Friday, June 05, 2015

The economics of wishful thinking about campus funding

Given the resounding thump on the head that the protections of tenure just took in Wisconsin (see Historiann's posts), I've been thinking about the implications of articles that call for universal tenure, or tenure-track lines for teaching, or vast increases in lines because humanities are a good thing, or even free state-funded tuition for college students.  (See Notorious's post on this issue.)

A few years ago, there was a call for tenure-track faculty to "just say no" to any hiring of contingent faculty instead of tenure-track lines, and if that meant courses didn't get taught, well, tough beans.

Now, I like the principles behind these idealistic stands, but I am wondering about how these would work in an economic environment like this one where state legislatures continually raid the higher ed budget to fund other things, where double-digit decreases in state funding are the norm, where tuition is mandated by the state not to increase, and where some governors may well destroy great university systems so that they can make the destruction a cornerstone of their conservative credentials. See

How might the conversation go at Everystate University?  I'm hypothesizing that it might go something like this in the worst case:

Words and Widgets Faculty: "We need to teach 100 sections of Words and Widgets 101 next semester, but we don't have enough faculty."

Admin: "Increase course sizes. Put 'em in an auditorium. Hand 'em some clickers."

Faculty: "No, we won't increase course sizes."

Admin: "Okay, hire some contingent faculty."

Faculty: "No, we made a pledge not to do that.  In fact, we need 10 new tenure-track teaching faculty in our department right away to teach 3 sections apiece. We will also need you to fund the search costs. If you don't do that, we can't and won't offer 100 sections."

Admin: sounds of crickets

Time passes. True to their pledge, the Words and Widgets Department offers only 70 sections of Words and Widgets 101.  Many angry phone calls from students later, the department and Admin meet again.

Faculty: "See? We can't offer these courses without enough tenure-track teaching faculty."

Admin: "Contingent--"

Faculty. "Not gonna do that.  It would threaten our educational mission and break our pledge."

Admin.  "Here's 70% of your last year's budget, then, since you only taught 70% of the students. Oh, and we now have an agreement with MOOCs-R-US to teach the other 30% online."

Faculty: "You can't do that. You have to run it through the Faculty Senate."

Admin: "Oh, can't we, though? Bwahahahaha!"

This doesn't mean that the noble ideals aren't worth fighting for.  They are. But in my pessimistic moments, I wonder about how these might fare in the world of academe as it currently exists.

Edited to add: See Bardiac's roundup at


jo(e) said...

Yep. That's the problem.

undine said...

jo(e)--thank you! I keep thinking I must be crazy or I am the only person who sees the economics of it in this way.

Contingent Cassandra said...

I, too, think you've nailed it. Especially when it comes to gen ed requirement-fulfilling classes (which, to be realistic, are at least 90% of what we're talking about here), if one department stands its ground, admin will find a way to dangle carrots in front of other departments (or programs, or newly-invented entities) to create replacement classes (preferably big-section ones with heavy use of grad or even undergrad TAs and one Ph.D. instructor of record). If that fails, the online ed division -- which at most schools seems to have an alarming ability to do end-runs around the usual course-approval process (see newly-created entities, above) -- will find a way.

And I say this having just reflected over at Notorious' place that I'm not quite sure whether I should be getting in up in arms about others' potential loss of tenure or not, given my own extremely scant hope of ever having it, and the general complicity of tenure-line faculty as a group in dismantling the system from the inside.

Honestly, I don't know what the answer is.

Anonymous said...

That sounds about right. Meanwhile a couple of years of students are SOL because they can't get required courses to graduate in time.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Or the administration just cuts Gen Ed. We are under a gen Ed review right now and English classes are on the chopping block. We have two 100-level classes and they want us to go down to 1. And then there's Humanities, which they'd like to reduce or get rid of altogether. That will reduce our contingent faculty by half. Problem (nearly) solved. :(

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Actually that would pretty close to eliminate the contingent faculty at HU.

undine said...

CC--that's a great point about other entities stepping in to take over if one department decides to take a principled stand. More students = more FTA = more power in the university, and if one department won't pick up those students and create the courses, another one will, regardless of Department 1's principles.

nicoleandmaggie--absolutely. Something like this would be a chicken game between Admin and Faculty, and the students are the ones who wouldn't get the courses. Thanks for not faulting my Sesame Street-level economic analysis.

Fie--That's a danger, for sure. Standards for accreditation will require a certain amount of Gen Ed, but there's no guarantee that students have to get it from one department as opposed to another.

Z said...

Where is the the general complicity of tenure-line faculty as a group in dismantling the system from the inside?

undine said...

z--I don't know how to answer this question. If you mean making incremental decisions that improve conditions (like working toward higher salaries and access to health care), many of them are doing that already. If it's a grand gesture like quitting one's job and living in poverty with no job unless the university meets all the faculty's demands about hiring only to tenured positions or none, that is less likely, although a few independently wealthy people have quit in protest.