Wednesday, July 09, 2014


The Hidden Injuries of Austerity

In the early 1970’s, Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb published The Hidden Injuries of Class, which quickly became a classic.  It’s an examination of the social-psychological effects of economic stratification in Boston at the time.  Although somewhat dated now, it’s well worth the read for the clarity with which it outlines the conflicted feelings that working-class parents have as they watch their kids get educated away from the community.  (Jennifer Silva published a terrific follow-up, Coming Up Short, last year.  My review of Silva’s work is here.)

I’m thinking it’s time for someone to do a piece on the hidden injuries of austerity.  

In the context of higher education, the visible injuries of austerity are obvious: program closures, layoffs, the shift towards adjunct faculty and part-time staff.  The hidden injuries bear closer examination.

In the context of community colleges, for example, extended austerity can easily lead to a certain provincialism.  When budgets are tight, travel is one of the first things to go.  In the very short term, that makes sense; it isn’t a fixed cost, for the most part, and missing a meeting or conference or two doesn’t usually do immediately visible damage.  But over years, the message that “there’s just not money for travel” often leads -- predictably enough -- to people losing touch with what else is going on out there.  (At the recent CUR conference, for example, I asked a room of several hundred people for a show of hands to see how many were from community colleges.  Fewer than ten were.)  That can lead to staleness, of course, but also to a certain fear-based defensiveness.  Some people know they’ve lost touch, and harbor a half-acknowledged fear of being exposed.  That can lead to some unhelpful dynamics when something new comes along.  And it leaves the conversation at many conferences impoverished, to the extent that they fail to reflect the real diversity of circumstances in the field.  (To their credit, the CUR organizers are aware of the issue and trying to address it in their own context.)

Over time, a sort of psychology of austerity sets in.  It can take the form of a longing for a perceived Golden Age, before the last few rounds of cuts.  Sometimes it becomes a fetishization of the Beautiful Loser, in which people take a moralistic pride in a quixotic attempt to stop the future.  Or, and closely related, it leads to a sort of denial and bitterness about the entire institution.   Sometimes it just becomes a sort of hangdog defeatism that sees the seeds of failure in every new attempt.

The hidden injuries of austerity aren’t just psychological.  They find their way into the workings of institutions.  IT solutions that cost too much don’t happen, so the austere institution makes do with patches, and then with patches of patches, and then with workarounds for failed patches.  At each step of that process, the immediate decision makes short-term sense.  But the effects snowball.  Over the years, third-derivative workarounds outlive their creators and take on lives of their own.  

Austerity can become self-reinforcing.  When resources are too tight for failure to be an option, it becomes harder to take the kinds of risks that lead to real growth.  When there’s no slack left to cut, there’s no room to experiment.  

In Sennett’s case, the hidden injuries of class were internal, and really couldn’t be solved at the individual level.  In Silva’s case, the hidden injuries of risk are both internal and external, and are solved psychologically through stories people tell of overcoming traumas.  In this case, the hidden injuries of austerity are both internal and external, but should actually be easier to solve.  

Until then, though, there’s a hell of a book waiting to be written...

The problems you so cogently discuss are really the result of excess capacity in higher ed, changing demographics and the decline in demand as a college education no longer is the magic ticket to the middle class. We will have many fewer colleges in the future, and getting there will be unpleasant. Austerity certainly adds a push to the process, but the downsizing is inevitable.
Edmund - "excess capacity" doesn't mean much in higher ed. Expanding and contracting tracks pretty closely with demographics - cutting capacity ends up hurting you in the next inevitable expansion. And while a college degree may no longer be a ticket to the middle class, I would argue that that has more to do with a shrinking middle class than a lack of need for a degree. Degrees mean less now because they are a basic requirement for employment rather than a special extra that small numbers of people have.
In some cases that could be accurate, Edmund, but in many others it is not. In my state, the legislature has dramatically slashed education spending (15% one year, with no advance warning and after public school and colleges & universitiy fiscal year had already started). My institution received 73% of its funding from public support in 2000, but now receives less than 25% of its funding from public support.

Meanwhile, we have seen massive state tax breaks to businesses and the wealthy, and we are experiencing budget surpluses as a state.

Add to that, the legislature has capped tuition increases (or else our state aid is further penalized). I am a parent of a college student and I understand and somewhat appreciate attempts to keep tuition from sky rocketing. But I also work in public higher ed, and it seems as though the story of my career has been austerity heaped on austerity.

People who remain have mostly bowed to this as the new normal and effectively "self censor" when it comes to anything at all that could require spending. This is how creativity and new ideas get stifled, too, because nobody wants to stick out their necks, lest they lose their heads in the process.

The largest group of bright new folks entering our organization (where you might expect innovation and creative thinking to emerge) are highly contingent, part time, with no job stability or economic security. They are often working two or three jobs to make ends meet and they cannot contribute in a meaningful way to improving the overall structure of public higher ed because they are too busy simply trying to survive. And they think this is normal.

There is no "fat" remaining, we are past cutting into muscle, and now we just have bones and limbs left to amputate.

And by the way, our enrollments are at a twenty year high, but we don't have the resources to provide our students with the experiences they deserve.

Yes, there were some tight years in the state and national economy in the last decade, but much of this long term austerity is a direct result of the systematic defunding of higher education in my state, and not an issue of excess capacity.
SamChevre comments:

My institution received 73% of its funding from public support in 2000, but now receives less than 25% of its funding from public support.

That comparison highlights the problem, which isn't with state support but with costs.

Using the assumption that college costs go up 7% per year (seems to be common), if the state support stayed the same in real terms (or in percentage of the state budget of of the average state household budget--most state and household budgets have been about flat since 2000) since 2000, it would have gone from 73% to 28% of costs.

I suppose that the worst aspect of a regime of austerity is the sense of hopelessness that it engenders in just about everyone in the organization. Money is hard to find for just about everything, budgets are continually being cut, raises are small or nonexistent, and round after round of layoffs and downsizings have taken place.

Management has to deal with steadily declining budgets, just about everything they want to do costs too much money, and they live in dread of having to lay off still more people, some of who might be close friends. There must be no greater downer than have to call in someone you know, like, and respect and tell them that they have been laid off, throwing them into financial distress, perhaps even ruining their lives.

Employees live in constant fear that they might get hit in the next layoff Are they about to be thrown out on the street to face an utterly miserable job market, one in which the only job they might be able to find is bagging groceries at the neighborhood supermarket?

Everyone fears that they might be on a sinking ship, that they might come in one morning to find that the organization to which they have devoted so may years of their lives has gone out of business and that there are bars on the doors.

SamChevre- without knowing whether Anon is at a research institution or a community college, it doesn't make sense to assume 7% increase in costs. (

Community colleges are facing austerity because states have cut funding. Much of this is driven by recession related decreases in tax revenue, but much is driven by philosophical choices driven by political leadership.

Your assumption is patently false at my college, where the total cost per student has declined since before the Great Recession while tuition has doubled.

Although details differ from the situation described by Anonymous@7:18AM, this started and continued in much the same way as described above. The rebound of the economy and tax revenue to pre-recession levels resulted in further tax cuts rather than any attempt to rescind the major cuts our students have absorbed.

Enforced austerity appears to be the long-term plan for job growth in my state. Maybe they count several adjunct jobs as being better than one full-time one.
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