Monday, October 05, 2009

For, Against, and That Elusive Third Category...

In a couple of discussions on campus this week, I've had variations on this exchange:

Prof: So this is why I think we should do this. Will you pay for it?

DD: I don't know. The budget picture is still in flux.

Prof: So you're opposed to it?

DD: No, I like it. I just don't know how much wiggle room I'll have after this year's midyear cuts.

Prof: So you'll support it?

DD: I'll consider it.

Prof: (grumble)

From the prof's perspective, I'd guess this reads as doublespeak or evasion. From my perspective, it's actually about not making promises that can't be kept.

At any given time, dozens of proposals are floating around, looking for funding in one form or another. (Course releases a form of funding, since we have to pay an adjunct to teach the course from which the full-timer has been released.) Contrary to stereotype, most of these proposals are individually good ideas. I don't often actually oppose one. But it rarely comes down to 'support' or 'oppose.'

It's really about ranking. For all intents and purposes, I have to rank them. Then it's a matter of guessing where in the ranking the cutoff will fall, which is almost entirely a matter of budget. In a fat year, maybe six or eight get funding. In a lean year, maybe three or four. In a catastrophic year, one or two. So asking whether “I like it” means “yes” is asking, in part, for a guess as to where the cutoff will fall. Ranking a given proposal fourth may or may not mean it gets funded. That's largely out of my control.

(The best proposals are the ones that tie, concretely, to something beyond an individual person or department. And I don't mean "excellence." Excellence and two bucks will get you a cup of coffee. To the extent that a proposal connects to other things the college is known to care about, its odds of success are better. "Because that's the way we did it in grad school" really doesn't carry much weight as an argument.)

Of course, proposals don't all come in at the same time. They come in when they come in. Asking me in October whether I'll be able to pay for something next Fall is asking me to guesstimate the number and quality of other proposals I'll receive in the meantime, the number and severity of midyear cuts, the size of next year's cut, who else will leave and not be replaced, and any number of other unknowables.

In an ideal world, my budget would be set at the beginning of the year and wouldn't change for the entire year. Between years, we would get predictable incremental increases. Then I could plan, and make promises knowing I could keep them. In that world, clean 'yes' or 'no' answers are at least plausible.

But last year we got multiple midyear cuts in rapid succession – basically, one per quarter. We're about to get another one, and we have every reason to believe that we'll have more before this year is done. I don't know how large each one will be, but I'd be unconscionably na├»ve not to expect them now.

Midyear cuts are much worse than normal cuts. Normal cuts commence with the new fiscal year. You have less to work with than the year before, but you have what you have, and you work with it. Midyear cuts effectively move the goalposts during the game, which wreaks havoc even on a good gameplan. Multiple years with midyear cuts are that much worse, since there are only so many contingency plans you can make before you start making yourself, and everyone else, nuts. Uncertainty rolls downhill, and gets bigger and scarier as it goes.

In this context, categories like "support" and "oppose" come with too many asterisks to mean much.