. Marie Cascade says:

    You seem to be saying that sacrificing the main purpose of education is the way to go while simultaneously saying that sacrificing the non-essentials is just too hard. I like the idea of taking it to an extreme- why not eliminate classes and research altogether, as well as the awarded degrees? Just leave higher ed institutions as sports and dorm facilities with a bunch of overpaid and underworked administrators. I’m sure people will continue to pay big bucks for this. And all the people with PhDs can join the peace corps, donating their services (let’s face it, academic salaries are so bad faculty might as well be considered as doing volunteer work anyway) to countries that appreciate education.

  6. I like your dark satire, Marie, but no, that’s not what I think colleges *should* do. I’m saying that administrations may see themselves as having no option other than the queen sacrifice (ending some academic programs).
    Personally, I’d like to see colleges reduce sports, and consider cutting non-academics in general. But that would represent a major shift in how these institutions work.

  7. Glenn Everett says:

    I’ve been worried for some time about the quality-of-career issue for young faculty. The ever-increasing adjunctification of higher ed has been based on the asusmption that well-qualified instructors are a dime a dozen, that there are oodles of PhDs out there willing to work for peanuts–high course loads, no benefits, paltry compensation, adjunct status at three or four area schools just to keep food on the table. And so far, that’s been the case. But what about the long term? Is it a rational choice for a bright undergraduate to seek a PhD and an academic career?
    There are fields where shortages of educated folks already exist–nursing, for example.
    To use your model: the problem with the queen sacrifice is that it is risky, and if it doesn’t work, you’re in a fatally weakened position. You’ve lost not just your queen, but the whole game.

  8. I agree about the long-term impacts of adjunctification, Glenn. This is a terrible thing that academia has been, largely, doing to itself.

    Good thought on the metaphor, too.

    • gseverett1 says:

      It is a terrible bind. Must we accept as fact the notion that US higher education, as we have known it, is economically unsustainable?

      • I think that saying it’s “economically unsustainable” is not true – lots of people are making money from higher ed (the for-profit schools I mentioned in my comment above). I think Glenn makes a good point here about the metaphor, and the downside of this strategy, which is “losing the whole game,” in this instance “the whole game” is higher education as a public good.

        The decline in state funding for higher ed over the last two decades isn’t because it’s “economically unsustainable” – it’s because of a shift in the political will to fund it, to see it as a valuable resource for the whole of society. So perhaps US higher education as we have known it is “unsustainable” but that’s a political decision not an economic one.

      • There has certainly been a collapse in political support for public education over the past 15 years. Let’s say it’s part of the neoliberal consensus, since it is bipartisan, emphasizes the market, and downplays civic goods.

        Other forces are at work, too. Demographics is a major drive, as the 1-18 population has been declining for some time, meaning the traditional-age college population pool is shrinking. The massive rise in medical costs has placed large and often unanticipated pressures on college budgets, as have growing (and more readily foreseen) retirement costs. In other words, colleges and universities are more expensive to run than they once were.

        A different force is academia’s decision to cut back tenure in favor of adjuncts. While that reflects broader trends in the general economy (decline of unions, rise of “gig economy”), it’s largely a decision colleges and universities made for themselves, starting way back in the 1990s. The decline of state funding to publics plays one part in this decision, but wasn’t the determining factor. No, higher ed decided to fund a) larger numbers of students (until 2010 or so) and b) more expensive tenure-track faculty by turning PhDs into contingent labor. It’s an act we in academia haven’t squarely faced, and one largely unknown in the wider world.

        What political will undoes that?

  9. Pingback: An example of the queen sacrifice | Bryan Alexander

  10. VanessaVaile says:

    Reblogged this on As the Adjunctiverse Turns and commented:
    in case it slipped our minds amongst the better news of more media coverage, successful organizing, Congress asking for adjunct stories, conferences, and so on… the iceberg is still there and odds do not look good that we will miss it (is it bad luck to change metaphors mid-crash? sorry about that, Bryan) . Guess what? Adjuncts travel in steerage – the SS Higher Education does not have enough lifeboats or life jackets. It’s time to stop worrying about seating arrangements.

  11. That’s a fine, dark metaphor, Vanessa.
    So what next for adjuncts – organizing and winning some role in campus governance?

    • VanessaVaile says:

      Thank you, but credit for inspiration on this particular application of the metaphor has to go to Kate Bowles over a Music for Desk Chairs.

      I think organizing is a must but not necessarily along the usual lines or even the usual goals, which no doubt puts me at odds with more than a few New Faculty Majority colleagues. Some kind of voice in the discussions that will be necessary. Governance without due process and other safeguards against undue pressures is problematic. Even adjuncts have been known to treat other adjuncts like adjuncts — disposable – and the track record of higher ed unions is not always appreciably better. Sometimes the latter reminds me Marlene Dietrich’s line in Destry Rides Again.

      We could win rights organizing and then fail to make good use of them. I wonder if this dialog might not best be initiated at and develop from the ground level up through small groups (by region or interest) rather than top down nationally (an organizing feat that might not happen in my own lifetime and).

      Incidentally, Margaret Hanzimanoulis (de Anza and San Francisco CCs, blogs for CPFA – California Part-time Faculty Association) has been collecting “adjunctification” figures and places its inception significantly earlier, in the 70s.

      I wish I had a better sense of where this could go and wish even more for feasible ideas of what to do, possible directions to take. So how do you get such a diverse group of stakeholders to starting talking to each other, let sit down at the same table? Is there an education version of planning-for-the-coming-collapse thinking? That and other local sustainability mindsets may become necessary.

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  13. Pingback: More colleges choosing the queen sacrifice gambit | Bryan Alexander

  14. I wonder what started the adjunct wheel turning in the 70s, as per Hanzimanoulis . Was it the later Baby Boomer flocking to colleges in the early 70s, or grad school?

    Great point about governance. Now that’s a hard fight.

    • Bryan, the NCES data shows a fairly steady progression–between 0 and 3% gain in the PTF ranks every darn year since 1970–most years it is a steady 2% gain. (in 1987 there is a blip because of calculating the data differently, and an inexplicable blip during the Clinton years–when things were pretty flush). Adjuncts were used before that. It’s not that they suddenly were born full cloth. It’s that the data was not collected before that. Here is the link to the NCES page: If you look at the fourth column over, you see that steady, stately roughly 2% rate of change. Demographics surely had a part i in the rapid ramping up and the uncertainty with enrollments that kept administrators “assuming” that there might at any moment be rapid change in enrollments that they would have to adjust to via the part-time faculty shock absorber.

      I do like your “sacrifice the queen strategy” framing–though when I try to make it fit the situation I get stuckI think there is no game to be won, actually. (or lost)–that’s just too apocalyptic — I think it is much more like the midcentury labor situation: mechanizing labor, turning up the speed of the assembly line… then moving the plant to a cheaper labor pool. I think all the permutations in how academic staffing has unfolded (and is unfolding)has a clearer analogy in the assembly line, assembly line speed up, outsourcing, downsourcing, roboticizing sequence. The truth is, the 3-credit course is probably dead or dying. People want to know just what they want to know, when they want to know it and no fucking around. People learn non-sequentially, non-discipinaryily, and in bits of attention considerably shorter (and often longer) than the one or two hour twice-per week college classroom. Credentials may themselves fade, as employers want people who can “do stuff” –so the college degree may no longer(or soon) be an appropriate screening instrument for employment. Yes of course there will still be elite universities that will offer students a widened range of skill/knowledge/experience encounters, but the rest of society will see “meaningful interactions,” such as they can manage to choreograph, migrate to primarily non-institutional settings–self organized or pop-up–horizontal skills sharing and not hierarchal versions, and the hard skill/knowledge will be, in my vision of the future, increasingly accessed in small bits, cafeteria style. So we must revision academic labor in this radically new environment– though screwing anyone in a transition phase is not on. So yes, we need unions and contracts, and legislation and all that stuff, but mostly so we can “build” a new system of education with the widest possible set of brilliant people…..and that includes adjuncts!!
      As for data, theCalilfornia community college data since 1991 is available on datamart (or I have some of the stuff that has gone offline). This great data treasure trove is unique in that it has mapped pay as well as PT/FT ratio (for a time it mapped benefits and office hours). I am not sure what Vanessa wanted me to hook you up with as far as data, but let me know and I perhaps can find some other sources.

  15. Pingback: Trends from 2013: the higher education bubble | Bryan Alexander

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  23. Carl says:

    Morning, I just head that at least one institution is using the (dare I call it the less well known) Knight sacrifice.

    Men’s and women’s tennis, women’s Nordic skiing, men’s cross-country and men’s indoor/outdoor track and field.

    Sadly the sports that are sacrificed are those that round out a program. However cuts in the major sports were also announced.

  24. Pingback: A campus slashes sports: a knight or rook sacrifice? | Bryan Alexander

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