Cost Control Is a Progressive Value

If you are a long-time reader of this increasingly intermittent blog, you know I have some recurrent frustrations and fascinations that I return to again and again. Sometimes in fact the blog is intermittent because I am afraid I am becoming a bore on those themes.

One of these recurrent issues for me is the financial sustainability of higher education. On one hand, I aspire to some skepticism about the neoliberal attempt to produce scarcity where it does not need to exist, out of belief that the mindset of scarcity produces proper decisions about value, that homo economicus behaves wisely whereas people who feel they live amid plenty and security waste resources and underproduce value. It’s not just that the moral underpinnings of that view are barren and repellant, it’s also that it is plainly empirically untrue whether we’re talking universities or companies. Realism about limits and constraints is a good thing, but artificially producing constraints in order to compel a winner-take-all struggle and squeeze productivity out of people has already destroyed much of what the 20th Century usefully accomplished towards the forging of saner, kinder, and more richly meaningful societies.

But the opposite of phony scarcity is not “we’re rich, so we can do whatever we want”. Which is a view that I hear sometimes from local and national colleagues and students, that in order to reject scarcity we must never be deterred by or involved in determinations of financial and material limits to our resources. That for one is one of the major ways that tenure-track faculty in many institutions became at least passively complicit in the casualization of academic labor. Acting as if one’s own teaching load or service obligations or labor is a matter of strictly personal or departmental negotiation with an administrative head, and the larger implications of the outcome of those negotiations are somebody else’s business is how in some cases we ended up with curricula that dictated that matriculants had to take courses that couldn’t possibly be staffed out of the available tenure-track labor force. Faculty at some institutions participated slowly and incrementally in the building of a curriculum that could never be possibly staffed by even the wealthiest institution and then blamed administrators for the shift to impoverished, marginalized and excluded laborers.

Though of course they are to blame in many universities, and for doing a great deal that has made all sorts of financial situations worse. Faculty and students may sometimes push for and be appallingly naive about institutional growth, but one of the basic reasons to have academic administrations in the first place is to keep a university or college close to its essential mission, and to resist relentlessly additive expansion of that mission.

The late Marshall Berman’s book All That Is Solid Melts Into Air has a marvelous analysis of Faust as the “primal Growthman”, as the quintessential example of a modern archetype, the person dedicated to a vision of modernity as not only ceaselessly mutable but dedicated to the replacement of all that we have with more than we have, with the making of all things into bigger things, with accumulation and expansion. It’s not a surprise to me that the most heedless and energetic Fausts of our own times are now restlessly looking to “disrupt” anything that seems to expand too slowly. Some of that’s about money, about financial Alexanders who weep because there are no worlds left to conquer, no investments left to make. Some of it very nearly a religious or sacred belief: that whatever seems to stand still is an offense. No wonder too that people like Elon Musk are shilling for Mars colonies and asteroid mines. Faust is hungry for the same reason Cookie Monster is: tired of waiting for a batch from the oven, he’s eaten the spoon, the pan, the mixer, the table. The cookies are as good as eaten already: they were eaten before they were even mixed.

Do not feed the Faust. That’s really what reaching sustainability is going to be about. At every moment, in every conversation, in every plan and meeting and process, any progressive academic who pays even the remotest attention to sustainability in higher education (or elsewhere) is going to invariably ask: what can we repurpose or reuse? If we want novelty, or change, or difference, if we believe in originality and innovation, what can we do differently? So in that sense, one thing we should always be alarmed about is any sign that adminstrators (or colleagues) have found a new source of revenue. Even if that’s about making up cuts in public support, which is how University of California administrators defend bringing in more out-of-state students with relaxed admission standards, new revenue (or even replaced revenue from a new source) is always imagined as temporary but effectively becomes permanent from the moment it is integrated into an operational budget. Whatever was done to secure new revenue will have to be done forever after. Growth quickly requires itself unless it’s limited, finite and finished all in a single momentary flash, unless it is only for a single specific purpose.

I think in a way most of us know it, and that’s why academics are so temperamentally conservative. We know that whatever new things we do will eventually be at the cost of something we are already doing, unless we sign on as little apprentice Fausts. But that’s the harder habit that sustainability in all our life will eventually call upon us to accept and even embrace, to live impermanent lives. We will need to build yurts where now we build fortresses, to move on as the intellectual seasons change. I think we can offer working lives of security and satisfaction within an academy that doesn’t grow. Impermanence in the work we do and the missions we accept is not precarity. But the only way we get there is to accept that if we don’t talk about cost and limits and budgets in this spirit, no one else in our present worlds will. That kind of talk cannot be outsourced, it cannot be deferred, it not someone else’s business. When temptation comes in the form of bigger and more (though not in the form of restoration and preservation, which are sorely needed), we’ll have to be able to turn it down.

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2 Responses to Cost Control Is a Progressive Value

  1. sibyl says:

    Futurists of the past — say, 1928 — used to predict that by the end of the 20th century we would have a 15-hour work week, because that’s all it would take to produce what a person needed in 1928. And the second part is true: it takes us only a few hours to produce what a 1928 person needed. But we need more stuff than we used to: we all need cars, and gasoline, and lattes, and safe water and food, and televisions, and health care, and the internet; and we need it for longer, since we aren’t dying at age 64 anymore. So we all have longer work weeks, and we feel worse about it, even though we are vastly better off than our grandparents and great-grandparents.

    Sheila Bair, president of Washington College and former chair of the FDIC, pointed out recently that private colleges developed need-based financial aid because they thought it was right for well-off students to help subsidize the educations of those who were less well off. But the reality is that there aren’t enough well-off students for all colleges to do this.

    For a long time, higher education, like society, depended on growth to help it avoid tough choices. But we can’t do that anymore. Every year it’s news when a well-known college enrolls a new class that’s 50 or 100 or 300 or 4,000 short of what they’re projecting, and that results in real harm to the institution. The fact that so many colleges are that close to the edge should be a warning sign. Sweet Briar should be a warning sign, and I’m very worried that the success of the Save Sweet Briar campaign will encourage people to remain complacent. (“Eh, if things get too bad, our alumni will save us.”) The University of California controversy and its consequences should be a warning sign. There are all these warning signs and not enough people heeding them.

    And I think the UC situation gives a clue as to why. The IHE story on the controversy includes quotes from folks who say that neither taxpayers nor parents blame the state for these problems, putting the blame squarely on UC. People who find it hard to get into UCLA don’t find it hard to get into UCR or UCD, but they don’t want to go there, so they say the whole System is at fault. When responsibility is diffused, it’s hard to identify properly. Which is, I suppose, what everyone except UC is counting on.

    Incidentally, I don’t think you should stop returning to your favorite themes. Partly it’s because changing circumstances affect the way that we see old themes, and because old themes keep rearing their heads because we haven’t attacked them. Partly it’s because new readers of this blog need to see those issues. And, speaking as a longtime reader of this blog — I just searched for myself and found that my earliest comment appeared in 2009 — you don’t do it often enough to bore me.

    I offer for consolation the words of John Irving, who once said that repeating yourself is an inevitable consequence of having something to say. (Actually, he probably said it more than once.)

  2. Nostroum says:

    Well, that is in fact a real issue at Swarthmore. From the smallest of the “elite” liberal arts colleges, Swarthmore has been growing consistently 15-20 students a year. That is the source of “productivity” that protects the Crum from more challenging budget decisions. I don’t know when it stops … 2,200 students? 4,000? At some point the college experience will be different and perhaps undifferentiated…

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