Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Partly Cloudy in the Sunshine State

According to the Chronicle, the University of Florida is planning major cuts to several academic departments, even while growing others, in order to align itself better with student demand. Two quotes jumped off the page. First:

Florida expects about 80 of its 780 faculty members in its College of Liberal Arts and Sciences to retire in the next three years, and the university plans to replace approximately 26 of them.


'The immediate reaction from faculty was one of anger and surprise,' said Robert B. Ray, an English professor. 'Where the blame lies is difficult to assess at this point.'

(Cuts will fall on English, philosophy, religion, and Germanic and Slavic studies. Growth would accrue to biology, botany, chemistry, criminology, psychology, and zoology. Cuts will include cuts in the number of graduate students admitted to the affected programs.)

As a card-carrying administrator, all I can say is, 'wow.'

First, kudos to the U of F for actually trying to make some choices. Too often, a college/university will decide to cut simply by 'attrition,' rather than by some kind of coherent strategy. I'm a fan of picking a direction and moving in it. Better to do a few things well than many things badly.

Second, though, if they honestly believe that they can predict, with any level of accuracy, that 80 faculty will retire in the next three years, they're smoking something powerful. There's simply no way for them to know that. Since there's no mandatory retirement age for tenured faculty, senior faculty can stick around indefinitely. You can hurry the process by offering buyouts, but the article doesn't mention buyouts, and the level of buyout you'd need would almost certainly wipe out any budgetary savings for several years. Absent a mandatory cutoff or a voluntary buyout package, the only way to gain certainty would be to hire hitmen.

Replacing 26 out of 80 sounds painfully familiar. Expect nasty, bitter fights over which departments get to replace. I don't know if Florida allows or practices affirmative action, but if it does, I can envision some truly nasty (and expensive!) lawsuits coming down the pike. This is going to get ugly.

A fearless prediction (and all predictions guaranteed or your money back!): the faculty will claim to have been shut out of the decision-making process, the usual accusations about autocratic administrators will fly, compromises will be made, a few deans will be replaced, and the university won't look in 2010 the way this plan says it will.

Ironically enough, the way to implement the plan would have been not to announce it. Just do it. I don't recall any great far-reaching policy debate in the last thirty years or so about the desirability of moving to a half-adjunct higher ed system; it just happened, bit by bit, as individual institutions did what they needed to do to survive within difficult budget parameters. By announcing it, the university made it a political issue on campus, and all the standard interest-group politicking will ensue. Whatever else happens, the 'me-first' interest groups will be more than willing to sacrifice the coherence of the plan to protect their own turf.

The quote from the English professor is revealing. His first instinct is to insinuate procedural irregularities (that what 'surprise' is code for); his next move is to look for someone to blame. His subsequent invocation of Larry Summers is a thinly-veiled threat to get administrators fired. Blaming the management is easier than thinking, and allows you to occupy the moral high ground.

I'll just put this out there and endure the inevitable flaming: English graduate programs should take fewer graduate students. The production of excess labor is what makes exploitative adjunct hiring possible in the first place. As long as the supply of English Ph.D.'s far exceeds the demand, which looks to be the case for the foreseeable future, it's irresponsible not to reduce graduate programs. I can understand English departments not wanting to hear that, but it's true. Right now, graduate education in the humanities is a sort of pyramid scheme, in which the folks at the top of the pyramid (the tenured faculty at R1's) are sustained by the exploitation of those lower in the ranks (graduate students, adjuncts, etc.) If we can't break up the pyramid altogether, we can at least do damage control by shrinking it.

I forget the source of the quote, but there's a famous line somewhere about the difficulty of getting a man to understand an argument when his paycheck depends on him not understanding it. I don't expect any department to welcome cuts, and I would expect an English department, in particular, to deploy all manner of rhetorical weaponry in its own defense. Whether the administration at U of F has the intestinal fortitude to stick to its guns remains to be seen.

A situation like this really highlights the tragic conflict at the heart of my administrative philosophy: I want both openness and recognition of reality. Sometimes the two go together, and that's great, but it's not unusual for them to conflict. Telling an ensconced, senior, overstaffed (and therefore internally powerful) department that some of its resources will be transferred to smaller departments is provoking a fight, and that fight will not be fought fairly. Strong leadership can, in principle, keep the project from going off the rails, but the temptation to cave will be strong and ever-present.

Good luck, U of F. You'll need it.