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The Beginning of the End

May 9, 2010

What was it like?  How did it go?  Are you glad it over?  These, and a number of related  “it” questions, have been put to me in the last few days because my term as faculty senate president is over.

What was it like?   In a nutshell, I went to meetings —  lots and lots of meetings.  Too many meetings.   These meetings fell into roughly three categories:  senate related meetings, meetings with administrators, and ceremonial meetings.  The latter included meetings to which I was invited to report to some group  on recent activities of the faculty senate.   Between meetings, I spent a great deal of time getting ready for meetings — reading reports, collecting information, writing reports.  My meetings ranged  from boring (the majority are pointless snooze fests), frustrating (faculty and administrators at times can be amazingly obtuse and pigheaded, including me),  enlightening (you have to deal with many topics about which you know nothing),  to  occasionally inspiring (you meet people who are truly devoted to the institution and who work hard to make it a better place, often  at the expense of their own professional careers).  I have never worked longer hours in my entire time at the university.

How did it go?  The budget crisis was the major issue facing the university last year and consequently the faculty senate.  As at most universities our budget was cut significantly, both at the start of the year and during the year.  Luckily, money from the federal stimulus package made it possible to deal with the budget crisis in a more deliberate and controlled way than would otherwise have been the case.  Needless to say, the budget and budget related issues dominated the senate’s and thus my agenda.   In particular, two interrelated  issues  absorbed most of my time:  revising policies dealing with the nonrenewal and termination of faculty appointments and the size of the budget cut to one academic unit.

Our faculty handbook had almost nothing in it about the circumstances that would warrant the termination of tenured faculty appointments.  In fact, it had only one sentence that indicated that tenured faculty appointments could be terminated, after the affected faculty members had been given a year’s notice, due to a disastrous financial crisis.  There is no indication of what would constitute such a crisis or who could declare one.  It became known last fall that the administration was looking at ways to justify terminating tenured faculty appointments, if this would be required by the size of the budget cuts.  Two scenarios seemed to be favored by administrators:  (1) linking tenure to departments and terminating faculty appointments by closing departments; and (2) declaring that a disastrous financial crisis existed.   The ultimate problem facing both administrators and faculty leaders was the inadequacy of our of faculty handbook, and the only way to solve this problem was to revise the section of the handbook dealing with nonrenewal and termination of faculty appointments.  We needed to establish the rules of the game.

Meetings to work on the revision of this section of the handbook began last October and the resulting revision was finally approved by the senate  seven months later, but only after devoting parts of five senate meetings to discussions of and amendments to it.  The numerous meetings among faculty senators and administrators and faculty senate leaders and leaders of the local AAUP chapter about how to revise this policy were at times frustrating, confrontational, and disappointing.   In the end, however, the process worked and a new policy was developed that was consistent with AAUP recommendations, that provided administrators a way to reorganize the university through the elimination of academic programs, that replaced the phrase “disastrous financial crisis” with the more standard “financial exigency”,  and that clarified the university’s obligations to tenured faculty who were threatened with nonrenewal or termination of their appointments.  To get back to the question, How did it go?, it went well.  Shared governance worked, and worked well, if slowly.

Shared governance, however, did not always work well, if at all.  Our new responsibility centered budget model has shifted most of the responsibility for making budget decisions to the college deans.  While the faculty senate and central administration were working out new policies on nonrenewal and termination of faculty appointments, the deans were busy trying to make decisions about what cuts to allocate to the departments in their colleges in order to meet their budget reduction targets.  Although the majority of the deans acted responsibly, two did not.  These two decided to reduce the budget of a jointly administered social science department by as much as 50%.  For faculty across the university, these dean’s actions came as a shock.  To faculty,  the deans had used their control of the budget to rid them of a troublesome department, its ailing academic programs, and its fractious faculty, including tenured faculty.   In their decision making, shared governance was largely ignored by the deans.  Faculty senate leaders found out about this draconian cut after the fact from a memo that went viral sent by the department chair to the faculty.  The  section of the faculty handbook that deals with the proposed reorganization of administrative units was ignored by the deans.  The effect of this unilateral budget cut on faculty morale has been profound, and it will be long lasting.

The size of the cuts to this department meant that tenured faculty would have to be terminated.  Thus, a budget cut of this magnitude was perceived by faculty across the university as an attack on tenure.  Faculty quickly realized that if budget cuts could result in the the termination of tenured  faculty in this department, this could also happen to their departments and them.  After considerable faculty concern about these cuts was voiced, the deans and provost began trying to downplay the size of the cuts by explaining that these cuts included the salaries of faculty who will be moved to other departments and thus that these cuts are really not as draconian as they appear.  In fact, they promised that no tenured or tenure-eligible faculty will be terminated.  Nevertheless, their continued  defense of the size of the cuts remains troubling, and their back pedaling on what these cuts  were intended to do seems like a feeble attempt at damage control.  No plans had been developed to move significant numbers of faculty to other departments when the cuts were announced.  How did it go?   Very badly.   Shared governance failed completely.   The deans are not used to having to deal with their own faculty, not to mention the  faculty senate, when it comes to making budget decisions.  They had better learn to do so, or the university is in for years of strife and turmoil.

Are you glad its over?  Yes.  There are issues facing the senate that arose during my term as president that were never resolved.  However, I will still be around next year as past president and will continue to work on them.  I am looking forward  to leading my old life again and doing the things that interest me most, teaching and research.  I will certainly not miss the endless meetings that consumed most of my last year.

This will be my last blog in this series.  This blog was intended to be a record of my experiences and observations as the president of a faculty senate.  My year as president is over and so is this blog.  Thanks for taking the time to read it.

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Faculty Morale

May 2, 2010

Where I work, the good news is that faculty productivity has significantly increased.  On average, each of us is teaching more courses and more students per course.  Research productivity is also up, at least as measured by dollars and cents.  External research funding last year was at an all time high, and this year it is up about 40% over last year.  The bad news is that faculty morale is probably at an all time low — at least it is the lowest that I have seen it in my more than 35 years in the academy.

Why is morale so low?  The obvious answer is the impact of repeated budget cuts on the university.  These have negatively affected faculty, both personally and professionally.  Budget cuts have resulted in cuts to faculty salaries due to mandatory furloughs, cuts to  retirement benefits, and increases in the cost of medical insurance, parking, and every other fee on campus.

Cuts to the university budget have also taken a professional toll on the faculty.  Course loads and class sizes have increased because faculty who have retired or resigned have not been replaced while the number of students on campus has increased.  Some departments and academic programs are being downsized, merged and, in some cases, possibly eliminated.  University support for graduate students, especially teaching assistants, has declined.  Support for routine faculty work-related activities has significantly decreased as departmental operating budgets were slashed, and faculty are increasingly operating without such basics as phone and copy services. Faculty development programs have been slashed or eliminated.

Our faculty accepted that they had to share in the financial burden of getting the university through the Great Recession.  In fact, many feel fortunate that they are not as badly off as some of their colleagues in other states.  No appointments of tenured or tenure-eligible faculty members have been terminated. No permanent cuts to salaries were made. What has affected faculty morale more than the impact of budget cuts on them personally is the impact of budget cuts on academic units, and especially how administrative decisions were made about the size of cuts to academic units.  Large budget cuts to some departments seem to be unrelated to their performance.

The fundamental problem created by the Great Recession is that there is no longer any connection between job and departmental performance and the university’s reward system.   No matter how well or poorly you or your department have been performing, the result was the  same, a cut in your salary or your department’s budget. This disconnection, I believe, — not decreases in personal income or cuts to departmental budgets per se — is largely responsible for low faculty morale.

Now that the recession appears to be over, faculty are looking forward to better, or at least more normal times, both personally and professionally. The faculty expect that three things will happen to improve their personal situations :  (1)   The restoration of the university’s 2:1 match to their retirement benefits.  (2)   No more furloughs or other de facto pay cuts. (3)   At least a modest increase in salaries that will enable them to keep up with inflation. It is likely that two of these may, in fact, happen next year.  Personally,  faculty should be better off next year.  Will this improve their morale?  Only to a limited extent.

Professionally, it is another story.  University administrators made huge cuts to some departments that seem unjustified by the available data on the performance of these departments.   This has convinced many faculty that the administration is hostile or, at least, indifferent to faculty interests and concerns.  It was the administration’s  unilateral action that frightened the faculty: the administration announced these budget cuts before bothering to consult the  faculty in affected departments.   This administration by intimidation has been defended by deans, the provost, and the president. Faculty have concluded that this heavy handed approach to dealing with the budget crisis could be extended to other departments;  i.e., to their departments.  Unfortunately, given the  kudos deans who made these draconian cuts received from other administrators,  there is nothing to suggest that could not happen.  The precedent has been set, and administrators seem to think that it was effective.  This story, however, is far from over.

Faculty did accept the need to sacrifice personally in order to get the university through the Great Recession.  They will not accept, however, university governance by intimidation.  Faculty are disturbed by the administration’s unilateral, unjustified, and unbelievable budget cuts to some departments.   Faculty morale will remain low, even after improvements to their financial situation, because they have lost a lot of faith in their administration.  Unless the administration  can regain the trust of the faculty, the Great Recession may have resulted in a sea change in faculty-administration relations resulting in a long-term, perhaps permanent, drop in faculty morale.

The Board of Regents

April 25, 2010

“I’d like to kill that guy.”  The speaker was a faculty member attending a board of regents’ meeting.  She was addressing a stranger sitting beside her who happened to be a newspaper reporter.  The “guy” was a grandstanding member of the board of regents who was proposing to permanently cut the benefits of the faculty and staff.  The occasion was a board of regents meeting at which potential ways to reduce expenditures in response to a cut in state appropriations were being discussed.  This was, of course, not a serious threat to the regent — he is still very much alive, but simply an expression of her frustration.  To her and other faculty, including me, attending this meeting,  this regent, and some of the others, seemed to be completely indifferent to faculty concerns and  fears.  As far as this regent was concerned, university tuition was too high, and this was making the universities less accessible.  (This was in spite of the fact that the universities had record enrollments, and they have among the lowest tuition rates in Midwest.)   His preferred way to keep the universities accessible was to permanently reduce faculty compensation.  For him and his supporters on the board, faculty clearly did not deserve their extravagant salaries.

This regent’s perception of how best to deal with keeping the state’s universities affordable  is clearly at variance with that of most faculty who  feel overworked, underpaid and unappreciated   The faculty would like to see tuition raised to offset the loss of state funding and to bring it in line with tuition rates in surrounding states.  After all, somebody has to pay the bills.  Faculty feel that the regents have done little (probably nothing) to protect university budgets during the budget crisis.   Why is there such a gap between the regents and the faculty?

The regents are political appointees.  Appointment to the regents, or some other state board, is a way for the governor to reward donors and other major supporters.   Not surprisingly, the majority of the regents tend to be from the business community.   There is also a token student regent.  To an outside observer like me, one of the most striking characteristics of the regents is that they seem to know very little about the day-to-day realities of the universities that they govern, except the rankings of their football and basketball teams.  As far as I know, not a single regent has ever worked at a university.  What is equally striking is that the faculty know almost nothing about the regents, other than that they exist.

Most faculty have never been to a regents’ meeting, and they pay little attention to these meetings.  What little they do know about the regents and regents’ meetings they pick up from local newspaper reports and occasionally from the local TV news.  Is this mutual ignorance really a problem?  I think so.  Ignorance may be bliss, but it also results in uninformed decisions being made by both the regents and the faculty. The regents are currently in the process of  developing a new five-year strategic plan.  Faculty are barely mentioned in it, and none of the regents’ proposed goals deal with faculty concerns: declining number of faculty,  increasing workloads, decreasing competitiveness of salaries, etc.  As far as the regents are concerned, the faculty evidently don’t matter, except that they should be teaching more distance education courses.

Faculty input into regents’ meetings is almost non-existent.   This is in sharp contrast to that of students.  As noted, there is a student regent.  Student leaders have breakfast with the regents at each board meeting.  Although the presidents and other members of the faculty senates attend all regents’ meetings, faculty leaders have virtually no access to the regents.  (I have been president of the faculty senate for nearly a year and have never spoken to a single regent.)  Once per year faculty senate presidents do get to give brief statements (five minutes tops) on proposed university budgets for the next fiscal year, but these are pro forma presentations to which the regents pay little (probably no) attention.  The only group of faculty to which the regents have to pay attention are the unionized faculty at  the smallest of the regents’ universities.  These unionized faculty are the de facto voice of all the faculty, at least on salary matters.

The unsung heroes of university governance are the board of regents’ staff.  There are the folks who actually do all the heavy lifting for the regents.  They write the reports, prepare the memos, collate the data, etc. presented at board meetings.  They are knowledgeable about the realities of all aspects of university life.  If faculty know almost nothing about the regents, they know absolutely nothing about the regents’ staff.  I only got to know most of the regents’ staff when I was the director of an institution that reported directly to the regents and that hosted regents’ meetings occasionally.  I have rarely run across a more dedicated and hardworking group of people.   Although they cannot control the actions of the regents, they can influence their decisions  and what actions they decide to take.

What should the faculty do to improve their relations with the regents?  I think that all faculty should be  encouraged to attend regents’ meetings  at least once.  This is easy to do when these meetings are on their campus.   Seeing the regents in action can be both an interesting and sobering experience.   If for no other reason, seeing the president and provost of your university being grilled by their bosses gives faculty some insight into the political and social forces that are shaping the future of the university, not to mention a certain pleasure.  Faculty leaders need to become more aggressive at presenting the concerns, demands, and requests of the faculty to the regents.   Currently, we rely solely on the administration to do this for us, but faculty only represent a small part of their bailiwick.   More formal and informal contacts between faculty leaders and the board of regents staff also need to be developed.   Faculty need to get their messages to the regents more effectively.  Unless they do, faculty frustration with the regents, and vice versa, will only continue to grow.

Your University’s Name Here

April 11, 2010

The first draft (actually the 9th, but the first one made public) of the university’s latest five-year plan has been released.   A rather large group of faculty and administrators have been working for months  developing and writing it.  Perhaps this alone explains the results; as the old saying goes, too many cooks spoil the broth.   To extend this cooking metaphor, the result has not been a stimulating and memorable stew,  but a rather bland and undistinguished  one.  Stew really is the right cooking metaphor for this kind of document.  Just like stews that contain a mix of vegetables and meats that happen to be  in your refrigerator and freezer at a given time, the five-year plan reflects the interests of those who drafted  it.

Every academic group and support unit wants to be mentioned in it.   If they did not have a representative on the committees that drafted the plan, they were not happy.  This was made abundantly clear at a recent open forum to discuss it.  A number of people complained that their college or unit was not explicitly mentioned in it.  The main result of this meeting was that even more ingredients were going to be added to our strategic stew.   Less is not more when it comes to five-year plans.

While at this open forum, I began to wonder about the utility of strategic plans.  Do these five-year plans really make any difference?  How different is our plan from those of comparable institutions.

Do these plans make a difference?  We have had numerous five-year plans.  We are are mandated to develop one every five years by the regents.  One of our senior administrators  recently characterized our current five-year plan as so generic that it was useless for making planning decisions.  (This kind of candor is unfortunately rare.)  I have no reason to disagree.  In fact, I have no idea what is in our current five-year plan.   Nothing has gotten any better from a faculty, and I suspect student,  perspective, in the last five years, and most things have gotten worse (higher course loads, fewer support staff, fewer faculty, larger class sizes, fewer faculty development opportunities, etc.).  I doubt that our current five-year plan included any of these as one of its goals.   For much of the last five years, the university has been plagued by repeated budget cuts, and most of our actual planning has focused on how to deal with them.

A small, statistically invalid, and informal survey of my colleagues indicated that they too had no idea of what is in our current five-year plan.  Some didn’t know that we had one.   None believes that it is of any relevance to them.    The main reason for their indifference is that these plans ignore reality — at least  their reality.   As one opined, they are written for public relations not planning purposes.  In fact, the kinds of budget problems (declining state support, fewer high school graduates) that have impacted the university in recent years, and that will continue to shape its future for many years to come, are not even mentioned in the draft of the new five-year plan.

How different is our plan from those of other comparable universities?  The generic nature of our new five-year plan was noted at the open forum.  To make our plan more specific, the writing team added a list of federal labs on our campus and in town.  These were described as “our unfair advantages.”  Our faculty get lots of research funds because of collaborations with researchers at them, and these federal labs  have certainly had a huge impact on the kinds of academic programs and research institutes that we have on campus, as has been the case at lots of other universities.  Without listing these labs, it was suggested that our five-year plan could be adopted word-for-word by any other large, land-grant university.  Was this really true?  I decided to  investigate.

Much to my surprise I could not find a Wikipedia entry on university strategic planning or five-year plans.  This was going to require more work than I had anticipated.  A  Google search (more than 35 million hits), however, turned up lots of university strategic plans.  I selected a handful of them from similar institutions to peruse.  Although they vary in style, detail, and length, they are remarkably similar in content.  Like mine, all these universities are all going to attract the highest quality faculty, staff, and students.   They are all going to train tomorrow’s leaders.  They are all going to become institutions who will have a greater impact at the state, national and international level.  They are all going to achieve greater excellence by increasing diversity.  They are all going to become greener institutions by becoming better environmental stewards.  The land grant institutions are all going to rededicate themselves to serving society through teaching, research and service.   It is true:  our five-year plan looks much like all the others.  There are even a number of words that are de rigueur in the latest crop of plans.   My favorite is transformational.   Others include stewardship, collaborative, global, sustainable, engagement, and alliances.

Many years ago I heard a song by Lou and Peter Berryman, Your State’s Name Here.   This ditty is a generic state song that can be easily adapted for use by any state.  As the song’s title suggests, you make it state specific by inserting the name of the state in appropriate places in the lyrics as well as by inserting  a few local features (a local beer, an indigenous flower, the state bird, etc.).  In fact, we have a such generic version of a five-year plan, that it could be called Your University’s Name Here.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.   In researching university strategic plans, I discovered that there are consulting firms that you can hire to write them for you.  Perhaps, we should sell the rights to our new five-year plan to one of them.  All that work on our new plan might actually do some good;  it might make us some much-needed money.

NOTE:  In the interest of full disclosure as president of our Faculty Senate, I was asked to nominate members of the senate to the committees that wrote our new five-year plan, and I did.  I made sure, however, that I was not one of them.  As noted above, I consider writing such plans a necessary burden (evil?),  like writing the instructions for income tax schedules.  As with such instructions, the results are predictable.  Nor do I harbor the illusion that had I served on the writing committee, the results would have been any different.

Leadership

April 2, 2010

An agitated  colleague burst into my office about a week ago and began to rant and rave about the “complete lack of leadership around here.”  At first I thought that this tirade was directed at me as president of the faculty senate.  What had I done to upset him? What hadn’t I done?    But when he asked why are we paying these people the big bucks, I suddenly realized that I was off the hook.  Whoever “these people” were (and there are a lot of possibilities these days — president, pope, governor, bank ceos, etc), I was not one of them.  It soon became clear that his ire was directed at the university’s administration, our president, provost and deans.  As far as he was concerned, they were not showing any leadership when it came to dealing with the university’s budget problems.  When I asked him to elaborate, he just reiterated his opening remarks,  “They are not doing anything. There is a complete lack of leadership around here”

This would come as big news to the president, provost and deans, all of whom have spent much of their time dealing with budget problems created by the Great Recession.  Among other things, they have sent many memos and letters and have had university- and college-wide  open forums to update faculty and staff about our budget situation and proposed solutions.   After reminding him about various budget memos and open forums, he had to concede that they had, in fact, made some effort to keep faculty and staff  up to date on the latest budget developments.   The problem, he said, was that the budget story kept changing and no two administrators ever said the same thing.  Before he finally left, he became a little more specific, “No one in the administration seems to have a vision of what the university should look like in the future.”

After he was gone, I began to reflect about his perception that we  lack  leaders.  How do faculty judge the effectiveness of our administrators as leaders.  Faculty perceptions are presumably based on some  direct or indirect experience  of the behavior of administrators.    What kind of interactions has my agitated colleague  had with the deans, provost, and president?   Very little as far as I am aware.  In fact as far as I know,  it has been mostly through budget memos and open forums.    Why did he believe, based on these limited interactions, that we had no leaders?  What did he think a good leader should have been doing?  What are the characteristics of good leader?

Leadership is much studied, and there are numerous books, scholarly papers, and magazine articles on this topic.   It seems to be particularly fascinating topic to people in business, judging from the number of books on it in the business sections of bookstores.  Evidently, you can become a great business leader by emulating anyone from Attila the Hun to Mary Poppins.  Academic leadership has also been studied, and, based on a brief peek into this more limited literature, there is a great deal of debate about the most effective leadership  style (autocratic vs. collaborative), the significance of gender differences, the best leadership style at different levels  of the university hierarchy, etc.  In short, there is, not surprisingly, no consensus on the characteristics of effective university leaders.  Within an institution, there may even be significant disagreement among different units  about whether a given administrator is or is not an effective leader.

One point that is repeatedly made is that cultural values can have a big impact on how effective university leaders are perceived to be.   To be more specific, faculty in different academic disciples have different cultures and thus different expectations of their leaders.  Research scientists whose lives revolve around obtaining grants, recruiting and training graduate students and postdocs, and publishing as many papers per year as possible judge their leaders differently than scholars in the humanities who teach large number of undergraduates, rely little on external funding, and view scholarship as a multi-year effort to research and write a book.  These disciplinary differences have been described as self-amplifying by Clark (1989) in his classic paper, The Academic Life:  Small Worlds, Different Worlds.   As Clark stressed, faculty in the physical sciences, biological sciences, social sciences, the humanities and the arts within the same university have different perceptions of  their professio0nal identities as well as having different reward systems and valuing different kinds of professional linkages.  Is the lack of leadership perceived by my colleague due to cultural miscues ?   He is a biologist and none of our senior administrators are.  Are too many distinct disciplinary cultures really the root of the leadership perception problem?  I don’t think so.

In spite of a myriad of disciplinary cultures, faculty expectations about what constitutes leadership transcends disciplinary differences.   All faculty want their leaders to be able to articulate their unit’s goals,  to have a plan for improving its quality,  to identify its major challenges, and to have plans for raising its academic standards and for recruiting higher quality faculty.   When my colleagues rants on and on about  a lack of leadership, he means that he doesn’t see any evidence that administrators are concerned about the the things with which he is primarily concerned.

Administrators will quickly counter that they are, in fact, concerned about all these things and that they are trying to make strategic budget cuts that will ensure that at least some units will have opportunities to improve their faculty and academic programs.  Nevertheless, the problem remains that their message is not being heard.  Why?  I believe it is because administrators communicate primarily in the language of fiscal management, which is largely irrelevant and thus largely ignored by faculty.  For faculty fiscal management is not the primary job of  leaders.  For administrators, with the adoption of responsibility centered management (read budget) models,  fiscal management has increasingly become the central part of their job.

The budget memos that administrators spent so much time crafting remind me of the letters that you get from your doctor reminding you that are scheduled to have a colonoscopy.   Both contain an important message that you can’t ultimately ignore.  Like budget memos, these letters are impersonal and they create a lot of anxiety.   They both signal much discomfort in your future.  As with colonoscopies, dealing with budget reductions involves two distinct phases:  (1) preparing for the  procedure, which is much worse and more mentally disturbing than the actual procedure, and (2) finding out the results of the procedure — are your problems over or are they really just about to begin.   The doctor who recently sent me a reminder letter is managing my health care.  He is not, however, providing medical leadership.  Likewise, the administrator who sends us memos on the latest twist in our budget crisis is not providing leadership.  He or she is managing the fiscal health of the institution.   This is essential, and our administrators are doing a more or less adequate job of it.  As with letters announcing upcoming colonoscopy appointments, budget memos tend to be put aside and ignored until they have to be acted on.  (I am having a colonoscopy tomorrow and have yet to go to a pharmacy to buy the “preparations” needed for this procedure.)

Leadership is a social interaction.  For social interactions at a university to be effective, there needs to be meaningful communications between administrators and faculty and staff.   One dimensional communications, medical or fiscal,  are never going result in their senders being perceived as leaders.  As long as administrators continue to communicate primarily in a language that  faculty would rather ignore, faculty perceptions of their effectiveness  as leaders will continue to decline.

Age Discrimination

March 21, 2010

In addition to the endless come-ons for more credit cards, my junk mail now includes lots of letters from insurance companies trying to sell me some kind of Medicare supplemental insurance.  I am not old enough to qualify for Medicare, or even to apply for it, but I will be in the near future.  I have yet to figure out what Medicare Part B and D are all about or what the point is of having Medigap or Medicare Advantage coverage.  I guess that I am still in denial about getting old.

In any case, it is not just the insurance companies that are constantly reminding me that I am, in fact, getting old.  I am reminded of it almost daily by the university.   These reminders come in a variety of forms, some subtle and some not at all subtle.  The more subtle reminders come in the form of emails and letters reminding faculty about retirement options such as our phased retirement and early retirement incentive plans.   (Early retirement is not an option for me.  It is too late.)  In reality, you are not entitled to any phased or early retirement plan.  As some faculty have found out the hard way, the university will only let you take one of them if it saves the university money.

The less subtle reminders come up in various discussion of how we can best solve our budget problems.  In these discussions, two topics are commonly brought up.  One, older faculty are less productive than younger faculty.  We all know this, a department chair recently told me.  Do we?  Evidently, this is not true of administrators.  I have never heard an administrator suggest that older administrators are less productive than younger ones.  Two, the simplest and best way to meet our budget reduction targets is through retirements.   This solution inevitably comes up during departmental discussions about how best to reduce the budget.  For example, statements at faculty meetings such as “Department x can easily solve its budget problems while we can’t because several of department x’s  senior faculty are retiring”  imply, and not only to older faculty, that  the senior faculty should think about retiring for the good of the department.   Otherwise, the department would have to do something more drastic like terminate the appointments of younger faculty or professional staff.  Older faculty increasingly feel harassed by such remarks.

I personally view remarks about the decreased productivity of older faculty and the suggestion that older faculty retire for the good of the  department as a form of harassment.  It is age discrimination in action.  My test for identifying discriminatory remarks is very simple.  Substitute some other class of individuals in the remark and then decide whether it would be insulting or demeaning to this class.  For example, if a department chair said in a department meeting that “it is well known that women are less productive than men”, all hell would break loose.  If a department chair suggested that we could solve our budget problems by terminating the appointments of all the female faculty, the department would soon have a new chair.  I have yet to hear any objection to similar statements made about older faculty, except privately by older faculty.  While faculty and administrators are very careful to avoid any remark that smacks of sexism or racism, many seem completely oblivious to ageist remarks.  Ageist remarks are hardly a new phenomenon.  As I learned in a NY Times article on the history of retirement,  Cotton Mather, who is best known for helping to instigate the Salem witch trials, advised the old to “Be so wise as to disappear of your own accord.”  Many of our administrators are hoping that lots of our senior faculty will take Mather’s advice.

At the same time that the university is trying to rid itself of its older faculty, there is a growing movement to rethink retirement in light of longer life spans.  When the concept of retirement developed in the late nineteenth century, the Germans were the first to begin to pay a pension to anyone over the age of 65 in order to allow them to exit the work force.  Of course, at that time hardly anyone lived to be 65.  Today,  our expected longevity is about 30 years longer than in the 1880s.  Baby boomers like me will be the longest-living generation in human history.

As people age, their interests often do change.   I am certainly not interested and excited today by the same things, either professionally or personally, that I was 30 years ago.  Many older workers would much rather change jobs than retire.  They want to try something new.  Universities have been very slow to adapt to these new realities.  Instead of encouraging older faculty to re-invent themselves and to take on new duties and responsibilities,  they view older faculty as an impediment to change.   The rigid disciplinary-based structure of universities makes it nearly impossible for faculty in one discipline to migrate to another discipline in which they have developed an interest as they got older.  This suggests that the kinds of administrative units in which we house faculty need to be rethought.

Universities need innovative programs to retrain older faculty.  It is expensive to hire new faculty, and it takes years for them to become assimilated into the local culture.  Programs that provide older workers ways to start new careers are becoming more common outside universities, and even the Federal Government is getting into the act.  The latest National Service Act will expand the AmeriCorps program to include a senior corps for older Americans.  Private foundations have begun to provide funds in the form of fellowships that allow older workers an opportunity to enter new career paths.    In many cases, these second or encore careers take the form of part-time or limited-term jobs.  It is time for the university to begin to consider its older faculty as an asset rather than a liability.   Instead of trying to hustle them out the door with various incentives, they could be using the same funds to retrain them for new positions.  The university does everything in its power to accommodate the needs of its female faculty.  It is time for it to begin to consider the needs of its older faculty.

Administrators Gone Wild?

March 10, 2010

I recently attended a concert by the singer-songwriter Tommy Sands.  Sands, who grew up in Northern Ireland and who is still based there,  is most famous for his songs like “There were Roses” about how the “troubles” impacted ordinary people.  Although long familiar with his songs, I had never seen him in concert.  He turned out also to be a great story teller.  At one point he tried to explain why the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland distrusted each other so much.  He likened these two groups trying to develop a working relationship to three sheep and two wolves trying to work together.  There may be more sheep than wolves, but everyone knew who was going to come out on top.

Faculty mistrust administrators  because of a perceived asymmetry of power.  This mistrust is responsible for much of their anxiety at the moment.  The faculty feel much like the sheep in Sands’ s analogy.  Are faculty really as powerless as Sands’ sheep?  I don’t think so, and ironically neither do most administrators.  Faculty ultimately control the university’s academic programs.  This gives them a great deal of power, if they use it.  Some administrators fear that they will.

Recently departments were finally informed what their budget reduction targets will be.   That there were going to be budget reduction was well understood.  The only question was their magnitude.  A flood of forwarded emails was my first indication that budget-reduction targets had been received by departments.  One frequently forwarded email from the chair of a social science department outlined  these cuts in detail and their potential implications for the future of the department and its academic programs.   This email spread around campus faster than the swine flu (or to be more politically correct since I am at a land-grant university, the H1N1 virus), and it has been the major topic of conversation at every meeting that I have attended since it became public.  At the faculty senate meeting earlier this week, it had a huge impact on  the tenor of the discussion of the proposed revisions to our faculty handbook on nonrenewal and termination.  In effect senators were asking, would the proposed new policy have prevented this kind of action by the deans?  What got everyone’s attention was the size of the proposed cut, about 50% over the next couple of years.  That’s right, 50%.

The wolves evidently had decided to slaughter a lot of sheep.  This department is jointly administered by two colleges, but the magnitude of the  cuts was roughly the same in both.   I have no idea how the deans of the colleges and their budget advisory committees came up with the proposed budget cuts for each of  their departments.  Although there are some faculty on their budget advisory committees, these decisions were made with no real public scrutiny or input before they were released.   We are told that large amounts of data were used to evaluate departmental performance, but the neither results of these evaluations, nor the data used, so far have not been made public.   Most departments obviously received much smaller cuts.

The size of the proposed cuts to the social science department raised many questions in my mind, including (1) Why was this cut so severe for this department?  (2) Is it possible to make cuts of this magnitude without terminating tenured faculty?

Why was this cut so severe?  What had this department done to warrant this kind of treatment?  The email did outline  the reasons given by the deans for their decision, including declines in undergraduate and graduate enrollments and grant funding; lack of centrality to the university’s teaching or research missions;  and the insularity of the department.   No comparative data with other departments, however, were presented. Is this social science department really the weakest department in the entire university or even a college?  A quick check of readily available data on enrollment and grants  received raises serious doubts about the evaluation of this department.  When compared with other departments in the same college, it is not the worst performer, either in terms of student clock hours  or grants obtained per faculty member.   When compared to some other departments, it appears to have twice the number of student clock hours per faculty member and twice the amount of grant dollars per faculty member.   Whatever the reason(s) this department is receiving this huge budget cut, it seems to be only partly related to the state of its academic and research programs.  Unlike student clock hours and grant dollars, insularity and centrality cannot be quantified and thus comparisons with other departments based on these measures are impossible.  It is clear enough from the email, however, that both deans are not big fans of this branch of the social sciences.

Strangely, this social science department has  a fair number of assistant professors who were hired by both colleges.   If this department was such a basket case and not central to the missions of the university, why have both colleges been investing in new positions in it in recent years?   Why are our deans only now seeing the light?  Faculty in this department have been involved in a locally, well publicized and embarrassing lawsuit in which its faculty were suing each other.   Many faculty wonder how much the bad publicity caused by this lawsuit, plus related internal problems within the department, influenced the deans’ decisions.  Do the proposed draconian cuts reflect punishment or planning?  Studies of how administrators cut budgets when revenues decline indicate that they often target troubled departments with weak leadership for downsizing and elimination.

Is it possible to make a cut of this magnitude without terminating tenured faculty?   This is not very likely.  To cut 50% of this department’s budget would require reducing the department’s budget by the equivalent of the salaries and benefits of every lecturer, assistant professor, and a large number of tenured faculty.   Back of the envelop calculations suggest that only 25% of the department’s budget reduction target could be met by firing every lecturer and assistant professor.   What exactly do the deans have in mind for the tenured faculty?   Based on the email, there is evidently no concrete plan to deal with them.  Encouraging retirements and resignations and possibly relocating some  tenured faculty to other social science departments seem to be the extent of any plan developed so far.  (How would the latter save any money?)  The administration can’t terminate even a single tenure-eligible or tenured professor by the next fiscal year because they have to be given a one-year terminal contract at a minimum.  In short, the proposed budget cuts for next year could be more symbolic than real, unless about half the tenured faculty retire or resign in the next few months.  Maybe that’s what the deans are really after:  they want to differentially encourage (force) the retirement of senior faculty.  In that case, they leave themselves open to an age discrimination lawsuit.

Tommy Sands stressed that mistrust can only be reduced by ensuring that the interests of both sides are protected.  In this case, faculty need to be sure that tenure is adequately protected and administrators that there is a viable mechanism  for making  needed  adjustments to the university’s academic programs.  The Faculty Senate’s proposed revision of our policies on nonrenewal and termination of faculty establishes  a balance between protecting tenure and providing a rational mechanism for adjusting or refocusing academic programs.   Faculty reactions to the proposed changes mistakenly stress that the new policies weaken protection for tenure.  Administrators mistakenly stress that eliminating academic programs will become impossible or more difficult under the new policy.  Unjustified, and probably indefensible, budget cuts like the draconian ones imposed by the deans on the social science department only help to  increase faculty mistrust of administrators.  They hinder any attempt to find a mutually acceptable solution to our current budget problems and academic shortcomings.

To return to Sands’ wolf and sheep analogy, it is  time for the wolves and sheep to find new ways to work together for their mutual self-interest.   Administrators need to stop acting like wolves attacking a weak or crippled animal.  Faculty need to stop acting like sheep.  They need  to take full responsibility for the future of the university’s academic programs, including eliminating programs that are no longer warranted by student enrollments.