Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Let's Play...Spot the Contradiction!

It’s time for another round of every administrator’s favorite game, “Spot the Contradiction.” See if you can isolate the double bind that drives good people around the freakin’ bend. First, there’s MIT’s move into open, free credentialing. According to the press release, the idea is to enable not only individuals, but entire institutions, to avail themselves of MIT’s subject matter expertise without shouldering the cost. It nicely combines a response to the Occupy movement’s concern with student loans with a nod to MIT’s historical status as a land grant university. Presumably, an enterprising college could choose to honor MIT’s certificates, and could even use its online offerings in lieu of traditional onsite or homegrown instruction. Those of us who want to give our students access to the very best, but who need to keep an eye on costs, suddenly have a new, exciting option. The very same week, AFT-FACE published this post arguing for an "instructional loss ratio" whereby institutions that receive federal student aid are required to devote a certain percentage of their budget to instructional services and support, including full-time faculty, counselors, advisors, and other key academic staff. The idea, cribbed from health care reform, is to cap “non-instructional” expenses as a percentage of overall costs. Presumably, given the source of the idea, the beneficiaries would be faculty. When you understand the appeal of both ideas, and yet see the contradiction, then you are ready for the exciting world of academic administration. Cost control is obviously necessary. And the adjunct trend is obviously objectionable. But the adjunct trend is motivated primarily by...wait for it...cost control. The MIT model lays the groundwork for replacing underpaid instruction with completely unpaid instruction. As a cost control measure, it’s brilliant. But as a labor measure, it’s objectionable in the extreme. Welcome to my world. The external pressures for cost control are chronic and increasing. And the internal pressures to increase spending are chronic and increasing. Navigating between the dog and the fire hydrant is the task of the academic administrator. Sometimes, we can get grants. But grants bring strings, and reporting requirements, and project managers, and expiration dates. Increasingly, they also bring “non-supplanting” requirements -- you can’t use the money for things you’d usually use money for -- and “sustainability” requirements, in which you pledge to keep using your own money for those things you wouldn’t use your own money for once the grant expires. And that’s assuming the grant programs haven’t been desiccated in the first place. Santa, you know what I’d like for Christmas? An operating budget that lets me actually pay for enough full-time employees to get the work done that needs to get done, without having to hire a brand-spankin’-new project manager for every couple hundred thousand. That would be nifty. If that won’t fit under the tree, then maybe at least a return to the levels of, say, 2008. Until then, I’ll just try to stop noticing the contradiction.