Monday, December 12, 2005


From what I’ve read about the situation at Tulane, I have to applaud. According to the piece in IHE, dealing with the aftermath of Katrina has cost more than anticipated, so the administration has chosen to declare fiscal exigency and restructure, eliminating entire programs.

That’s the right way to do it.

Too much of academia is wedded to incrementalism. When a fiscal crunch hits, it’s far too common to see the same few cost-cutting moves, over and over again: freeze travel, freeze hiring, freeze library purchases, but leave every program intact. It’s the equivalent of the teenager watering down the whiskey in the liquor cabinet so Dad won’t find out. As long as all the bottles are still there, and you don’t look too close, all seems well.

Slight watering-down is a reasonable response to a mild, passing crunch, such as might happen when there’s a spike in heating costs or an overrun on a construction project. It’s a terrible response to a long-term and/or severe problem, such as deliberate public disinvestment in higher education or runaway health insurance costs.

The incremental approach is politically easy to sell on campus, since the people hurt by it (i.e. prospective future hires) aren’t around at the time to protest. (They exist – a quick glance at the academic job market of the last two decades is proof of that – but they aren’t organized at the right pressure points to make a difference, unlike incumbent faculty.) But it leaves the causes of the crunch intact, effectively guaranteeing that it will happen again.

Repeated incremental cuts (repeated or sustained hiring freezes, say) wind up drastically reducing the quality of each program, since any program has a certain minimum staffing level beneath which it cannot go and still exist. Can a given English department go from, say, 30 faculty to 28 and still function? Yes. Can a Ceramics program go from 1 to zero and still function? No. So ‘freezes’ become ‘flexible freezes’ (slush?) because to do otherwise would be to chop programs.

In my (admittedly limited) experience, I’ve never seen cuts restored. New hires can only be justified as replacements, and not every departure gets replaced.

Incrementalism saves some difficult conversations, buys time until some well-situated people retire, and makes no headlines. It’s easier. Reducing staff ‘by attrition’ means not having to fire anybody, not having to take on the unions, and not making waves; it also means not solving the problem. (And, for the record, it means systematically screwing the next generation. There's something wrong when deliberately eating your young is the 'moderate' course of action.)

The “comprehensive” model of colleges and universities – all things to all people – simply isn’t sustainable in this political and economic climate. Rather than doing everything just a little bit worse every year, I’d prefer to see colleges make the tough choices while they still can. Pick a niche, and go with it. Pony up the resources to do that niche well, and make the cuts elsewhere, even to the point of entire programs and the tenured faculty who teach in them.

Behind closed doors, every administrative colleague I’ve ever had (myself included) will admit that some programs at a given school are stronger than others. Some of those strengths are public knowledge, but most aren’t; you can read all the websites and catalogs you want without ever seeing a college say “we teach x, but not very well.” In flush times, the thing to do may be to try to beef up the weaker programs. But when Katrina hits, it’s time to retire the euphemisms and face reality. Different schools will pick different niches, and rightly so: an honors college here, an art school there, an engineering school over there. That would be more sustainable, more honest, and (I think) ultimately more socially beneficial than continuing to maintain the fiction of comprehensiveness, each year a little less convincingly.