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Monday, September 20, 2010

Monday, September 20, 2010

Fall Comes to the U of Washington

by Gerald Barnett, Director, Research Technology Enterprise Initiative, UW-Seattle

In the State of Washington, funding for higher education is in a free-fall. An August 29 story in the Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the State has cut the budget of the University of Washington by 33% or $134m in the past 15 months. But that’s not all, as Governor Gregoire has just signed an executive order for another round of across the board budget cuts --with an open tab—maybe 7% but could be 10%--with the prospect of another $3b state deficit in the next biennium budget (update—looks like 6%).

Here’s how the Chronicle story paints the picture:
“In a frustrating paradox, Washington and other top public universities are victims of their own success. Every research-support milestone or big donation takes a whack at the urgency of their budget appeals. But that money can't be used for faculty raises or for the day-to-day costs of educating students, which can be difficult to explain to the general public.”
This theme has been explored by a number of contributors to this blog over the past year. The more the university claims “success,” the worse off it gets.
The Chronicle story repeats (without challenge) the line that the money coming in for research and donation can’t be used for other things—in essence, it is earmarked for special interests in the university, leaving core functions to fend for themselves or die for lack of state subsidies. This line, of course, is not true unless administrators work overtime to make it so.

Roughly one third of the total research dollars a university receives goes to its indirect cost recoveries. At the University of Washington, this creates a huge $300m slush fund, as much of it is handed out to the various Schools, Colleges, and other units without any apparent oversight other than general university spending rules. We may note that whatever these units spend this slush on is stuff that they don’t have to spend state funds on. But no one knows what these tradeoffs are—or if they do, they aren’t telling the university community or the public. I can’t quite tell which of these two is the worse of the evils. But I’m sure they are both evils, not knowing and not telling.

The same is true for donations, which are a function, frequently, of how the development office conducts its administrative business. Large donations are often arranged things, cultivated as earmarks restricted to particular purposes in consultation with deans and other senior administrators. Even here, donation money can *displace* state money, but my bet is that it doesn’t. Who could say? The information isn’t reported. But I would guess that it would be seen as a travesty in administrative circles for private donations to fund something that state funds are otherwise supporting, so the state funds could be shifted to something else that needs attention.

The reality appears to be that donations are largely being spent on top of state subsidies and increase the demand for those subsidies. Donation spending makes existing programs bigger but does not subsidize the administration of those programs, which also gets bigger. To illustrate; when a donation supports university research, a development office takes only about 5% for its administrative fee. Yet when that same research is supported by a federal grant, the university argues that 50% or more is insufficient to cover the administrative and facilities costs of the research. Something isn’t working right. Again, no one in the press apparently wants investigate and win a Pulitzer prize.

At the University of Washington, there are 3 times as many “development” officers as there are research administrators. When I counted them all last year, before some were let go in a prior round of budget cuts, the number was north of 400. This was not much of an anomaly, however, since the University of Texas and the University of Michigan were both over 300 each. I shudder to think what the count is in the UC system. I know at the small UC campus I worked at, the number was in the 60s. One might posit that in a time of shortfall, a university could do without 90% of its development officers and should draw on the funds it has built up to ensure instruction remains fully funded. But that would not meet the rhetorical strategy of university administrators, which is based on need + reputation, not competence + priorities. It is a losing rhetorical strategy. One would think after thirty years of it, administrators would try a new approach.

Unlike the representation made in the Chronicle article, the university is not merely the victim of this situation—it is also the perpetrator. The budget situation at the University of Washington is doubly self-inflected. First, administrators inflict damage by maintaining that cuts will be damaging but the quality of the institution will not be affected (untrue unless the damage is to administration, not instruction), and further by making internal budget decisions to prove true the public rhetoric by making damaging cuts to instruction rather than administration.

Self-damage is the one reliable self-fulfilling prediction one can make. University leaders appear to be willing to follow this pathway. It appears to be the best tool they have in their shop. History suggests that the one positive in this approach, from an administrator’s perspective, is that administration is the last to go. Administration in denial. It seeks a solution that makes robust administration once again justified. It cannot believe that things have changed. It does not want the public, or the State, to believe that things have changed. It expends resources to *that* end. In a time of need, one may expect administration to *grow* as it staffs up to downsize programs so that it, as an administration, can continue unfazed.

A piece in a recent issue of The Economist, “Declining by Degree”, points to studies from both liberal and conservative perspectives taking on the conduct of higher education in the US. That while US universities enjoy high rankings in global measures, they like the US car industry may be heading for a fall. Administrative bloat, grade inflation, loss of interest in the progress of students, and rising tuition are cited as leading risk factors. The criticism and suggestions for change are coming from both the left and the right. That is, from the public. While there may be right-wing talking points, there are also left-wing talking points that aren’t any friendlier. In California, it may be that conservatives have blocked funding. But in Washington state, it is liberals that have done that.

This leads to the proposition: it serves no purpose to cast the problem in terms of liberals or conservatives. That way lies known, but intractable and losing fights. The problem must be expressed in new terms, and the new terms have to imply solutions.

The problem for universities, and for the reporters, is that university administrators are not coming clean on why there are university budget problems. The kicker quote from the Chronicle story comes from Deb Wallace, who talks about how the University of Washington has spun the budget cuts:
Rep. Deb Wallace says the university has been overly adversarial. The powerful Democrat, who chairs the Legislature's higher-education committee, acknowledges that the budget woes are serious. "I'm not saying it's easy for them."

But she says university leaders have frustrated lawmakers by overstating the problem. For example, she says, the state cut is more like 6 percent after accounting for federal stimulus funds and tuition increases granted by the state.

"They've got to be intellectually honest about the reduction to play ball with us," she says, arguing that the flagship, in particular, has lost some of the public goodwill it has earned by pushing the message of budget woes.
It is not just that the states are no longer supplementing the budgets as they used to. Yes, that is a bad thing, a bad thing in the context of other bad things. Rather, it is the priorities that university leaders place on the spending of the money they do have. It is not reported that there are huge cuts to student instruction. The university issues no press releases or even brusque reports about this. These cuts, like cuts to department staff happen in silence. There will be no departure notices in the local paper, like the notices when the university hires another senior administrator. Every student knows (and I have a daughter at UW) that there are fewer courses offered, these are harder to get into, with less information about them, with less and poorer quality instructional support—and all this at substantially greater cost. This is not within the definition of “excellence”.

The increased tuition income clearly is not going to instruction.

Everyone gets this except, apparently, university administrators, who are unwilling to admit it. The news articles don’t show the subsidies flowing from tuition dollars to administration, or the five people now needed in the new “time-saving” on-line system to approve a simple travel reimbursement or the total disruption required during a period of shortfall to create an entirely new university-wide approach to budgeting, where a lot of attention appears to be how to re-implement fudge factors to bring cross-subsidies and entitlements into the new system. The privileged players in a given social system tend to propose changes to the system that are socially invariant for the privileged players. Leaders aim to still be leaders while doing their leading. Those who are well funded aim to continue to be well funded. It is everyone else that will take the hit. The primary issue for administrative rhetoric is how to put it to them. The beauty of the state budget shortfalls is that administrators can deliver the blow by blaming it on the state, not on their own management or priorities or reticence to reduce or eliminate their own privilege. It is a noble task, this administration of the university, and not just anyone can do it, and in a time of shortfall, the university needs more, not fewer administrators, and better paid at that, to preside over, and direct funds away from, instruction so that the rhetoric of need + reputation can be continued.

We may then posit any intellectually honest, truly beneficial change in a university’s budgets will come from an external proposal, not one coming from administrators or the consultants who love them.
The stark element of the Chronicle report is that it is the Democrats who are feeling miffed and saying the University of Washington is not being intellectually honest about the budget cuts or the university’s own needs. Yet the university still pulls out the big PR machine and talks privatization as its route to salvation without any mention of attainment. The Economist article reports that in the US, 40% of students fail to finish their degree program. Nor does the university mention the impact of its imposition of cuts on instructional activities.

It is as if the leaders of the university are leading something that exists largely now as reputation alone—rather than actual programs with quality, with students progressing to degrees, with faculty engaged at every step of the way. Reputation has the benefit of persisting for some period of time after the underlying activity that created it has left the building. Trading on a reputation inconsistent with conditions is deceit, not spin. This, then, is the charge Democrats are floating in public regarding university administration.

In a nutshell, the university PR machine claims that quality can be maintained so long as attainment is not included in the definition of quality. And if granting degrees is not part of quality, what is? Is it better for educational excellence to have students paying and not finishing? Is it a great experience if students finish with $50,000 or more in debt? Is a “good buy for the price” still a quality purchase? It bears repeating, providing a poorer product at a higher price is not a definition of quality.

What do university administrators mean by “quality” or “excellence”? It would appear that they mean “we can keep up the appearances long after the rot has set in, and will continue to do this if the state is willing to use appearances as the basis for funding decisions.” It would appear the state—and in the case of the State of Washington, this means Democrats who control the legislature—are saying, “We will keep cutting until you stop lying to us.” It is as simple as that. One might add—until you stop lying to the public, to the faculty, and to the students. This is heady stuff. It may not be a productive position to take—since cuts do hurt programs, quality, people’s lives. But if the university is being intellectual dishonest—lying—or worse, just bullshitting (that’s a technical term) without caring if what is being put out is true or not, then one might see why the university is not getting its way with the State these days.

University administrators are well intentioned. They say things they want to be true, wish were true, are trying to make true. But the only way they can be right, now, is to gut the university and rebuild it in the image of their rhetoric, efficient, process-bound, impersonal, and money-driven rather than money-enabled. What social institutions can you think of that’s run by accountants, auditors, and lawyers? Do you think universities will fare any better?

Here are some statements that you will not see coming from the university administrator class any time soon. These are statements one might make if one were indeed concerned with creating and maintaining quality:
  • The University is losing money on its research programs and is taking steps to end this practice.
  • The University has been shifting tuition money to research and general administration that research requires, and is now going to greatly restrict this practice.
  • The University has been allocating patent royalty income only for more research and will now split this income with instruction.
  • The University has been inflating administrative and faculty salaries for research positions relative to instruction and has ended this practice and is moving to bring future salaries in line with goals of instructional quality.
  • The University has expanded senior administration without comparable increases in effectiveness, so will reduce and restructure senior administrative positions and programs to place greater reliance on departmental staff.
The problems of the university are not ones to be addressed by trying to maintain appearances by cutting even more out of the infrastructure by which quality is created and maintained. The problems of the university are not ones of cutting departmental staff positions while maintaining the positions and salaries and benefits of senior administrators.

The problem of the university is that it is being intellectually dishonest. That’s about as deep as the rot can go.


cloudminder said...

At Cal - there is this:



most would be hard pressed to tell you

who these people are
what they do
and how it affects research
and yet....

Anonymous said...

"Just for fun" I've been looking up the salaries of various people mentioned in association with central administrative offices such as the chancellor's. There is a very interesting pattern regarding our most recent furlough year. Yes, many of the these people were furloughed just like the rest of us, but, unlike the rest of us, their salaries dramatically increased the year before the furlough. So, in effect, they still got paid more than the previous year. I wish I could number-crunch the effects of the furlough on staff all across Berkeley. I think it will be proven that there were select people in certain kinds of central administrative offices, who did not suffer at all. I think the people in the highest level of administration saw this coming and made sure to take care of their own.

Bob Samuels said...

Gary, Thank you for this entry. You have restated many of the things I have been discussing for the last year. For example, the university attacks the state legislature for cutting their budget 20%, when in reality federal recovery money made up for most of the reductions. After attacking the state, the university then expects the state to comply with all of the university’s wishes. Meanwhile the faculty and administration for the most part feel very comfortable blaming all of the university’s problems on the state so no one has to look at our own internal practices.

As you point out most donations end up costing money and research funded by external grants either loses money or produces secret slush funds. On top of this, the self-sustaining units siphon money off of everyone else as they refuse to share any of their profits. The result is that the only source for more money is students, and while tuition and fees go up, instructional costs are reduced by cutting courses, requirements, teachers, and increasing class size.

Yes, universities are living off of their reputations, but things are starting to change. Book after book exposes universities as corrupt institutions, and this may lead to more public de-funding, or perhaps, faculty, staff, students, and parents will ban together and demand more accountability.

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