Wednesday, September 06, 2006

 

Partly Cloudy in the Sunshine State

According to the Chronicle, the University of Florida is planning major cuts to several academic departments, even while growing others, in order to align itself better with student demand. Two quotes jumped off the page. First:

Florida expects about 80 of its 780 faculty members in its College of Liberal Arts and Sciences to retire in the next three years, and the university plans to replace approximately 26 of them.

Second:

'The immediate reaction from faculty was one of anger and surprise,' said Robert B. Ray, an English professor. 'Where the blame lies is difficult to assess at this point.'


(Cuts will fall on English, philosophy, religion, and Germanic and Slavic studies. Growth would accrue to biology, botany, chemistry, criminology, psychology, and zoology. Cuts will include cuts in the number of graduate students admitted to the affected programs.)

As a card-carrying administrator, all I can say is, 'wow.'

First, kudos to the U of F for actually trying to make some choices. Too often, a college/university will decide to cut simply by 'attrition,' rather than by some kind of coherent strategy. I'm a fan of picking a direction and moving in it. Better to do a few things well than many things badly.

Second, though, if they honestly believe that they can predict, with any level of accuracy, that 80 faculty will retire in the next three years, they're smoking something powerful. There's simply no way for them to know that. Since there's no mandatory retirement age for tenured faculty, senior faculty can stick around indefinitely. You can hurry the process by offering buyouts, but the article doesn't mention buyouts, and the level of buyout you'd need would almost certainly wipe out any budgetary savings for several years. Absent a mandatory cutoff or a voluntary buyout package, the only way to gain certainty would be to hire hitmen.

Replacing 26 out of 80 sounds painfully familiar. Expect nasty, bitter fights over which departments get to replace. I don't know if Florida allows or practices affirmative action, but if it does, I can envision some truly nasty (and expensive!) lawsuits coming down the pike. This is going to get ugly.

A fearless prediction (and all predictions guaranteed or your money back!): the faculty will claim to have been shut out of the decision-making process, the usual accusations about autocratic administrators will fly, compromises will be made, a few deans will be replaced, and the university won't look in 2010 the way this plan says it will.

Ironically enough, the way to implement the plan would have been not to announce it. Just do it. I don't recall any great far-reaching policy debate in the last thirty years or so about the desirability of moving to a half-adjunct higher ed system; it just happened, bit by bit, as individual institutions did what they needed to do to survive within difficult budget parameters. By announcing it, the university made it a political issue on campus, and all the standard interest-group politicking will ensue. Whatever else happens, the 'me-first' interest groups will be more than willing to sacrifice the coherence of the plan to protect their own turf.

The quote from the English professor is revealing. His first instinct is to insinuate procedural irregularities (that what 'surprise' is code for); his next move is to look for someone to blame. His subsequent invocation of Larry Summers is a thinly-veiled threat to get administrators fired. Blaming the management is easier than thinking, and allows you to occupy the moral high ground.

I'll just put this out there and endure the inevitable flaming: English graduate programs should take fewer graduate students. The production of excess labor is what makes exploitative adjunct hiring possible in the first place. As long as the supply of English Ph.D.'s far exceeds the demand, which looks to be the case for the foreseeable future, it's irresponsible not to reduce graduate programs. I can understand English departments not wanting to hear that, but it's true. Right now, graduate education in the humanities is a sort of pyramid scheme, in which the folks at the top of the pyramid (the tenured faculty at R1's) are sustained by the exploitation of those lower in the ranks (graduate students, adjuncts, etc.) If we can't break up the pyramid altogether, we can at least do damage control by shrinking it.

I forget the source of the quote, but there's a famous line somewhere about the difficulty of getting a man to understand an argument when his paycheck depends on him not understanding it. I don't expect any department to welcome cuts, and I would expect an English department, in particular, to deploy all manner of rhetorical weaponry in its own defense. Whether the administration at U of F has the intestinal fortitude to stick to its guns remains to be seen.

A situation like this really highlights the tragic conflict at the heart of my administrative philosophy: I want both openness and recognition of reality. Sometimes the two go together, and that's great, but it's not unusual for them to conflict. Telling an ensconced, senior, overstaffed (and therefore internally powerful) department that some of its resources will be transferred to smaller departments is provoking a fight, and that fight will not be fought fairly. Strong leadership can, in principle, keep the project from going off the rails, but the temptation to cave will be strong and ever-present.

Good luck, U of F. You'll need it.

Comments:
As much as I hate to admit it, you're right about English PhDs. As the president of the Graduate Student Caucus of the MLA put it a few years ago, PhDs are the waste product of the system. When they are still students, they are good, cheap labor for the classes that tenured profs don't want to teach. Once they get those degrees, though, they're expendable.

Hmmm: My word verification is egeek.
 
I'm sure this probably isn't the quotation you're thinking of, but it's similar. Mark Twain, in an essay titled "Corn-Pone Opinions," quotes someone as saying: "You tell me whar a man gits his corn pone, en I'll tell you what his 'pinions is."
 
[Cross-posted here]

I am of two minds about the truth you speak. Yes, there are too many English grads--I am one.

You argue, rightly I am afraid, that "English graduate programs should take fewer graduate students."

I am of two minds about the truth you speak. Yes, there are too many English grads--I am one and it is a bitch to find a job.

The two minds, though, cleave along the personal and professional. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to have studied at the level I have. I feel as if I have clawed my way into a world-view and understanding unknown to my family and class. I have read myself into a place where I feel, perhaps too securely, that I can read my way into understanding quite nuanced arguments and situations. That is, I can think critically. Isn't that what every into composition course wants?

Professionally, I think my personal view was selfish and short-sighted. Critical thinking is not the sole prevue of English studies. The sciences, IT, etc. all can lay claim to fostering critical thinking AND providing a skill-set that can actually pay the bills—most of which were incurred while obtaining said skills.

So, my professional self looks to my personal self with dismay, bordering on aversion. Bankrupt your family so that you could indulge in reading—reading that could have been done in the evenings after your real job.

So, there we are. Personally satisfied, professionally stymied. Thanks English degree. Thanks so much.
 
I also think that there should be fewer English PhDs (and I, too, am one of them). My own program actually did cut the number of admitted students in the years before I got there, which reduced the number of entering students each year from close to 20 to approximately 10 (the move was made at some point in the mid-90s). In doing so, the department was committing to giving full and equal funding to every student for six years, but also to admitting no more students than it believed could get jobs.

Toward the end of my time there, however, the numbers started to creep back up, and many entering classes had 15 or 16. Everyone still got full funding, and I'm sure the department thought, "Hey! We're Instant Name Recognition University! Of COURSE our graduates will get jobs. . . and huh, in the meanwhile, we need these folks as TAs."

But, actually, not everyone WILL get a job, and many who do won't get them easily, and the glut of PhDs in the profession will continue.

Someone made a professionally responsible decision once, but it sure didn't stick.
 
Where's your libertarian streak now? If the English students want to grievously impact their lifelong earnings by getting PhDs, why oughtn't they? Just make them sign a waiver upon accepting grad school, saying "I realize that only .x% will achieve job satisfaction." The professors wouldn't fight the inclusion of that, surely? :)

The quote you were thinking of is by muckraker Upton Sinclair.
 
I think you're right that it's commendable that U of F is trying to make choices in a strategic way about its future, but I also think that perhaps you're overly black-and-white in your response to the English professor who is quoted in the article. I DO think you're right that there are too many English PhDs, but I don't think that anybody - least of all anybody in English - would ever disagree with that statement. The way that you put it here, it's like all English professors (at R1s, at least, if not all in the world) have their heads in the sand because they benefit from the system of inequality that the overproduction of English PhDs causes. I think that's a reductive way of reading the English professor's comments. What is at stake isn't only the bottom line in these debates - by choosing where to cut, we choose what we value as well. As somebody with an English PhD, and somebody in a very different institutional context from an R1, I still feel the institutional pressures that devalue the thing that I study. So yes, I would fight those kinds of cuts, because to me those cuts say that the study of literature matters less than the study of chemistry, which I think is crap. This is NOT to say that English departments should just go along as they have been for the past 50 years - changes do need to be made - BUT I think that it's one thing to talk about restructuring in ways that value the discipline and quite another to talk about "restructuring" when what is really happening is just destroying in order to reallocate resources to a place that is flashier.
 
It isn't a huge problem, as long as students remaining in the program don't suffer. Making the connection between undergraduate enrollment and faculty lines is a natrual process and part of the academic market, no?

It isn't the college that is deeming Chemistry more important than English, it is the students. English needs to do a better job of promoting itself in order to attract and keep students.
 
This isn't a real statistic from anywhere but my university, but my department has the greatest number of graduating majors of any department in my university (in fact, we have as many majors in our department alone as does the ENTIRE College of Business). In other words, students ARE choosing English, and English faculty generate the most revenue in my university with courses taught (in part because of all the adjuncts teaching required freshman writing), but STILL the college of A&S directs resources not to English but to other departments that seem more worthwhile to "the community." Reality does not always drive such decisions, nor does what students actually are doing - sometimes it's just about PR and attracting students (or their parents), but students then ultimately realize that computer science (or accounting or whatever) makes them want to die and they graduate with English (or philosophy, or history, or whatever) degrees.
 
It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.

Upton Sinclair
 
The libertarian streak isn't relevant here. In the real world, letting more graduate students into a program means hiring (or keeping) more faculty to teach and mentor them, and providing more money for stipends. In other words, it's on the university's dime. What I'm commending the U of F for doing is for actually making some choices about where to spend those dimes, rather than just passively hoping for a combination of retirements and the money fairy.

(Put differently, a libertarian would say let them in only if they pay full tuition out of pocket.)

Dr. Crazy raises some complicated issues. My first response is to separate undergrad from grad programs. At the undergrad level, English tends to be huge, since most degree programs require composition and English is a popular fallback major when something else doesn't work out. But to go from 'the undergrad program is huge' to 'therefore, the graduate program should be huge, too' doesn't follow. If it's true that there's a glut of English Ph.D.'s on the market, then it follows that redirecting resources from producing English Ph.D.'s to other uses makes sense. You can read that as de-valuing, but I read it as saving the possibility of the strongest students actually having a shot at making an adult living.

There's also the uncomfortable matter of where money for new programs (or expanded programs) can come from. By pruning programs that have outgrown their usefulness, we can free up resources for programs with more potential. I won't speak to the choices made at Dr. Crazy's university, since I don't know her university, but the principle is right. Students vote with their feet, and the society for which we prepare them changes. We can adapt, or we can die.

Flavia's point is sadly familiar. The incentives for individual departments are directly counter to the good of the profession as a whole (a "tragedy of the commons" problem). Nobody can seriously disagree that the profession as a whole needs fewer English Ph.D.'s than are currently produced, but any given program always gains by producing more. It's the thankless job of academic administration to try to bring the behavior of individual departments in line with larger needs. For that, the people with the luxury of not needing to look past their own backyards routinely excoriate us. Comes with the gig.

Finally, I take strenuous exception to the (routine) move of inferring priorities from actions. Actions have constraints that priorities don't. That's why administrators are constantly looking for new revenue; only with fiscal growth can we bring priorities and actions in line with each other.
 
The sad fact is that English is a good complement to a marketable degree. The sooner decisions made by administration (one could hope departments would do this, but...see Upton Sinclair's quote) OR the word of the present plight of grads trickles down, the better for the graduate's families.

One can still read Proust, go to the theater or enjoy dissenting debate AND make a living. But only if the right choices are made.
 
I agree with you, DD, that we should separate how we handle undergrad programs from how we handle grad, but the problem, at least in my experience, is that isn't how these things work. People see, rightly or wrongly, a strong grad program as equal to a strong department which then is equal to a strong undergrad major. When institutions make these decisions, I think these are the issues that are in play.

All of this being said, I went to a VERY small grad program - where only 6-8 students were admitted per year to the PhD program - and I think that's heading in the right direction. And I DO think it's a good idea not only to pare down the number of students admitted to grad school in English but also to pare down the number of PHD programs in English. BUT this isn't only an English issue. Ask some PhDs in the sciences or social sciences how easy it is to become a college professor in their respective fields. From everything I've heard from friends getting academic employment in those fields is as difficult (if in different ways) than to do so in the humanities.

Anyway, sorry to hog your comments. I'm not really in huge disagreement with you, but I wanted to see the discussion complicated a bit. At the end of the day with decisions like these, everybody has a "side." That said, I totally think you're right that they shouldn't have announced this if they really wanted to do it. Maybe that's why it feels so PR-oriented to me....
 
Never argue with a man whose job depends on not being convinced.” -- H.L. Mencken

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." -- Upton Sinclair
 
At my uni, the college of science has 17% of the faculty but brings in 40% of the revenue for the whole university (research dollars plus tuition and formula funding from the state).

Of course this isn' t the only thing to consider when planning a university but maybe things aren't so different at UFla.
 
Dr. Crazy: BUT this isn't only an English issue. Ask some PhDs in the sciences or social sciences how easy it is to become a college professor in their respective fields. From everything I've heard from friends getting academic employment in those fields is as difficult (if in different ways) than to do so in the humanities.

True. In fact, the current issue of The Scientist has an article on how we're producing too many life sciences PhD's. (The average tt faculty opening gets 200 applications now.)

The main difference is that the sciences have postdoctoral positions, which pay better than your standard adjunct teaching gig--usually somewhere between $30K and $45K, depending on experience and granting agency. The downside is, that means that there's an expectation that you will post-doc for at least 3 years (and often far more) before you will even be considered for a faculty position, and even then most folks will never get one.

As Dean Dad said, it's a tragedy of the commons thing. It is in the interest of the schools to produce PhDs, and of the PIs to support postdocs. The schools also love that grant-money overhead and the prestige, so encouraging research is a no-brainer. But nobody really needs any more life sciences faculty, so this inevitably leads to the market glut. Really, the only way to fix it is for people to stop going into the field, which is unlikely to happen.
 
You're right that English departments overproduce grad students - UF's is an excellent department (I'm a grad student there), and it only has a 70% tenure track placement rate.

That said, the amount that stinks here is astonishing. For one thing, unmentioned is the fact that all of the departments on the cutting block, coincidentally, are among the most union-strong departments in the University.

For another, this is in stark opposition to the principles the University espouses in terms of how its faculty are dealt with. The University and particularly the trustees praise the system of shared governance where faculty and departments are consulted on decisions like this. The five year plan, however, was developed in consultation with five faculty hand-picked by the dean, on the insistence of a provost whose interaction with reality is limited at best. And yet shared governance is cited by the trustees as the reason the faculty union is unnecessary.

Furthermore, the allignment has nothing to do with student need - if it did, they'd be pouring resources into English, which is perpetually so short on classes that they need to have their PhD students teaching upper division classes. The stated reason is departments that are "unproductive." The problem, though, is that we have a very good department at UF - as evidenced by an external review that we went through last year that was positively glowing, and that recommended the exact opposite of this plan.

The problem is that Florida is a conservative state, and the legislature and adminsitration is less than fond of the fact that the English department is, well, about as leftist as your average English department. We teach literature by gay people. And the legislature has made it clear many a time that this is a problem. It was why they removed the writing program from English, and have consistently screwed it up in new and imaginative ways since then. (Highlights include the "teaching writing by video" experiment, and the latest idea of "writing across the disciplines," a program with the proven track record of abstinence-only education)

So, yes - reductions in the number of grad students would be sensible and good. But on the other hand, a five year hiring freeze on a vibrant department that already can't offer enough classes is madness. (And it should be noted, English at UF has wholly refused to hire adjunct faculty - it's a department entirely of full-timers.)

I understand budget cuts perfectly well - I grew up in a University family, and I know funding comes and goes. And CLAS has run a massive deficit over the past few years. But this is not a reason to gut a vibrant department that's rising rapidly in national prominence.
 
"Second, though, if they honestly believe that they can predict, with any level of accuracy, that 80 faculty will retire in the next three years, they're smoking something powerful."
Florida has the Drop program
http://dms.myflorida.com/dms2/human_resource_support/retirement/drop/drop_summary
which is a buyout program. For 5 years your retirement pay is put in a 401k type account with a 6% return. You get your regular pay but no further contributions to the retirement program. Once 5 years is up you are out and cannot return for a year or so to a full-time retirement qualified program. The program is open to anyone in the FRS.
 
There have been a couple of references in this thread to the "tragedy of the commons", and I find it quite annoying. There are two basic things wrong with these references. First, it's a very sloppy use--not all failures of allocation are tragedies of the commons. A "Tragedy of the commons" is about abuse of a scarce resources, using them up. This PhD problem is an overproduction crisis; the only thing it has in common is some sort of lack of management. But what it's a tragedy of is not commons--there is no commons. It's a tragedy of the free market, actually, which everyone is quite rightly pointing out basically needs to be solved by planning. But nobody calls things a "tragedy of the free market" because the knee jerk assumption is that free markets must be perfect and that commonses are the things that create tragedy. Which is balderdash, but we use the catchphrase that's stuck in our heads and thereby turn the real situation on its head.
The second thing that bothers me is that the "tragedy of the commons" notion ever caught on. The fact is, real life commonses were never tragic in the first place. Some guy wrote an article which created a hypothetical notion of what a commons might be, used by a hypothetical notion of people, and both hypothetical notions had badly flawed assumptions, and concluded logically that something working under these assumptions would be tragic. Which it would, and indeed modern fisheries act somewhat like his notion of commons, and all the fish are indeed disappearing. But he was wrong about real commonses. First, he thought of a commons as this thing with completely unregulated use; real commonses were owned by limited communities, which set rules on their use and excluded outsiders. Second, the people using it he imagined as concluding that they should exploit the heck out of it because they always make more by exploiting one more unit, and if they didn't someone else would. This assumes that the people can't think ahead about the results of doing this and can't communicate with each other to set up rules or norms of behaviour or anything. If anything, his commons was more like, again, a deregulated free market.

So the "tragedy of the commons" is a misguided, misleading phrase to start with. It probably shouldn't be used at all; it's just a propaganda tool for the primacy of private property. But it certainly shouldn't be misapplied to things that don't even have anything to do with its accepted meaning.

Sorry, this is off topic and long.

Rufus Polson posting as anon
 
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