Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Delicate Cutters

Okay, I’m a little late to this one, but there’s a nifty exchange between Notorious Ph.D. and Historiann about the perversities of budget cuts at their respective institutions. The comments are worth reading, too. What starts as a fairly standard-issue set of complaints about budget cuts sort of backs into a thoughtful discussion of job expectations and reciprocity in the workplace.

Among other things, it makes me glad that I work where I work. We have our financial issues, God knows, but we haven’t done anything as drastic and destructive as furloughs or salary cuts, let alone layoffs. We’ve cut travel and release time, as well as a whole bunch of back-office expenses that faculty tend not to notice but that actually matter quite a bit. We have a salary freeze, which is annoying, but nowhere near as annoying as furloughs or cuts. (For the record, cuts are worse than furloughs. Future salary increases are percentages of base pay. Furloughs don’t affect base pay, but cuts do. You won’t see a difference at the time, but you’ll see it down the road.)

(Also for the record, while I’m at it, I recall that one of the selling points of the 401(k) or 403(b) was supposed to be dollar-cost averaging during market dips. With so many companies and some colleges suspending matching contributions to retirement accounts, that argument has been conclusively discredited. Averaging doesn’t help you if you don’t get the money to buy low. If you only get matching contributions during high times, then by definition, you’re buying high, which is a loser’s strategy.)

Working at a community colleges makes some dilemmas easier. Although we have a tenure system, we don’t have a research expectation. That means that cutting travel funding or course releases may be frustrating and annoying, but it doesn’t directly threaten anybody’s ability to earn tenure. Tenure is earned by teaching well and by doing enough college service to carry your weight. The cuts we’ve enacted, as distasteful as they’ve been, haven’t threatened either of those. The same could not be said of, say, eliminating research leaves for junior faculty while leaving the publication requirement intact.

Were I in a similar position at a college with a serious publication requirement for faculty, I’d advocate adjusting tenure expectations to match available resources. Research expectations for tenure have ratcheted so comically high for so long that a little downshifting wouldn’t hurt, and it would carry the added virtue of basic fairness. (At least, fairness within the confines of the tenure system itself, but that’s another post.) It would also allow some recognition, albeit unintentional, of the complete collapse of scholarly publishing. How, exactly, you’re supposed to get published when the presses are closing and you aren’t able to travel is beyond me. A belated recognition of reality is better than no recognition at all.

Here, my version of that is leaving class sizes alone. Even though there are obvious short-term savings to be had by stuffing the classrooms fuller, it strikes me as watering down our core function. Letting go of a special project is one thing; letting go of attentive teaching is something else altogether. So pet projects come in for more scrutiny than usual, and many good ones don’t make the cut. But English comp doesn’t get any bigger, and nobody’s quest for tenure is preemptively doomed. First things first.

Wise and worldly readers – have you seen cuts on your campus that strike at the heart of the mission, or that make tenure effectively impossible?