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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.

One Comment leave one →
  1. John Smith permalink
    March 19, 2010 16:13

    You have raised a lot of interesting points, but I’m disturbed by your seeming lack of recognition for the rights of assistant professors, who you lump together with lecturers as you question what will happen to tenured faculty. Assistant professors should be treated the same as tenured faculty in most cases (the exception being financial exigency, in which case, tenured faculty are given priority). Assistant Professors are hired under the assumption that they will receive tenure if they hold up their end of the bargain, and many chose to come here rather than accept another offer as a result. To end their contracts for any reason other than cause or declared financial exigency is to reduce them to lecturers – otherwise, what would be the difference between a 3-year renewable contract and a tenure-track position? As you point out, ISU invested in assistant professors in sociology and other departments. They need to honor those commitments, and I hope that you, as the head of the Faculty Senate, will represent the assistant professors as strongly as the tenured faculty of which you are a part.

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