Sunday, May 06, 2012

Ask the Administrator: Sharing the Pain

A longtime correspondent writes:

Out here in California, cc's are facing a real budget crisis.  At my campus, we're trying to cut $5 million out of this year's budget, and this year was not a good year.
So there will be no summer school classes this year and (almost certainly) next year as well.  Part-time teachers and younger full-timers will lose money they've depended on to get through the year.  But the school's not closed.  Everybody with an 11- or 12-month contract will be at work even though there won't be a single student in sight.
At the same time, we're voting on a five percent across-the-board pay cut for all district employees.  If faculty doesn't vote to ratify the pay cut (we're unionized, and I'm a union guy), all hourly employees--mainly student workers, including tutors--and who-knows-how-many classified employees will lose their jobs.
In other words, no school this summer, or at least no students, no teachers, no classes, but everyone at school who's not a student or a teacher will be working and pulling down a paycheck.  And even though it may be 5 percent lighter, it's still a paycheck.  Faculty get nothing during the summer, AND we're asked to take 5 percent less when we return to work--on top of class cuts in the Fall, which will really slam part-timers who also get to vote.
What's your take on this, Dean Dad?  I certainly understand that if 12-month jobs (like a Dean's job) were reduced to 10-month jobs, that would mean a 17 percent pay cut; 11-month employees would lose 9 percent.  The union guy in my head says these folks have contracts.  But it's equally obvious that even though there's no school for two entire months, school employees are still getting paid.  It doesn't make much financial sense to close the widget factory for two months and keep paying everyone EXCEPT the widget makers.
I'm pretty sure how I know what your thinking on this is as an administrator. But what if you were a teacher?  And what's your global, "big picture" thinking?

I remember as a kid the first time my Dad told me about farm subsidies.  (Other kids remember baseball games or Disney trips.  I remember a conversation about farm subsidies.)  I thought it was the most ridiculous thing I had ever heard.  We pay farmers NOT to grow food?  Why on earth would we do that?

As I got older, I realized that it isn’t that simple.  We have crop rotation to consider, and market fluctuations, and the simple fact that food isn’t like other consumer goods.  What sounds ridiculous on the surface -- and I don’t deny some silliness in the details -- makes more sense than a first glance would suggest.

I’ve gone on record several times saying that the California business model for community colleges is completely insane, and that you couldn’t pay me enough to work in it.  Dilemmas like these just solidify that stand.  Only in California would the solution to budget cuts be to stop teaching.  In any rational setting, colleges should be encouraged to teach more, not less.  But the California system effectively forces public institutions to close themselves off to the public.  Now community colleges have waiting lists, and UCSD has decided to stop taking transfer students.  When a public system closes out the public, it’s fair to ask just why, exactly, it exists.  The farm subsidy model may or may not make sense in farming, but it absolutely does not make sense in teaching.  

That said, given a set of horrible choices, what to do?

I have to take issue with the implication that administrative work stops when summer starts.  It simply does not.  Summer is when we catch up on some of the work that couldn’t get done during the academic year when fires keep breaking out.  Budgeting, scheduling, staffing, writing accreditation reports, analyzing institutional research -- these things don’t necessarily require students running around.  It’s true that summer is usually slower than the regular semesters, but there’s a difference between “slowed” and “stopped.”

I also have to agree that asking deans to take a 17 percent cut when faculty take “only” 5 percent would be unfair.  People make commitments -- such as mortgages -- based on income.  When their incomes dip abruptly but their commitments don’t, bad things happen.  A five percent cut hurts; a 17 percent cut hurts much more.  

But the larger issue, I think, unfolds over time.  It’s possible to construct an argument for a snapshot in time saying that those who make more should take bigger hits.  But do that, and good luck ever getting good people to step into those roles.  The pay bump from full-time faculty to lower administration is already, in most cases, surprisingly small; make it even smaller, and make those position even more tenuous, and you simply won’t get the people you need.

That’s not just a theoretical argument.  I’m already seeing it on the ground, and I’m not even in California.  We’ve recently run searches for both faculty and deans.  For the faculty positions, the pools have been large and deep, and the main challenge has been to winnow them down.  For the administrative positions, the pools have been small and shallow; even getting enough qualified people to bother with interviews is sometimes a problem.  With every passing year that unionized folks get raises and non-union folk don’t, the appeal of administration gets that much smaller.  If you added 17 percent cuts to that, within a year or two you simply wouldn’t have anyone you would want to keep.

My sense of it is that playing the usual, tired “faculty vs. administration” game is not the way to go.  If you’re arguing over who has the outer track in the death spiral, you’re arguing over the wrong thing.  In the very short term, I’d suggest voting for as evenhanded a cut as possible, because in the long term, you’re all on the same side.  Solidarity is the only hope.  You need to manage to send a unified message to your state.  In the absence of that, the death spiral will only accelerate, as is its wont.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what would you suggest?  Is there a better way?

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