Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Baselines, Dues, and One-Way Deals

Several of my department chairs had moments of panic this month when they were told to remove the vacated ‘lines’ from their budgets.

In plain English: every full-time faculty member has a ‘line’ in the budget for salary. When a professor retires and isn’t replaced, we refer to ‘losing the line.’ When a new position is authorized, a department ‘gains a line.’ (That’s exceedingly rare these days.)

In practice, for several years now, departments have lost lines, but have kept markers of those lines in their budgets (sort of like the phantom limbs that amputees report having). So a department might have 10 faculty listed, with two lines marked ‘vacant.’ The idea is to hold out hope for eventual replacement.

This summer, the Board decided that it was time to face reality, so it requested that all vacant lines be wiped from the budget. No more chits; what you have now is the new baseline. All future staffing decisions are to be based on the needs of the college at that time, rather than on historical overhang.

Baselines aren’t that complicated, conceptually, but they’re terribly hard to communicate. I’ve found that people explain or justify the workings of the college to themselves with a variety of ‘deals’ they make in their heads. Shifting a baseline strikes them as immoral, since it violates the terms of the (unspoken, unilateral) deal as they understand it. (The dead giveaway is the phrase “but I paid my dues!” There are no dues. Duties, yes. Dues, no.) When asked to explain their unease, they usually fall back on the hoary clichés of the evils of a bottom-line mentality, or on dire invocations of the academic sky falling. I’m unimpressed; I can’t be accountable for deals that never really existed.

That’s not to deny that some of the decisions that arise from shifting baselines can be objectionable, or even offensive.* It’s just that they aren’t all that hard to understand.

For what is supposed to be a liberal bunch, I’ve found many college faculty to be closet Burkeans (or at least Oakeshottians). They don’t like change. They really don’t like change in the basic routines. If a Psych department had 12 faculty 10 years ago, then by God, it should always and forever have at least 12 faculty. Anything less is a crime against academic excellence, committed by bonehead administrators bent on feathering their own nests, etc. Never mind that enrollments are down, or that state funding is down, or that health insurance is running us into the ground. The Way It Once Was is The Way It Should Always Be.

(Exception: if things got easier. Then, backsliding is the cardinal sin. I gave up evening office hours 10 years ago – how dare you suggest I pick them up again? I’ve paid my dues!)

I think the issue, really, is that faculty often see the output of administrative decisions, but not the inputs. They see the shrinkage of a department, or an unpleasant new policy on office hours or copier use, but they don’t see the budget numbers that lead to those decisions. (In my experience, when they do see the numbers, they simply don’t believe them.)** A division of labor that is supposed to free up faculty to concentrate on their core responsibilities has left them so estranged from the nuts and bolts of the institution that they simply forget that the nuts and bolts exist, and need tending.

I don’t like losing lines any more than anybody else does, but I actually agreed with the Board decision. The lines were actually lost some time ago – what this decision does is clear away the false hopes, the better to deal with the reality of the situation. The baseline moved anyway; now, at least we can see it.

* At my old school, faculty sabbaticals were introduced shortly before an accreditation visit. The week after the visiting team left, they were eliminated. There’s baseline shifting, and then there’s the old shell game. The worst use of baseline shifting, though, is Colorado’s TABOR (taxpayers’ bill of rights). As I understand it, it requires that growth in college spending be limited to inflation plus population growth, except when tax revenues shrink. Then, the baseline moves down, and it stays down as tax revenues grow again. Therefore, the baseline moves down with each recession. This is class warfare of the highest order, filtered through a disingenuous populism. My problem with TABOR isn’t that it uses baselines – all intelligent budgeting does – but that its baseline moves in thoughtless and destructive ways.

** The exception to this one is the newest cohort – say, hired in the last 5-10 years. They braved a truly brutal market, so they know that we aren’t just making it up. The folks who were hired in the Golden Age still seem to think that we’ve got scads of cash hidden in bags in our offices, and that a good enough (dramatic) performance can convince a tightwad dean to dip into the bags. VERY annoying.