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Faculty Responses to Budget Cuts

April 19, 2009

I have been asked to make a short presentation to our board of regents about the impacts on faculty of a nearly 15% cut to the university’s state appropriations.   This question can be taken two ways.  One, what effects will the cut have on individual faculty?  Two, what effect will the cut have collectively on the faculty and on the university?

Although the budget cut will affect all faculty to some extent, some will hardly notice a difference in their lives next year while others will be out of a job.  At one extreme are well paid, tenured, full professors in the sciences and engineering whose jobs are not in jeopardy and at the other are poorly paid, non-tenure-eligible, lecturers in English whose jobs are definitely in jeopardy because they are hired on short-term contracts. The former may or may not be inconvenienced by a reduction in support staff while the latter will be unemployed and looking for another job. In other words, individual reactions of faculty to the budget cut range from indifference to panic.

The more important question is what effect will reducing the number of faculty have on the faculty collectively and on the university?  All our faculty are concerned by (1) the proposed laying off of non-tenure-eligible (NTE) faculty and closing of open tenure-track faculty lines; (2) the impacts of fewer faculty on the quality of our teaching and research programs;  (3) the failure of our senior administration to formulate a policy for dealing with budget cuts; and (4) the long-term implications of higher budget cuts to state universities than to schools and community colleges.

In the past, tenure-track faculty here have been disproportionately impacted by budget cuts.  Previous budget cuts reduced the number of tenure-track faculty lines by about 200.  During the current budget crisis, closing open faculty lines is being proposed by many departments and colleges as a way to reduce expenses.   Tenure-track faculty are very concerned about losing yet more faculty lines.  Besides the threat of losing tenure-track faculty lines by attrition, it is virtually certain that some non-tenure-eligible (NTE) faculty will not have their contracts renewed.  This loss of faculty positions will not be offset next year by a decrease in student numbers, which are predicted to be the same or slightly higher than this year.

Fewer faculty and the same number of students translates into increased class sizes and reduced class offerings.  It is the resulting deterioration of academic programs that most concerns the faculty and also students, as is reflected in recent student protests of budget cuts.  Although students will see an increase in tuition next year, this will not necessarily prevent a reduction in faculty lines and thus a reduction in course offerings. Students do not want larger class sizes, and they are afraid that they will not be able to get into required courses if faculty numbers are reduced.   Budget cuts also threaten the library, an essential resource for both students and faculty.  (Another round of journal cuts was just announced by our library to reduce library expenses.)  Unless budget cuts are targeted so that they minimize losses of faculty and cuts to the library, academic programs will suffer and faculty and student morale will decline.

Increased course loads and additional duties that administrators cavalierly propose as an answer to reduced faculty numbers are not realistic and, if imposed, will do serious damage to the university’s research mission.  In general faculty resent the implication that they have been “under employed” and thus can increase their work loads without this negatively affecting their professional and private lives. Most tenure-track faculty are already working more than 60 hours per week.  Retaining faculty should be the number one priority during a budget crisis and budget cuts should focus on reducing operating and administrative costs.

The lack of any well defined set of principles or criteria from the administration for dealing with budget cuts has been disconcerting.  Although senior administrators have repeatedly stated that budget cuts would be strategic and that they will strengthen the core programs of the university, no detailed statement of principles has ever been proposed that would ensure that this will be happen.  This is in stark contrast to what has been done at many other universities and colleges facing similar or larger budget cuts.  Within the university, our liberal arts and sciences college is the only academic unit that has made public its criteria for making strategic (differential) budget cuts to departments and programs.  Our faculty senate has also approved its guiding principles for making budget decisions.  It is disappointing, to say the least, when the university’s leadership does not seem to have a well-thought-out plan for dealing with budget cuts.

Faculty are increasingly concerned that the university seems to be singled out for larger budget cuts than the K-12 and community college systems.  This will make it harder to retain and hire the very best faculty.  When I was interviewing for my current job, I was told repeatedly by faculty and administrators about the strong support for higher education by the state, and this was one of the factors that caused me to take it.  The lack of support for the university and for faculty during past and present budget cuts is increasingly causing faculty to consider unionization as a way of protecting their interests.  NTE faculty, in particular, increasingly view unionization as their only option for improving job security and their salaries.  More and more tenure-track faculty are seeing the benefits of unionization.

In closing, the impact of the budget cut on individual faculty will depend on their rank and discipline, and it ranges from very little to enormous. All faculty, however, are concerned about the loss of NTE faculty and tenure-track faculty lines and about the effects of these losses on the quality of the university’s academic programs and the availability of courses to students.  They are also worried about the future of the university because of decreasing state support for higher education.  For the good of the institution, everything should be done to minimize the loss of faculty positions. The faculty do the primary work of the university, imparting and creating knowledge.  The overall reputation of the university and its academic programs is based primarily on the quality of its faculty.  It is reputation that attracts students and facilitates the hiring of additional first-rate faculty.  Reputations take a long time to build and even longer to rebuild.

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