Monday, October 05, 2009


For, Against, and That Elusive Third Category...

In a couple of discussions on campus this week, I've had variations on this exchange:

Prof: So this is why I think we should do this. Will you pay for it?

DD: I don't know. The budget picture is still in flux.

Prof: So you're opposed to it?

DD: No, I like it. I just don't know how much wiggle room I'll have after this year's midyear cuts.

Prof: So you'll support it?

DD: I'll consider it.

Prof: (grumble)

From the prof's perspective, I'd guess this reads as doublespeak or evasion. From my perspective, it's actually about not making promises that can't be kept.

At any given time, dozens of proposals are floating around, looking for funding in one form or another. (Course releases a form of funding, since we have to pay an adjunct to teach the course from which the full-timer has been released.) Contrary to stereotype, most of these proposals are individually good ideas. I don't often actually oppose one. But it rarely comes down to 'support' or 'oppose.'

It's really about ranking. For all intents and purposes, I have to rank them. Then it's a matter of guessing where in the ranking the cutoff will fall, which is almost entirely a matter of budget. In a fat year, maybe six or eight get funding. In a lean year, maybe three or four. In a catastrophic year, one or two. So asking whether “I like it” means “yes” is asking, in part, for a guess as to where the cutoff will fall. Ranking a given proposal fourth may or may not mean it gets funded. That's largely out of my control.

(The best proposals are the ones that tie, concretely, to something beyond an individual person or department. And I don't mean "excellence." Excellence and two bucks will get you a cup of coffee. To the extent that a proposal connects to other things the college is known to care about, its odds of success are better. "Because that's the way we did it in grad school" really doesn't carry much weight as an argument.)

Of course, proposals don't all come in at the same time. They come in when they come in. Asking me in October whether I'll be able to pay for something next Fall is asking me to guesstimate the number and quality of other proposals I'll receive in the meantime, the number and severity of midyear cuts, the size of next year's cut, who else will leave and not be replaced, and any number of other unknowables.

In an ideal world, my budget would be set at the beginning of the year and wouldn't change for the entire year. Between years, we would get predictable incremental increases. Then I could plan, and make promises knowing I could keep them. In that world, clean 'yes' or 'no' answers are at least plausible.

But last year we got multiple midyear cuts in rapid succession – basically, one per quarter. We're about to get another one, and we have every reason to believe that we'll have more before this year is done. I don't know how large each one will be, but I'd be unconscionably naïve not to expect them now.

Midyear cuts are much worse than normal cuts. Normal cuts commence with the new fiscal year. You have less to work with than the year before, but you have what you have, and you work with it. Midyear cuts effectively move the goalposts during the game, which wreaks havoc even on a good gameplan. Multiple years with midyear cuts are that much worse, since there are only so many contingency plans you can make before you start making yourself, and everyone else, nuts. Uncertainty rolls downhill, and gets bigger and scarier as it goes.

In this context, categories like "support" and "oppose" come with too many asterisks to mean much.

A question about the course release issue (though I know that's not what the whole post is necessarily about): Do faculty have clear guidelines about what sorts of proposals are looked on most favorably, about what proposals should include, etc.? Is there a clear deadline by which all proposals for release time for a given semester must be submitted? It strikes me that these two things being in place, if they're not, would be helpful.
Uncertainty drives everyone crazy so in this situation this is what I would do.

Start with: that decision will be made on (xyz date) when I have a better idea as to how much money we will have for next year.

This is subtly different from what you said because it provides a deadline by which the decision will be made and things can move forward. It gives the person asking the question a sense of boundry - I'll know by XYZ one way or the other.

If they ask why, explain more about the budget and express your desire to fund as many things as you can but reiterate that without knowing how much money you have that would be difficult - then repeat that the decision will be made by XYZ.

If you get to XYZ date and don't know about your money situation, fund nothing and move on. If money subsequently becomes available, you can always go back and fund at the last minute out of the proposals you were given before the deadline. The best gift you can give your people is some predictability in their lives and info about when proposals are due and when decisions will be made. Your strategy seems to be to give them the best shot at getting funded and to be truthful about your money situation. At some point, that becomes an exercise in false hope - and let's face it - what are the chances that things will be better next year? (I know in California they won't be.)

I'd set up a boundry point and let people know that you'll decide then and then move on.
Another problem with this specific issue in my institution, is that there is no single way in which departments are compensated for a course release, and therefore no clear budgeting. Some departments are happy with getting an extra lecturer to cover a course (salary + fringe), which need not be the one the faculty member was going to pay; other departments demand 20% of the faculty member's base pay (salary + fringe).

I can probably say yes or no to the first option after a 3-minute check of the budget--this is a standard, relatively small expense, and if the lectureship goes to a grad student, easy to justify. The second option is much, much harder to get to yes/no on. 20% of a first-year faculty salary? 20% of a senior faculty salary?

And, of course, the person getting the course release will want supplies and expenses covered, and maybe some student time, which come out of two other budgets....

Faculty don't like to hear that they have to go back to their department for clarification before I can even think about their request, but such is the reality most of the time. And then I hear through the grapevine that I'm being "uncooperative."

I think the suggestions about increased transparency of process are good ones. I think most people can comprehend that resources are not infinite, and that there may be good and worthy projects that there simply isn't money for. As long as each department feels that there's a level playing field, you're probably most of the way there.

Richard: Can you base some of your discussion on what the person's department has asked for in the past? If a given faculty member hears that his/her department generally asks for $25,000 in resources while another department is willing to cover a course release for $5,000, it may make it more obvious why the question's being asked.
So does the additional (an important word) cost of (let's say) 20% reassigned time equal the cost of an adjunct replacement? Or does it equal 20% of someone's salary?

Our union has been having the same fight/discussion with administration at my SoCal cc.

Im my mind, the cost of reassigned time is clearly and obviously the cost of the adjunct replacement.

Professor X makes $80K/year. He teaches a 5/5 load. If he receives 20% reassigned time, he still makes $80K but Dean Dad has to hire an adjunct replacement to teach 2 classes at $3K/class. Total cost: $86K

Imagine Dean Dad has to eliminate X's reassigned time. How much money does he save? $20K or $6K?

Please notice that the cost of reassigned time is the same whether Professor X makes $50K, $80K, $100K, or whatever.

The cost of reassigned time is unrelated to someone's full-time salary.

I'm not sure how much you want to institutionalize the indentured servitude of adjunct labor. The implication is that you shouldn't have any full time staff.
The president of a college should distribute the salaries more fair over a certain amount of hours. Once you get past a certain mark , colleges pay the professors more.

This is what I have seen working for a college network
We write on these topics and more at our college blog, please see it. Thanks and well post your article here.
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