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.

Comments:
Thank you for raising this issue, even if it is "vent-y". When I was a staff member, I witnessed cuts during 2003. Also salary freezes and hiring freezes, neither of which happened to the same extent on the faculty side. By the time the next wave of financial crisis came around, most of the cuts had not been restored and there was talk of more cuts. Instead, there have been cuts through attrition. As people left, those people weren't replaced. I know departments that are down nearly 10 people. But the number of faculty and students those departments support hasn't changed. While it may be true that some of those positions weren't necessary, I'm doubtful that's true of all of them.

Functioning under those conditions doesn't help morale very much either.
 
Just yesterday we had a meeting with our president about how more bad, much more, bad financial news is coming to our CC. He flat out said all that is left to cut is jobs.

A big part of my frustration as a new faculty member is that community colleges' entire mission is to do more with less. I can't imagine a CC in this country that has fat to trim in their budget. We are in the same boat you are. We are already working with a skeleton crew and yet we had a 25% increase in the number of students last year. Our campus looks dirty and uninviting because there aren't enough people to clean up after the increased number of students. We are barely staying afloat and yet we're going to lose people and not just not replace people. The president admitted that we are going to have trouble fulfilling our mission because of the budget crisis. I don't have any answers, but it's frustrating.
 
I work as faculty at a RIIb state school. I've been here four about six years and I see the same thing happening here. We are understaffed in terms of support personnel. They work hard and keep the place looking great and running smoothly on a limited budget.

There is no fat to cut unless we froze/canceled all construction projects for ten years. But as they say, thats a 'different budget line' so cutting construction would not shift money to operations.

The blogosphere and mainstream media do not "get it" when it comes to the budget in general and education in particular. We were running on 'lean' during the good years. We raised tuition constantly in the good years.

Sometimes, you just need more money. That means either raise taxes, cut spending in another part of the budget, or start closing campuses and consolidating operations. Accept the fact that we will not be able to have education on the cheap anymore.
 
The thought of losing 10 staff in a department reminds me of the different level of funding per student that we get versus what a neighboring university gets.

We have about a dozen faculty for each full-time staff member, where I am counting everyone except the Dean but include a half-time position scavenged from the remains of a lost position. Without work-study students in the front office, we could not operate.
 
i think it is funny that most universities & gov't facilities have programs in place to identify the employee/team member of the quarter/month/year..., yet there is no nomination or program to identify the opposite. there is no active pursuit by management to identify the lazy, sluggish, idiotic, system-working workforce that plagues every entity that has more than 5 employees. departments may fill out questionnaires that ask them about their work environment (where the questions are always phrased so that an actual negative response can't be given, to keep up the stats up in the most recent workforce survey/study), but they never ask people to fill out a questionnaire regarding other individuals, especially those within their group/team/department.

all of the heroic work that people are doing is in vain if no one tries to recognize the people who are holding them back. i'm a firm believer in the 80-20 rule, where 20% of the people do 80% of the work. those 20% are your heroes. you probably have 60% of the workforce who is "normal". but 20% of your workforce should be considered as villains, and getting rid of them will save you a lot of money. it just takes a little effort.

if you want to save money, find your heroes, and then ask them who their villains are. that's where you save your money and your slot.
 
Not trying to play poor little rich institution, but related effects are happening at even elite institutions. Is there fat to cut? Yes, but the administration and top faculty are so obsessed with its perceived status and its US News ranking and the that they don't see it as fat, they see it as necessary opulence/saving face to reaffirm the fact that we're clinging to the bottom of the US News Top 25.

Meanwhile, staff with options like my husband are refusing to accept a third year of frozen wages, and are fleeing. He gave notice last week -- his supervisor was crushed, will be lost without him, and even once he hires a replacement, it will take a year or so to be a proficient as my husband. But we're not suckers, and we have two kids to provide for.
 
Faculty are deluded if they think this doesn't concern them, too. Lack of adequate support staff means more work for faculty, work faculty are not expert in and would rather not be doing. Students don't just appear in classrooms. Someone has to recruit them, register them, and maintain student records. (To give one example.)

The idea of the "bloated bureaucracy" is well past it's best before date.
 
We simply can't keep doing what we're doing. We're running on fumes and goodwill, and you can't do that forever

Oh my God - Yes!

Blogging is cheaper than therapy. Keep speaking 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

Oh my God - Yes!

Blogging is cheaper than therapy. Keep speaking the truth.
 
"In this context, the AAUP's claim that faculty must be uniquely protected starts to look a little like elitism."

They're high, and wrong. In my K12 district we are going to be pink slipping 200 certified staff (teachers) out of about 1100, and 200 non-certified staff (support) out of about the same. This will save us around $18 million. This does not make up the deficit we will be facing in just state aid, before we even look at the direness of the local property tax situation ... or the stimulus money running out.

Our class sizes are already pushing 30 (even at the elementary level). We cut 1/3 of our buses last year. We've scaled back so far on things like roof replacement that it's a little scary. We've closed four buildings in the past two years. (And, yes, we pink slipped the ENTIRE administration so we can hire back the barest of bare bones.)

That's almost 1/5 of our teaching staff, and 1/5 of our support staff. Class sizes will be simply gigantic, while buildings get dirty and badly repaired and phones ring 30 times before someone answers. I don't know what to do; there isn't any money and 85% of our costs are personnel, and we're back to the bone. (And 90% of our personnel costs are union, so we can't make unilateral paycuts.)
 
And yet,the public doesn't understand how schools, colleges and universities are funded. For some reason, it's a big secret, and when massive cuts are made, the public just assumes that it's due to fiscal irresponsibility.
 
I don't think we see that much from staff because they don't blog like many faculty do. I think that some faculty have become so ego-centric that they feel they are the central component of the 'academic mission' of universities and colleges, conveniently forgetting who does their photocopying, who fills out their travel expense reports, who schedules their classes, orders their books, and much, much more. And many of them even claim to be 'critical' scholars. They fail to see the labor that goes into providing their own system of privileges- if only they had to deal with the same insecurities as their staff.
 
Same here, DD! I don't have any answers either, but you aren't alone in your frustrations...

In response to the comments about faculty not understanding or not being a critical part of the college mission, at least at my CC, I think we do and we are. At my school, many of the tasks that were once handled by staff are now done by lead faculty - scheduling, recruiting (including many high school visits each semester), academic advising, student records, expense requests/reports, marketing, and pretty much everything that is not financial aid. Now our school wants to get rid of the 2 cr. release time for lead faculty (in which we take care of all the things mentioned above). It will mean that I am here even later every night, but I'm actually not too opposed because otherwise it would mean cutting staff jobs.
 
And then you get crap like this:

http://globaleconomicanalysis.blogspot.com/2010/03/debt-for-diploma-schemes-and-cookie.html

which implies that higher education is a gold-plated, money-sucking, over-priced venture designed to vaccuum up as much money while doing as little as possible.


Meanwhile, we, like everyone else, are trying to make it through as best we can. And here, anyway, we don't even have much prospect of new construction. Two years ago, we had to shutter the building housing fine arts and theater--both pretty strong programs for us--because the building was flooded and not really able to be saved. Now, those programs are being shifted to a site about a mile off-campus, in an empty shopping center. I'm not optimistic about their enrollment prospects.

The new building has been approved, but all construction is on hold. Yippee.
 
Thanks as always, DD, for speaking up for staff. And it's wonderful to hear the supportive comments from other faculty members.

I think that staff often go unrecognized for a couple of reasons. It's clear to most everybody at a college what a Spanish professor does. It can be less clear what the assistant registrar, the purchasing agent, or the director of the annual fund does if you're not involved with that aspect of the college.

The other reason, as Anonymous 8:10, points out is that university staff are much less likely to blog about their jobs. There is no way on earth I would blog about my employer, even using a pseudonym. As a staff person, I will never have tenure and I work in an "at will" state. Starting a blog about the trials and tribulations (and joys!) of my work seems like a great way to collect a nice pink slip, especially in an era of budget cuts and crunches.
 
Anonymous 0810:

"I think that some faculty have become so ego-centric that they feel they are the central component of the 'academic mission' of universities and colleges, conveniently forgetting who does their photocopying, who fills out their travel expense reports, who schedules their classes, orders their books, and much, much more."

Not to generalize from my own experience, but I do much of my own photocopying (and servicing the printer), fill out and sign my own travel expense reports, and negotiate with the assistant chairman (a faculty position) on scheduling.

"And many of them even claim to be 'critical' scholars. They fail to see the labor that goes into providing their own system of privileges- if only they had to deal with the same insecurities as their staff."

This part is correct, and at my institution, headquarters has done what it can to avoid layoffs, so far, although it does take advantage of the local labor market conditions.
 
I think we should continue blaming faculty for trying to protect their jobs and missions in an environment which has been acknowledged to be impossible and crazy.
 
I am disturbed by how the state colleges are going to really go like city schools - in that cheap labor and faculty and staff spending their own time and money on materials.

This would be all fine with me if we were not supporting half of the world with foreign aid and doing it on loan from China. I am sick of education being treated as worthless. Every person who works in any level of education should be marching to Washington and shouting end the war and spend that money at home instead of building playgrounds abroad.

And if people really cared about education baseball players would be poor and teachers would be wealthy.

Had to rant, but this argument is all b.s. to me when we expell money on por projects, etc. We need to get our priorites right as a country.
 
The media are really clueless. CNN's education reporter claimed the large increases in tuition at state schools were so they could give raises to faculty because union pressures. Perhaps you should send them a copy of this post.
 
"When heroism becomes the budgetary baseline, even getting to 'sanity' takes substantial increases."

AMEN. Thank you, thank you, thank you, for "acknowledging the undertow." I am having a hard time conveying to higher ups exactly how unsustainable our staffing levels are (and have been for more than 1.5 years). I just had a meeting last week where I was admonished to not cut services, but 1.5 years of heroism is about all we have in us.
 
What's needed is a return to robust economic growth. Unfortunately, that is not in cards from our current Congress, preoccupied with other matters. If we go ahead with an economy-killing cap and trade plan, all this pain will get much, much worse.

Even so. there is remarkably little support for economic growth among academics.
 
I'm trying to think of any environmental regulation in the history of the United States which was not described at the time as "growth killing." Dude, there's no wolf. And if there is, screaming about it 100 times for every one time it shows up is no sane way to operate.
 
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