Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Grant Program I’d Love to See

I spend a fairly alarming amount of my time these days on grant-related projects.  Each is worthy in its own way, of course, but they have certain limitations in common.

The dollars come with a time limit, and they require management.  Each has its own reporting requirements.  For the ones that work directly on academic issues, one or more full-time faculty have some time bought out by the grant so they can work on the grant project.  (Put differently: with every new grant, either we increase our adjunct percentage, or we decrease our course offerings.)  Each requires a liaison to somewhere else, and several of them require a full-time project director.  

For certain academic disciplines -- STEM, mostly -- so many projects are brewing that simply covering classes is becoming a challenge.  (Last week someone from Student Affairs practically begged me to open up more sections of math, since they were having an awful time finding slots for students.  I explained that I can’t just conjure up faculty on short notice.  But with available adjuncts finite, every course release for yet another project is yet another section we can’t run.)  Some projects are actually bumping up against each other, which creates issues when the funding streams can’t be crossed.

Meanwhile, other academic disciplines -- nearly everything outside of STEM -- are largely on their own.  

So for any philanthropists or politicians out there who’d like to do some good, here’s an idea:

Give open-ended grants to hire full-time faculty to teach classes.

That’s the one expense category I’m expressly forbidden to apply to any of the grants we have.  And it’s the one I most desperately need.

A time period of just a few years won’t do it.  When you have a tenure system, each year gets closer to a lifetime commitment.  The funding needs to be sustained over time.

In research universities, positions like these are usually called “endowed chairs.”  But that’s more high-falutin’ (higher falutin’?) than I need.  I’d settle for endowed assistant professorships.  

In an attempt not to hollow out the instructional core any more than it already is, my college handled the last few budget cuts largely with cuts to the administrative side.  That means that we just don’t have any more fat there to cut.  If anything, in some areas we’re running so lean that the opportunity cost of things we just can’t do are starting to mount.  And the costs for IT, regulatory compliance, and benefits just keep climbing.  State funding isn’t in free fall anymore, but it’s nowhere near where it was even five years ago.  And there are political and moral limits to how much faster to increase tuition and fees.

So if we’re to maintain the level of day-to-day instruction, a new paradigm in grants could not come at a better time.