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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.

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