Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Freezing in Florida

This is part three in what has become a series.

Last year, the University of Florida attempted to come to grips with the reality of budget crunches and misaligned resources by announcing a five-year plan to trim certain departments and expand others. The idea was to use resources strategically – rather than inertially – to get more bang for the buck.

The faculty in the newly-disfavored areas went predictably ballistic, got a dean fired, raised all manner of objections (both procedural and substantive), and got the administration to cave completely, going so far as to charge the new interim dean with mollifying everybody by spending more money. So some change could occur, but only by adding; 'shared governance' took 'subtracting' off the table. The resources for this were to come from a new 'charge' that would get around legislative limits on spending.


Sure enough, this week we have word that the U of Florida has imposed a hiring freeze to deal with a $30 million deficit and the governor's veto of a proposed tuition increase. No word on the fate of the 'charge,' though I suspect it landed in the same bin as the original five-year plan. The University will appoint a panel of faculty, staff, and students to help identify ways to reduce costs.

That would be the same faculty that ran a dean out of town for daring to suggest that continuing to grow the pool of future underemployed composition adjuncts might not be the best use of taxpayer money.

So now, instead of cutting in some areas and using the savings to grow others, the U will cut by attrition and grow nothing, preserving existing imbalances in amber. And any strategic decisions will be made by the already-present, which is to say, those who benefit from the existing imbalances.

I'm not much of a drinker, but if I worked there, I'd drink every single day.

A pretty smart fellow once wrote that freedom is the insight into necessity. The U of Florida seems to be operating on the denial of necessity. Cuts cause conflict? Screw cuts! We'll just conjure more money from, uh, well, somewhere! That didn't work?'s the governor's fault! Yeah, that's it! After all, who elected him?

Oh. Right.

The point of the university is to serve the people of Florida. It is not to serve the faculty. If we grant that fundamental truth, then 'shared governance' should come with some pretty glaring restraints on it. Otherwise, people with obviously vested interests – that is, faculty with life tenure – will use their power to pervert the university to serve them instead. Astoundingly, they will have the gall to claim the moral high ground while they feather their own nests. When the irresistible force of angry tenured faculty crashes headfirst into the immovable object of Objective F-ing Reality – in this case, the governor's veto – bad things will happen. Like hiring freezes. Underfunded areas will continue to languish; overstaffed areas will continue to produce graduates for already-overcrowded fields.

Inertia kills. Just in the last month we've had word of two colleges dying, and of several more on life support. In many states, public higher ed has been the go-to budget line any time there has been a shortfall – the tenured faculty may or may not feel the pain, but the underemployed adjuncts certainly do. Most of higher education is still nonprofit, but that doesn't mean it's immune to economics. We can choose to try to get a grip on those realities, or we can continue to let them buffet us in the name of conflict avoidance. But the Florida approach of closing your eyes real tight, clicking your heels together, and waiting for the unaccountable windfall to pay everybody off just ain't working.

A hiring freeze is an abdication of strategy. It's exactly the wrong move. You can't wait for flush times to start trying to make changes. If anything, you need those changes all the more when budgets are tight. Now that nobody – nobody – can deny the reality of the budget shortfall, this is the time to get serious about reallocation. That means not setting up processes that will inevitably ratify existing imbalances. It may mean sucking it up and having some nasty political battles. That's what leaders have to be willing to do.

Good luck, Florida. If you figure out where that secret 'windfall' tree is, let me know. I've been doing this for a while now, and haven't found it yet.