Tuesday, June 23, 2009


Delicate Cutters

Okay, I’m a little late to this one, but there’s a nifty exchange between Notorious Ph.D. and Historiann about the perversities of budget cuts at their respective institutions. The comments are worth reading, too. What starts as a fairly standard-issue set of complaints about budget cuts sort of backs into a thoughtful discussion of job expectations and reciprocity in the workplace.

Among other things, it makes me glad that I work where I work. We have our financial issues, God knows, but we haven’t done anything as drastic and destructive as furloughs or salary cuts, let alone layoffs. We’ve cut travel and release time, as well as a whole bunch of back-office expenses that faculty tend not to notice but that actually matter quite a bit. We have a salary freeze, which is annoying, but nowhere near as annoying as furloughs or cuts. (For the record, cuts are worse than furloughs. Future salary increases are percentages of base pay. Furloughs don’t affect base pay, but cuts do. You won’t see a difference at the time, but you’ll see it down the road.)

(Also for the record, while I’m at it, I recall that one of the selling points of the 401(k) or 403(b) was supposed to be dollar-cost averaging during market dips. With so many companies and some colleges suspending matching contributions to retirement accounts, that argument has been conclusively discredited. Averaging doesn’t help you if you don’t get the money to buy low. If you only get matching contributions during high times, then by definition, you’re buying high, which is a loser’s strategy.)

Working at a community colleges makes some dilemmas easier. Although we have a tenure system, we don’t have a research expectation. That means that cutting travel funding or course releases may be frustrating and annoying, but it doesn’t directly threaten anybody’s ability to earn tenure. Tenure is earned by teaching well and by doing enough college service to carry your weight. The cuts we’ve enacted, as distasteful as they’ve been, haven’t threatened either of those. The same could not be said of, say, eliminating research leaves for junior faculty while leaving the publication requirement intact.

Were I in a similar position at a college with a serious publication requirement for faculty, I’d advocate adjusting tenure expectations to match available resources. Research expectations for tenure have ratcheted so comically high for so long that a little downshifting wouldn’t hurt, and it would carry the added virtue of basic fairness. (At least, fairness within the confines of the tenure system itself, but that’s another post.) It would also allow some recognition, albeit unintentional, of the complete collapse of scholarly publishing. How, exactly, you’re supposed to get published when the presses are closing and you aren’t able to travel is beyond me. A belated recognition of reality is better than no recognition at all.

Here, my version of that is leaving class sizes alone. Even though there are obvious short-term savings to be had by stuffing the classrooms fuller, it strikes me as watering down our core function. Letting go of a special project is one thing; letting go of attentive teaching is something else altogether. So pet projects come in for more scrutiny than usual, and many good ones don’t make the cut. But English comp doesn’t get any bigger, and nobody’s quest for tenure is preemptively doomed. First things first.

Wise and worldly readers – have you seen cuts on your campus that strike at the heart of the mission, or that make tenure effectively impossible?

Yes, increasing class size is a loser--there are immediate short-term drags on morale (teachers' and students' both) and effectiveness. Truth is, my contractual maximum is already well above the optimum class size.

For my professional happiness and professional pride, even a pay cut would be preferable to increasing my numbers.
As you say, "while you are at it..."

I am not sure why you have the tone you did about 401K (except, perhaps, it means that the government doesn't control your money, but that's for another day...)

The problem really is, your "conclusive" discrediting actually isn't. First, companies (and others) can only legally stop their voluntary contributions, not the "non-elective" contributions.

In addition, the phrase "so many companies" really is misleading, since for you "so many" could mean you have heard of three, or three hundred. A quick "bing" of the net seems to indicate that the decision to suspend, reduce, or even eliminate, the matching contributions (although, to be fair, most sites say "so far few have" which is about as rigorous as "with so many")

In addition, even if companies did suspend their match, the money contributed by the employees is still "buying low" right now, so buying low with half the money beats not buying in at all.

The point? Conclusive evidence really, well, isn't.

Let's not mislead
My observation is that every time a local CC gets into financial trouble, the first major cut is to close down a vocational program. While I am all for selective cutting, as opposed to the dullest axe of all - "across-the-board cuts" - it seems that we always cut into our own mission when we close another vocational program. It is just so easy; they tend to be expensive on a per-student basis, and it is easier politically, particularly at any institution that is striving to improve its academic reputation. Dropping Auto Mechanics generally does not result in a decrease in academic repute.

Granted, I'm on the academic transfer side of the house, but anyone can/should see that one of our prime missions is to educate students for the community workplace, and that means putting in place vocational programs.

Worst of all, we then turn around and develop new vocational programs for the "new economy"; so-called 'green' jobs that sound wonderful on paper, but I don't see any windmill or solar cell manufacturers in my neck of the woods. We can afford the development costs because the State and Feds love to drop money on exciting new ventures, but I fear that we will be training students for jobs that don't exist in quantity. Meanwhile, we axed the expensive and dull programs that would have given students enough training in two years to earn a living wage.

Much has been made on these pages of the questionable worth of educating so many students in the 'evergreen' disciplines, but you never hear about a CC considering cutting Psych or Soc or Lit when times get hard. We cut Cosmetology, Food Services and Auto Mechanics.
I go to the Metropolitan State College of Denver, which is a 4-year college (not university, there's no research). Apparently one of their cost-cutting measures this year was to make the application deadline earlier this year in order to limit enrollment. I think there's also a tuition increase.

My upper-level math classes have mostly been tiny, though, for which I've been grateful. I mean 11 or 12 students. And this place has the most convenient scheduling I've ever heard of for a 4-year school.
A few years ago, it the middle of another budget crisis, faculty at my SoCal cc, agreed to a 2% pay cut for one year. We kept the then-current salary schedule unchanged (so we wouldn't have to renegotiate our 2% back), and we called the cut a "donation." That meant got a tax write-off, and, more important, our retirement plans were not affected.

Wait, there are people who still think 401(k) are better than defined-benefit contributions after the last couple of bank/stock crises?


I'm sure you'll meet some of them next time someone donates $$$$$ to your school.

Back to the main point:

How on earth does "limiting enrollment" result in "lower costs?"

Your school isn't fully burdening student count with a bunch of fixed costs, are they?


Get that resume out ASAP . . . if your school is calculating something like a "per student cost" then it is pretty reliable evidence that your comptroller is an incompetentidiot; and your school will accelerate the "Going Out Of Business Death Spiral" fairly quickly . . .

is that title a throwing muses reference? i know you're a Kristin Hersh fan, but wasn't sure if it was intentional (geez, now i feel old. that album's gotta be 20 yrs old and i haven't even heard it in a decade).
As a current CC student in northern california (an older lady who's returning for a career change 20 yrs after law school), the cuts are really felt not so much with class size, but with lack of materials. the ceramics department running out of glaze, the chem lab not having the most basic equipment (even cheap stuff like chromatography paper or coffee cups. the lab teacher had to filch coffee cups from a gas station just so we could make calorimeters in chemistry), and the sudden dip in handouts due to the lack of xerox paper and/or toner. It doesn't help the students feel less like 2nd-class citizens when the teachers say 'well, y'know, at UC-Berkeley (just a few miles away), they have all the materials the manual calls for! If you want to do the experiment right, you should go there", if that's even true at this point given the UC system's budget cuts. The best way I've heard it handled was "you guys have had to learn to improvise with less, and when you get out in the real world, you'll be better for it. When those kids with their fancy degrees have no idea what to do without their fancy equipment, you'll be a step up" - probably untrue most of the time, but it still makes the youngsters feel less dejected.
actually, from the students' perspective, it's far more frustrating to deal with wait lists (especially when the wait lists are closed or don't exist) and not being able to schedule work, family, or other school commitments until 2 weeks into the semester when you finally find out if enough people have dropped, than to deal with another few people crammed into the room. The teacher's perspective is surely different, but i've never heard a student complain about shoving extra chairs into the room. I hear them complain all the time about sections being closed and the difficulty of getting the classes that they need.
it also doesn't help when one program starts accusing the other of using all the resources. i've heard chem profs say that the bio lab gets all the money, and the TA in the bio lab says that they have so few resources they have to beg stuff from the chem lab, who won't share. The last thing students need to hear is all this bickering between departments, when none of them actually has a dime.
Yup, Throwing Muses. I was hoping someone would catch that...

What's important isn't that there are people that still think 401Ks are good. (And for the record, many of the "defined benefit" programs have gone through "redefinitions" as well, even at the CC level, so there is nothing sacred there.)

What IS important is that people have the ability to choose. If someone reaches the conclusion that a 401K is better, for them then they should be allowed to choose that. And if they prefer a defined benefit plan that option should be available as well. See--conservatives are "pro choice" as a general rule.
A "defined contributions plan" is *your* money.

A "defined benefits plan" is *the states* money.

Currently drawing income from both, in steady state conditions, I will have to say my "defined benefits" are threatened more than my "defined contributions" plan under the current limited growth/high inflation scenario.

Your situation will most probably be different.*


*depending on the exact makeup of your portfolio; since I am light on "high growth" instruments an economic "low growth" scenario doesn't affect me as much as other folks.
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Regarding salary cuts and furloughs, check out what's coming down the pike at the University of California:


Good times.
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