Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Undertow

(Warning: this one's a little vent-y.)

Yesterday started with one of those meetings that left me drained, precisely because it went as well as it could have.

My counterparts and I met to discuss staffing needs we had identified within our areas. We had previously agreed that we would all self-censor, and only put forth the really important ones. We agreed that we'd play nice, not back-stab, and refer everything to larger needs.

And we did. Everybody played fair. We all put forward only our strongest cases, and there was actually mutual support across silos. Everybody made relevant points, we considered alternatives, and there wasn't even a whiff of the usual political crap (which, to be fair, we've done a pretty good job of minimizing lately).

At the end, it became clear that if we hadn't self-censored, there could easily have been thirty or forty requests. As it was, we had pre-emptively narrowed it to about a dozen. And it looks like we'll have funding for one, maybe two.

The dispiriting part was the revelation of how many areas of the college, from the most obvious to the most inconspicuous, have been running shorthanded for a long time. In several cases, the discussion opened with "this won't even restore us to the level of two years ago, but if we could at least stop the bleeding...," and even that wasn't good enough.

From reading the academic blogosphere, you'd think that faculty were the only ranks being thinned. Not here. We've held the faculty numbers pretty constant, which admittedly falls short of meeting the recent enrollment increase, but it's decent by national standards and far better than we've done on the staff side. We've thinned out every back-office function, from deans and directors on down. The library, the financial aid office, athletics, admissions, facilities, the bursar's office, IT, security: they're all getting by at unsustainably low levels, buoyed only by the above-and-beyond hard work of dedicated people. (In this context, the AAUP's claim that faculty must be uniquely protected starts to look a little like elitism.) We're in triage mode, with no clear sense of when we'll be able to hire anything close to the numbers needed.

And that's with everybody on their good behavior.

In the good guy/bad buy narrative propagated on the blogs, you could be excused for thinking that all would be well if we'd just cut administration/sports/'extras' and focus on the core mission. What the blogosphere seems not to consider is what happens if you do all that and it's still nowhere near enough.

And that's before even factoring in the expiration of stimulus money next year.

Hiring for one or two of those positions amounts to spitting in the ocean. It falls so short of real and obvious need that it feels almost silly.

I try to stay positive in public, since part of my job involves setting a tone, and campus morale is a real, if fuzzy, issue. So I'll use pseudonymity here to tell the truth. We simply can't keep doing what we're doing. We're running on fumes and goodwill, and you can't do that forever. The funding increases necessary just to get to 'sustainable' -- let alone 'exemplary' -- are unimaginable. Several areas of the college are still functioning only because a dwindling number of staffers are doing heroic work, and you just can't keep doing that. When heroism becomes the budgetary baseline, even getting to 'sanity' takes substantial increases. In many of the 'support' areas of the college, that's the dilemma now.

We're way past the point of obvious answers, easy villains, or nips-and-tucks. We need major structural changes, some hard choices, and a sustained shitload of money. Skip any one of those, and the next generation gets to choose between DeVry and McDonald's.


Sorry. Tomorrow I'll try to get back to problem solving and positive life stuff. I just couldn't keep doing that without acknowledging the undertow.