Tuesday, October 09, 2007

 

Ask the Administrator: Where Does the Money Go?

A Western correspondent writes:

I work at a community college in northern California. I was hired
full time after working part-time for three years and am in the third year
of a four year tenure track position teaching art.

There seems to be no support for the art department. I spent some part of
each work day for the first three weeks of the semester trying to get paper
towels delivered. The floors in our building haven't been mopped since
August 2006. We're far from the main campus and don't have a copier to use.
Our gallery is a tiny part of the community ed center off campus. It is a
walled off section of the basket ball court and it still has the court lines
on the floor. The voters approved a $32 million bond for campus improvement
three years ago. Amount for the art department: zero. Whenever I try to get
something done, I am stymied and not helped. I could go on and on.

I love teaching. I love my students. I love the time in the classroom. The
day to day grind is getting to me. Last week I stole paper towels from the
photography department bathroom.

So I'm thinking of leaving. Some friends say it's like this everywhere. Art
is always last place. My only other job in higher ed was at an art school so
I don't have anything for comparison.

So here's the question: Is it like this everywhere? Art is last place, not
understood and not supported.

Any guidance, any help, any thoughts are appreciated.



The short answer is: it's not that Art is always last, it's that materials are always last.

I'm not surprised that the bond for campus improvement hasn't helped, since bonds typically go for 'capital' items, and most of what you're complaining about are 'operating' expenses. In the public sector, money left over in one category can't be moved into the other, so even if, by some miracle, the voters appropriated more than enough for whatever building projects are under way, you'd still need to swipe paper towels.

Areas that rely heavily on materials typically feel this the most, but it's endemic in the cc world. In my chalk-and-talk disciplines, it's not unusual to run out of blue books early in the Spring, resulting in an annual budget scramble to cover final exams. In the materials-intensive areas, like art, theatre, and lab sciences, the materials shortfalls are chronic.

(My first week as a dean at Proprietary U, I remember a science professor bursting into my office, visibly upset, loudly and indignantly complaining that we were out of owl pellets. I didn't know we had owl pellets. At my current job, I once had an extended conversation with the chair of the Art department about dirt. He complained that they were out of dirt. I snidely mentioned something about going outside and digging. Now, I know more about dirt than I ever wanted to.)

To forestall the inevitable flaming about "well, if you planned better...," I'll make a few points.

1. Anybody who has ever tried to manage creative people can tell you that there is never, under any circumstances, any such thing as 'enough.' They're incredibly good at using whatever is available and then demanding more. That's not to say that some of the needs aren't obviously real, but it is to say that the idea that you can spend (or plan) your way out of the problem is naive. Supply incites demand. I have personally approved purchase requisitions for rubber chickens. Was I supposed to have planned for that a year in advance? The theatre people need rubber chickens, I find money for rubber chickens. This year, it's rhinestones. Don't ask.

2. Anything that will be consumed in a given year falls under 'operating' expenses. For reasons nobody has ever satisfactorily explained to me, it's much harder to raise money for 'operating' expenses than for 'capital' expenses. Salaries fall under 'operating' expenses, as do professional development money, travel money, blue books, telephone charges, snow removal, HVAC, and, yes, paper towels. 'Capital' pretty much covers buildings, large equipment, and some technology. (I've seen software treated both ways. To my mind, any software worth buying should fall under 'capital,' but that's me.) It's possible to get state or federal grants for capital purchases, and to the extent that philanthropists are part of the picture, they tend to fund either capital items or scholarships. Operating money has to come from inside, which means it's much harder to generate.

3. Most operating expenses are untouchable. Given tenure and union contracts, labor costs are effectively fixed. (Health insurance is climbing at a pornographic pace, but it, too, is effectively untouchable.) We can't just decide to go without heat, or electricity, or snow removal. The adjuncts are so poorly paid as it is that there's simply nothing left to squeeze there. Toner cartridges cost what they cost. Over extended periods, you can open up breathing room in operating budgets by replacing full-timers with adjuncts and moving the salary savings elsewhere, but that doesn't help in any given year. (I also think there's a measurable long-term cost, but that's another post.) The only 'soft' operating expenses are things like deferred maintenance, office supplies, paper towels, and those little nickel-and-dime items that don't add up to much and torpedo morale when you cheap out on them.

4. In colleges with relatively decentralized budgeting systems, savvy chairs learn quickly that any money left on the table this year will be gone next year, reallocated to some area of demonstrated need. So they make damn sure not to leave money on the table. This guarantees that needs underfunded now will continue to be underfunded, until some much more drastic change takes place.

5. Although you wouldn't know it from the popular press, there's no budget line labeled "waste, fraud, and abuse" from which I can simply transfer money. That line doesn't exist.

6. Emergencies happen. Most budgets have something like a "contingency" line, to be used for unexpected expenses. (Cynical sorts like to refer to this line as a "slush fund." Apparently, in the Cynic's Universe, nothing ever actually breaks. It must be a lovely world.) There's a great old Dilbert cartoon in which the pointy-headed boss asks Dilbert to itemize his unanticipated expenses in next year's budget. The whole point is that you can't. Setting this level is a judgment call, but doing without it would guarantee disaster. I've personally had people who accused me of running a slush fund in October get angry at me in April when the money's gone, and completely miss the contradiction. Comes with the gig.

7. Lab fees. In my experience, the departments that complain the loudest about lab fees going into the general budget (which they do) also get cross-subsidized by the departments without lab fees. History turns a profit so Art doesn't have to. Who's coming last?

Sorry if that's both more, and less, than you wanted to know. The California system is famously idiosyncratic, so I'll have to leave it to my left coast readers to shed any state-specific light.

Costco paper towels tend to be good, and fairly cheap.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers -- has your college found a sustainable way to fund materials?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Comments:
The thing is, I think I heard capital concerns in addition to operating concerns in there too. "We're far from the main campus and don't have a copier to use. Our gallery is a tiny part of the community ed center off campus. It is a walled off section of the basket ball court and it still has the court lines on the floor." That doesn't seem to me to be a school that values its art department, and I kind of forgive the guy for his feelings.

Now, in terms of procuring materials: yes, it's that bad everywhere you go, and the more you develop the "work harder and smarter and do more with less" mindset, the better off you'll be (and if you ever find an administrator who believes in what you do and fights for you, care for them and cherish them for all it's worth). But (while you shouldn't be hoping for brand, shiny new buildings with clear floors) there are places in the union that treat their art faculty better than that.
 
I am just hoping you're in the process of writing an article titled "Rubber Chickens and Rhinestones" for some admin journal.

--MaggieMay (blogger hates me & won't let me sign in)
 
It sounds like the art prof has discovered something I learned during my undergraduate days: anything not nailed down can be stolen. I recommend exploiting this fact as much as possible. Alternate idea: become good friends with the guy who has keys to the janitor closet in the administration building.
 
Are there supply or lab fees that are in place? If so, I'd investigate where they're going. If not, I'd look into implementing them. I've seen them work pretty well for those kinds of materials-heavy disciplines.
 
"Stealing" carries such a negative connotation. Follow my logic as I paprphrase Jeff Spiccoli: Since "lab fees" go back into the general fund and operational expenses are paid from the general fund, the paper towels aren't photography's paper towels (yours) or the art department's paper towles (mine), they're OUR paper towels.

Try one of the following phrases when "stealing" from another department:
"Reallocation of resources" or "paperless requisition."

Seriously, though, when budget time rolls around persistently and consistently ask for increases. Chase grants for classroom and educationally related activities and borderline capital outlay items. Our biology department had an autoclave break down. A local foundation pitched in for a new one.
 
Dean Dad, you are right in terms of budget issues. Since I knew what I was teaching this fall since last winter I put in a materials order through our dept. for one item in August. To my surprise the budget money had not been deposited into the college account and no one in our dept. could get any materials. This affected the photo labs since no one could work or teach w/out materials. We are constantly be told that there is budget money for materials so put in an order. I was trying to offset the cost for students since the material could be shared and it is expensive. As of right now I have not heard a thing about my order. No surprise.

As an prof. of art, both studio and computer graphics, plus having been a student of art from high school through grad school I will have to agree that art gets the shaft most of the time. I could rattle off many of my experiences in art coming in last even after other arts dept. (music, theater,e tc.), but I won't. This includes both private and public institutions. I have worked in studied in dilapidated buildings while other depts. get state of the art facilities. The biggeest impact is most likely computer arts cutting into the studio budgets. Licensing and buying software and hardware is quite expensive. This has really created a rift between studio and graphic computer faculty. My personal feeling is that art is not understood and is considered a craft by those not in the field. This attitude help support the bias. Music and theater offer colleges direct return and PR for those programs. When we lose high art and culture there is a loss of civilization.
 
Dean Dad: Your institution provides blue books? My CC sells blue books (45 cents, I think) and Scantron forms in the bookstore and from vending machines. Students are responsible for buying and bringing them. Same at the local public U.
 
I have a few more minutes than I thought, and wanted to add something about the relationship between an art dept and the rest of a college.

I have no way of knowing whether this applies to the questioner, but in my experience in creative writing, I have observed that practitioners and teachers of the arts can be exceptionally resourceful, community-minded and can-do administrators--or they can be absolute, diva-ish disasters when it comes to dealing with the administrative structures of a university. Even if you, personally, and your chair are highly functional people (as I'm sure you are), you may be dealing with people who remember what a jerk the last chair was, and with their ingrained habits of not giving the jerk's department much attention. The paper towel problem seems like the kind of problem that arises from such habits--after all, if every other bathroom on campus is stocked with paper towels, the problem is not that there's no paper-towel budget for Art--it's that the appropriate person doesn't care if you get your paper towels or not.

However, you have students and teachers who make art, and you have a gallery space, even if it is a tiny little walled-off piece of an old basketball court. If I were you, I'd plan a series of exhibits and events to draw staff, faculty and students from across the school to your faraway space. Gather yourself a committee of faculty and students who care--maybe you can rope in a couple of sympathetic people from outside Art--and figure out what will make them come. Go to the people you've nagged for paper towels in the past and tell them you aren't there to nag, you're there to issue a special invitation to the opening reception--you really appreciate how much they have tried to help you. Get food/drink donations from local businesses for the opening reception (and put a sign on the wall acknowledging the donations, so that no one thinks you're spending your supplies budget on wine).

You have an extra challenge in that you're far from the main campus, but there's still a lot you can do to make people think of your department as an asset and you as a person they want to help. It won't create a sudden influx of cash and resources, but it can help people be more willing to work with you, and not think of you as a department that can be conveniently forgotten about (at least until someone comes in fussing about the paper towels).

How about an exhibit titled "Art Under $10"? Challenge students to create pieces that don't cost more than that--a tongue-in-cheek reference to your lack of resources. Sell them for $20 each and put the money in the supplies budget. Oh, and hang an informational poster on the wall, a sort of Harper's Index showing the costs of art supplies and making art (from a tube of cadmium yellow all the way up to Damien Hirst's jewel-encrusted skull).
 
MaggieMay: I am just hoping you're in the process of writing an article titled "Rubber Chickens and Rhinestones" for some admin journal.

I love it! Forget article. I think that would make a great book!

Dean Dad, do alumni donations play any kind of a role as a soure of additional funds?
 
History turns a profit so Art doesn't have to. Who's coming last?

This is a very important point. I know, "united we stand.." but: try being in the math department. We turn quite a handsome profit (via what Rudbekia Hirta aptly named the "Calculus Circus") but we're just as resource-strapped as the art and theater departments, if not more so.
 
This isn't a systemic solution, but a chronically-operating-underfunded non-profit I work with often asks members to bring X to a meeting instead of asking for donations. For whatever reason, asking everyone to bring one thing of "paper towels, paper plates, plastic cutlery, or cups" brings in a heckuva lot more stuff than asking people for donations for the "kitchen budget" or "operating fund." I guess people feel the cost less when they can toss it in their grocery basket while doing all their other shopping.

Perhaps you could stage gallery shows and offer people the option of bringing paper towels (or whatever) as the price of their admission instead of paying $5.

It'd also be worth seeing if a local art or craft supply store would partner with you to do a donation bin at the register, or host a wishlist for you ("For $10 you can supply a set of paintbrushes" etc.) You'll get a lot of folks there loosely interested in the arts willing to do some fairly painless donating.

(As for the mopping, I'm pretty sure this is why God created student interns.)
 
There is no shame in cleaning up after yourself. When I was a graduate student in chemistry at a good research U. we mopped our own lab and office. Paper towels are a huge waste of resources. Put a sign up on the dispenser: "Please use only one and let it dry out in you pocket for the next time"
 
It'd also be worth seeing if a local art or craft supply store would partner with you to do a donation bin at the register, or host a wishlist for you ("For $10 you can supply a set of paintbrushes" etc.) You'll get a lot of folks there loosely interested in the arts willing to do some fairly painless donating.

That's true. It's also likely to bring the wrath of the dean down on your neck, because it makes the college look really bad. I realize that it's only an honest picture, but still, to go out to the community begging for scraps will not enhance your reputation amongst the administrators who will be mortally humiliated by such an action. Even if they deserve it, you can't afford to do that kind of thing unless you're on your way out the door anyway, and you'll never need a reference.

Note that this is very different from approaching businesses and asking them for donations of materials. That's business-like and has a quid pro quo to it.
 
As a graduate student in art, I must say that I find the suggestion that the art students make work specifically to sell and help fund the department rather demeaning. I'm not being diva-esque here, but it's just that our artwork is our intellectual research and often represents a major investment of time and materials. Sometimes one cannot adapt one's body of work to the $20 art-object show. Typically, also, University galleries are not in the business of selling work, and they generally shouldn't be.

Additionally, one would be loathe to suggest of the non-creative majors that they assist in funding their departments through sales of their research. A bake or T-shirt sale would be more in-line with what one would expect from other departments.
 
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