So I sounded a note of confidence in my Chronicle of Higher Education piece that faculty are perfectly capable of constructive participation in hard fiscal choices and being responsible custodians of the liberal arts ideal within resource constraints. How sure am I that this is the case?
Well, first I’m sure that most of the people who complain that faculty are consistently irresponsible aren’t basing that on any specific or concrete reference point. A lot of the time this is just a kind of folkloric talking point or free-floating anti-intellectualism, an immaculate ressentiment. Or they’re exasperated administrators blowing off steam, who have had to deal with the neediest, most insecure or most bullying faculty and have let those experiences inform a general portrait.
More complicatedly, there are some institutions where faculty have never really been given the chance to participate meaningfully in budgetary planning, so either way (optimistic or pessimistic) the hypothesis of their likely participation isn’t fully tested. And often when faculty do get to look at budgets, they only see their own, not the bigger picture, and therefore often suspect (sometimes correctly) that the real budgetary challenges lie somewhere else within the institution. That can apply within faculty budgets, also. I’ve always found it a bit frustrating when we (and many other institutions) ask individual departments to assess their needs for journals or other library materials when the costs of subscriptions in different disciplines are so radically different. You can’t really judge a willingness to participate when you aren’t allowed to address the big picture.
That said, I don’t buy the Marc Bousquet-ish argument that it’s all about the administrators, about conservative attacks on the public sector, that it’s possible to hire far more faculty across the higher education sector with good wages, benefits and job security, to get back to a golden age. I grant that most versions of austerity are a rigged game, but I think progressives have a duty to think about limits to resources. So do faculty think that way, can they think that way?
“Can they” is easy. Yes. Do they? Sometimes. Late last semester, I was surprised when within three days, three different colleagues of mine all expressed the view that nothing has really changed about the revenues available to an elite private institution like Swarthmore and that they believed that the institution had considerable reserves of untapped wealth that could and should be used to hire more faculty and expand the curriculum. I’ve had far more colleagues acknowledge the opposite, that we have to operate within limits. But it’s still surprising to run into the former belief (which is even more common among our students): it’s a form of magical thinking. Wealthy institutions tend to have spent up to the limits of their wealth, just like struggling colleges and universities are generally straining against the limits of what’s possible. There may be other things to do with that wealth than what’s being done with it, but generally there isn’t a secret pile of cash just sitting in the basement.
So has anything changed about revenues for selective private higher education, whether small colleges or larger universities? Yes. Several fundamentals have changed.
First, for a variety of reasons, most potently static wage levels and widening income inequality in general in the United States, tuition and board cannot continue to be increased well above inflation. There’s a political constraint and an economic constraint, particularly in need-blind institutions. At some point, increasing the sticker price at a need-blind institution, if you don’t quietly fudge your formula for financial aid eligibility, might well cost you more in financial aid than it brings in. Increasing the number of students might also have a higher net cost than gain depending on how it’s done, not to mention that it might impact the quality of the education provided.
Second, public sector support for a variety of expenses in higher education has declined and is likely to continue to decline. This has a really direct and painful impact on public universities and community colleges, but measurable consequences for private ones as well, however wealthy or struggling they are in terms of their own resources. You can argue against this shift, but for the moment, I don’t see it going in the other direction.
Third, this is a much tougher environment for philanthropic contributions. Many alumni don’t have the money to give, and some others have decided that whatever they have to give ought to go to more genuinely needy causes, a view that I think is hard to argue too strongly against.
Fourth, endowment income is at the least a much scarier thing to rely upon. Institutions that didn’t build big endowments in the 1990s or that lost a disproportionately higher amount in 2007-2008 are going to find it very hard to catch up, and those that did are much warier than they were a decade ago about using this income to incur obligations that they can’t shed if there’s another big contraction.
I think there’s a more subtle fifth issue. Which is that if academics are going to say that universities should not be run like a business, that we should resist commodification of education, that we should not be corporatized, then it’s up to us to imagine how institutions can exist in the world without growth. There’s something that sticks in my craw when faculty denounce the logic of capitalism and then turn around and essentially see their own institutions as always growing, always getting bigger, always entrepreneurially snapping up new areas of research, new opportunities. The alternative isn’t just being static. I think we need to figure out how to embrace change without growth, dynamism without expansion. There may be ideal scales of institutional size that justify growth at particular times in particular ways (I’m finally convinced, for example, that Swarthmore maybe needs to grow by a few hundred students over a decade or so) but even if we were not up against limits in revenue, I think one of the challenges of the 21st Century is to figure out how to achieve transformation and innovation within limits.
Are there disproportionate cost increases in higher education? Yes. If you believe, as I do, that high-quality undergraduate education is necessarily labor-intensive, then you are going to be exposed to health care cost increases to a very great degree. Energy costs hit residential higher education hard. Various kinds of regulatory and statutory compliance have hit higher education to a disproportionate degree. And there are unique costs, most notably with libraries and instructional technology. (Though in my humble view, that’s one area where higher education could hit back very hard against external service providers and get a lot of budgetary relief.)
So the budget crunch at wealthy and struggling institutions is real. What are the things that responsible faculty could do as institutional stewards that might help? Yes, yes, I know, cut administrative jobs, increase public support and all that “the other guy goes first” stuff, but let’s leave that aside for now.
a) Teach more, research less. I will now be entering the Witness Protection Program.
To be clear, I don’t mean this to apply to Swarthmore or really any teaching-intensive undergraduate college. This is about large research universities where faculty have teaching loads of 1/0, 1/1 or even 1/2. I know, some research brings revenue to the university and having the principal investigator teach more costs money rather than saves it. And if I move to the next obvious thought, higher teaching loads for faculty who don’t bring in research revenue, a raft of concerns about commodification, equity and so on come roaring into view. But it’s one way to increase the number of courses available to undergraduates and graduates and preserve the quality of the curriculum, to demonstrate the value of tenured faculty to the educational mission. I’m going to be blunt here: we have way too much research being produced in most fields, if you consider it just as an intrinsic good in its own right. Yes, research is also a big part of being an active, engaged teacher, but the kind of research that makes people good “teacher-scholars” seems to me to be much more flexible in terms of the scale of effort and time that it requires, and allows people to teach more than they sometimes do.
b) Recognize that curricular design has costs.
Both at Swarthmore and elsewhere, I see a lot of faculty who don’t really appreciate this point. Many folks defend the design of their departmental major or of general education in purely intellectual or scholarly terms, that they set requirements as they must be set to ensure the quality of learning outcomes, that there are things that students simply must know or do if they are to study a particular topic. I’m sometimes convinced that this proposition is in fact true, but even when it is, I think there’s probably unexplored flexibility (three required classes instead of five, one introductory course instead of two, that kind of thing). Sometimes I think it’s flatly not true, that a department has talked itself into believing that there is only one possible way to teach the discipline, regardless of how hard it is to staff the resulting curriculum. When faculty have strong autonomy in matters of curricular governance, it’s up to them to always keep the costs of a particular design in mind. The longer the sequence of requirements, and the more specialized the instruction required in that sequence, the more expensive it is to sustain.
c) A liberal arts approach doesn’t fixedly require any particular subjects to be taught.
This doesn’t mean that you teach any damn thing: what you teach still has to be recognizable in terms of the history and uses of knowledge in the contemporary world. I’ve talked about this recently so I won’t go any further, save to say that this is an area where I think faculty can be frustratingly contradictory: arguing against canons and core knowledge when it would constrain their personal autonomy and interests, arguing for them when they’re trying to get resources for their own interests. But this is where words like “flexibility” and “nimbleness” can have some fiscal as well as intellectual meaning: not that this is an argument for contraction, but it is what allows resources to flow where needed within a university or college faculty. Taking this view seriously also imposes a non-budgetary obligation on all faculty, which is that everyone has to contribute to the overall institutional curriculum and institutional culture, not just to their particular specialized subject. In many ways, the point here is that very strong disciplinary specialization is expensive, whatever its other intellectual merits and demerits might be. If it’s expensive, the arguments for it need to be correspondingly strong.
d) Be preemptively generous about inequities of funding within faculty budgets.
Swarthmore, for example, has a fixed per-faculty allotment for travel and a fixed per-faculty fund to support research expenses that you can apply for. I’ve long thought that we might use that money more effectively if we had some kind of need-based flexibility. I know very well, for example, that a ticket to South Africa has a really different cost than a ticket to Chicago. It’s true that adjudicating different levels of need would impose a cost in time and hassle, and might actually end up being more expensive. But we make a big deal out of the autonomy and responsibility of faculty. On paper at least, it might be nice if we could self-police our actual needs for support of this kind and not require an elaborate deliberative process.
e) Streamline faculty participation in administrative work.
Speaking of elaborate deliberative processes, though faculty love to grouse about committees and service, at least some of the service work of faculty at many institutions is work they’ve imposed upon themselves. Where it’s possible to streamline, where there are decisions that don’t really have to be made laboriously from scratch year-after-year, that’s a potential savings of time and effort that could go into more productive or generative work. This is especially true when folks believe that the elaborate process in question is largely about monitoring or restricting the activities of some other department or division.
f) Beware of wandering or misinvested ego.
Individual faculty should have great pride in their work as individuals, in their teaching, their research, their service. That’s healthy. What’s not so healthy, and is sometimes costly, is when individual ego gets attached to departments, disciplines, divisions or other large-scale institutional structures. We should defend our actual colleagues and their practicing autonomy as professionals, but it really shouldn’t be so important whether a given department is at X or Y size compared to a similar or related department. That kind of internal competition often really does impose all sorts of subtle and occasionally obvious costs on the larger institution, often to no useful end.
I don’t know in the end whether any of these shifts in cultural outlook add up to much on the bottom line, but they strike me as the most potent ways that cost-consciousness can and should be a part of how faculty act as stewards of the larger institutional mission.