Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Where Does the Money Go?

A Western correspondent writes:

I work at a community college in northern California. I was hired
full time after working part-time for three years and am in the third year
of a four year tenure track position teaching art.

There seems to be no support for the art department. I spent some part of
each work day for the first three weeks of the semester trying to get paper
towels delivered. The floors in our building haven't been mopped since
August 2006. We're far from the main campus and don't have a copier to use.
Our gallery is a tiny part of the community ed center off campus. It is a
walled off section of the basket ball court and it still has the court lines
on the floor. The voters approved a $32 million bond for campus improvement
three years ago. Amount for the art department: zero. Whenever I try to get
something done, I am stymied and not helped. I could go on and on.

I love teaching. I love my students. I love the time in the classroom. The
day to day grind is getting to me. Last week I stole paper towels from the
photography department bathroom.

So I'm thinking of leaving. Some friends say it's like this everywhere. Art
is always last place. My only other job in higher ed was at an art school so
I don't have anything for comparison.

So here's the question: Is it like this everywhere? Art is last place, not
understood and not supported.

Any guidance, any help, any thoughts are appreciated.

The short answer is: it's not that Art is always last, it's that materials are always last.

I'm not surprised that the bond for campus improvement hasn't helped, since bonds typically go for 'capital' items, and most of what you're complaining about are 'operating' expenses. In the public sector, money left over in one category can't be moved into the other, so even if, by some miracle, the voters appropriated more than enough for whatever building projects are under way, you'd still need to swipe paper towels.

Areas that rely heavily on materials typically feel this the most, but it's endemic in the cc world. In my chalk-and-talk disciplines, it's not unusual to run out of blue books early in the Spring, resulting in an annual budget scramble to cover final exams. In the materials-intensive areas, like art, theatre, and lab sciences, the materials shortfalls are chronic.

(My first week as a dean at Proprietary U, I remember a science professor bursting into my office, visibly upset, loudly and indignantly complaining that we were out of owl pellets. I didn't know we had owl pellets. At my current job, I once had an extended conversation with the chair of the Art department about dirt. He complained that they were out of dirt. I snidely mentioned something about going outside and digging. Now, I know more about dirt than I ever wanted to.)

To forestall the inevitable flaming about "well, if you planned better...," I'll make a few points.

1. Anybody who has ever tried to manage creative people can tell you that there is never, under any circumstances, any such thing as 'enough.' They're incredibly good at using whatever is available and then demanding more. That's not to say that some of the needs aren't obviously real, but it is to say that the idea that you can spend (or plan) your way out of the problem is naive. Supply incites demand. I have personally approved purchase requisitions for rubber chickens. Was I supposed to have planned for that a year in advance? The theatre people need rubber chickens, I find money for rubber chickens. This year, it's rhinestones. Don't ask.

2. Anything that will be consumed in a given year falls under 'operating' expenses. For reasons nobody has ever satisfactorily explained to me, it's much harder to raise money for 'operating' expenses than for 'capital' expenses. Salaries fall under 'operating' expenses, as do professional development money, travel money, blue books, telephone charges, snow removal, HVAC, and, yes, paper towels. 'Capital' pretty much covers buildings, large equipment, and some technology. (I've seen software treated both ways. To my mind, any software worth buying should fall under 'capital,' but that's me.) It's possible to get state or federal grants for capital purchases, and to the extent that philanthropists are part of the picture, they tend to fund either capital items or scholarships. Operating money has to come from inside, which means it's much harder to generate.

3. Most operating expenses are untouchable. Given tenure and union contracts, labor costs are effectively fixed. (Health insurance is climbing at a pornographic pace, but it, too, is effectively untouchable.) We can't just decide to go without heat, or electricity, or snow removal. The adjuncts are so poorly paid as it is that there's simply nothing left to squeeze there. Toner cartridges cost what they cost. Over extended periods, you can open up breathing room in operating budgets by replacing full-timers with adjuncts and moving the salary savings elsewhere, but that doesn't help in any given year. (I also think there's a measurable long-term cost, but that's another post.) The only 'soft' operating expenses are things like deferred maintenance, office supplies, paper towels, and those little nickel-and-dime items that don't add up to much and torpedo morale when you cheap out on them.

4. In colleges with relatively decentralized budgeting systems, savvy chairs learn quickly that any money left on the table this year will be gone next year, reallocated to some area of demonstrated need. So they make damn sure not to leave money on the table. This guarantees that needs underfunded now will continue to be underfunded, until some much more drastic change takes place.

5. Although you wouldn't know it from the popular press, there's no budget line labeled "waste, fraud, and abuse" from which I can simply transfer money. That line doesn't exist.

6. Emergencies happen. Most budgets have something like a "contingency" line, to be used for unexpected expenses. (Cynical sorts like to refer to this line as a "slush fund." Apparently, in the Cynic's Universe, nothing ever actually breaks. It must be a lovely world.) There's a great old Dilbert cartoon in which the pointy-headed boss asks Dilbert to itemize his unanticipated expenses in next year's budget. The whole point is that you can't. Setting this level is a judgment call, but doing without it would guarantee disaster. I've personally had people who accused me of running a slush fund in October get angry at me in April when the money's gone, and completely miss the contradiction. Comes with the gig.

7. Lab fees. In my experience, the departments that complain the loudest about lab fees going into the general budget (which they do) also get cross-subsidized by the departments without lab fees. History turns a profit so Art doesn't have to. Who's coming last?

Sorry if that's both more, and less, than you wanted to know. The California system is famously idiosyncratic, so I'll have to leave it to my left coast readers to shed any state-specific light.

Costco paper towels tend to be good, and fairly cheap.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers -- has your college found a sustainable way to fund materials?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.