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Budget Cuts and Faculty Workloads

April 23, 2009

During  the 1990s and earlier this decade, the university lost about 200 tenure-track faculty lines because of budget cuts.  They were lost mostly by closing open lines that resulted from faculty retirements,  resignations or deaths.  No tenure-track faculty member was fired.  As a result, the total number of tenure-track faculty was reduced by about 15%.  The impacts of these  losses in faculty lines are hard to quantify, but undoubtedly included an increase in faculty teaching loads, a decrease in research productivity, and some damage to the reputation of the university.  In spite of repeated assurances by the Provost that everything is being done to increase tenure-track faculty numbers, only modest gains have been made in recent years.  The ongoing budget crisis threatens to wipe out these modest gains.

As already noted, the impact of previous budget cuts on faculty workloads and productivity are hard to document with a sample size of one, my university.    Nationally, however, the trends are quite clear.  Townsend and Rosser (2007) compared faculty workloads in 1993 and in 2004 using data collected by the National Study of Postsecondary Faculty.  They analyzed data from 5 different kinds of public institutions ranging from community colleges to public research universities.  Because I work at a large public research university, I am going to restrict my comments to what happened at these institutions.  In both years, about 1,800 faculty at research universities participated in the survey.

In both 1993 and 2004, faculty in public research universities worked more hours per week than in any other kind of higher education institution. The average number of hours worked per week (55), however, did not increase from 1993 to 2004.  This  indicates to me that an upper limit on the number of hours a faculty member is willing or able to work had been reached by 1993.   In other words, faculty are not going to spend more time at work when they are given additional duties.  Instead, they will reduce the time that they spend on other duties.  That  such an adjustment was made is reflected clearly in the data.  Many universities closed faculty lines after 1993 in response to budget cuts.  The result was that faculty teaching loads on average were 35% higher in 2004 than 1993.  On the other hand, peer reviewed research papers per faculty member per year were 16% lower and the number of books published in the previous two years was 60% lower than in 1993.  Closing open faculty lines resulted in higher teaching loads for the remaining faculty and they compensated by spending less time writing scholarly papers and books.

For tenure-track faculty at public research universities, there is a clear trade-off between teaching and research productivity.   It is a zero-sum game.  This is certainly recognized by the faculty, but sometimes ignored or forgotten by administrators who do not teach or do research.   During various meetings at the department, college and university level, administrators often suggest that closing faculty lines is preferable to laying off secretaries or other support staff, of teaching assistants, of closing some facility, or reducing the number of deanlets or provostlings.  They rarely acknowledged the advantage of this strategy to them.  It is much easier for them to close faculty lines because  they will not have to make the hard decision about whom to fire or what to close down, nor will they have to face the wrath of affected faculty or staff who will be negatively impacted.   The long-term effects of closing faculty lines on remaining faculty and the university are rarely considered at these meetings.

The failure to consider the long-term, cumulative impacts of small, local decisions is sometimes called by environmentalist the tyranny of small decisions.   For example, the owners of each farm in the Midwest that has agricultural runoff laden with nutrients and pesticides will claim that the mass of nutrients and pesticides leaving their property is too small to damage the quality of receiving waters.  This may be true to some extent.  However, collectively the mass of nutrients from hundreds of farms is so great that local water quality is very poor.  In time the nutrients and pesticides from many thousands of farms will flow into the Mississippi and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico, creating the so called “dead zone.”   The cumulative impacts of failing to control agriculture runoff  on each farm is environmentally devastating to the Gulf of Mexico.   At a large university, the decision about how to meet budget reductions in the end is largely left up to department chairs and deans.   They will routinely choose the path of least resistance, closing open faculty lines.    Leaving the decision about closing faculty lines to meet budget cuts to deans and department chairs will have serious cumulative consequences for a research university.

Reducing costs by closing faculty lines is not the only reason why faculty teaching loads may increase.   Not only are universities seeking ways to save money; they are looking for new ways to make money.  One of these money making schemes is to start offering distance-education courses on the Web.  Aside from the obvious problem that every department, college and university has the same brilliant idea, there is the more practical problem of how to develop such courses and especially how to market them.  The “opportunity” of developing such courses is being provided to, or more correctly being foisted on, more and more faculty, of course only as an add-on to their current teaching loads.

Because some of the tuition from distance education courses comes directly to the department, chairs view such courses as huge potential cash cows — $450 for a 3 credit course taken by 1,000 students will net the department $450,000.  The sky is the limit.  Think of all the things we could do with the money!   (Why are we continuing to teach our traditional courses?)  Never mind how we would get 1,000 students to take the course.  Never mind that developing such a course will have to be done in their spare time by faculty who know nothing about distance education.  One faculty member listening to this spiel from her chair asked, “What’s in it for me?”  The answer was basically nothing.   If she was lucky, she might get to teach the course during the summer and earn a month’s salary.   The fact that she was an ecologist and did most of her research during the summer seemed to be irrelevant.

In my department, our chair was bemoaning the fact in a recent faculty meeting that other departments were lucky because they had open lines that they could use to meet their budget reduction targets, but we did not.  Getting one or more senior faculty to retire in order to create an open faculty line is another strategy that some other chairs are pursuing, sometimes in ways that are close to being illegal.   Given the impact of the economic crisis on retirement savings, not as many faculty as in the past are likely to retire per year in the near future.  This is the silver lining in an otherwise rather dark economic cloud hovering over the university.

For the entire university, the current budget crisis could easily result in the loss of an additional 50 to 60 open faculty lines this year.   We have about 55 academic departments.  I consider this a conservative estimate that is based on one faculty line being closed per department.  Fortunately for both faculty and students, it is unlikely that many new “add-on” distance education courses will ever be developed.  The data in Townsend and Rosser suggest that shifting the courses associated with closed  lines to remaining faculty and developing new distance education courses will result in yet additional reductions in research productivity.   For research universities, the tyranny of small decisions  to close faculty lines has serious long-term consequences for the very nature of the institution.  These consequences  are not being discussed by the faculty, faculty leaders or administrators.   They go far beyond the larger class sizes and reduced course offerings so feared by students and faculty.

What should the university do to reduce its expenditures?  University administrators need to keep in mind that the two central missions of the university are teaching and research.  Reducing the number of tenure-track faculty who do the teaching and research will always be counterproductive.   Reducing the number of tenure-track faculty increases the teaching loads of remaining faculty,  and it has a two-fold effect on research:  it lowers the research productivity of the remaining faculty and it means fewer people doing research.   Budget cutting efforts need to focus on reducing administrative and operational costs, including a reduction in the number of support staff. We have more than 3 support staff for every tenure-track faculty member.  For more on dealing with university budget cuts, see my earlier blogs on this topic, especially my blog on Strategic Budget Cuts.

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