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Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Converging Crises Part II: Survival Rule Number One is Don't Eat Your Young

Here's an act of self-harm that is spreading from coast to coast. Stanford University is "pausing" all faculty searches. "Provost Drell will permit hiring processes to continue if 'discussions have taken place with the finalist about terms of the offer,' or if a formal offer has been extended to a candidate for a faculty position, but any pending offer for a staff position must be put on hold immediately.  On August 31, 2019, the end of the university’s fiscal year, Stanford reported its endowment was $27.7 billion."

That's the author's sequencing, not mine. Drell is tossing out a lot of faculty time and effort, for starters. She's throwing people who almost got jobs back into a terrible job market. And for how much savings--one year of payroll for how many new faculty?  Unknown.  (Update: On April 1st, UC Berkeley announced their own hiring freeze, counting $100 million in covid-related costs, on a $3 billion base).

Another example, from Brown University at the other end of the financial spectrum.  Their provost   is not canceling searches already "well under way," but has frozen future hiring other than "a very few critically strategic hires in the year ahead."  A number of very wealthy elite universities are following suit (Emory, Columbia, Penn . . ): see Bryan Alexander's growing spreadsheet and also this very long one.

Here's a third case, from a state system with 23 campuses and over 450,000 students.

 "All open searches are to be stopped"-- unless the top 2 campus officers agree that it's "vital." They are now the sole originators of searches, "if they deem it necessary." How many searches are cancelled--hundreds across all  campuses? We don't know.

Translation for all three, and the other freezes  now occurring: "we expect the ship to take on water in the coming storm.  So first we'll throw early career researchers overboard."

Note two other features. These senior officials don't offer financial modeling to explain or justify the freezes. Second, these are top-down decisions, devoid of shared governance. They identify no consultation with the units affected. A full range of operational answers aren't produced. What will this do to your major? to your students graduating? to their learning? to department functions? How will this affect your research, short, medium, and long term? What does this do to your doctoral program? How does it affect doctoral education in any particular discipline. There's no information.

Academia has long let financial factors dominate or simply ignore educational ones, to the long-term detriment of education. Administration becomes a transmission belt in which a crisis in the outside world immediately becomes a crisis in the institution. In addition to hurting education, this kind of management robs the institution of agency. It also fails the essential public job of countercyclical actions that resist the cycle of  shutdown--consumption crash--job loss--no money--more closures.

But wait, you say, this is the Great Depression 2.0.  3.3 million new unemployment claims last week, all sorts of back-of-the-envelope fun being had by Fed economists, etc.. Shouldn't the funding collapse override all other factors? 

No. Hell no. A thousand times no.

Managers must always think about the welfare of their whole institutions, which means considering multiple factors when allocating funds. In this case, that includes how a cut or a freeze will affect
  1. immediate institutional solvency
  2. long term institutional solvency
  3. the university's immediate operations, like teaching and research
  4. the university's long term operations, like teaching and research
  5. university personnel (sunk effort, effectiveness, fairness, morale, continuation, recovery)
  6. the disciplines represented in the university
  7. the overall profession of college teaching and research
That's a short list, and you can see an item like (5) can be broken out into many parts. The items at the top are not more important than the rest.  Managers don't really get to pick one or two of these and ignore all others  But that is what Provost Drell and Chancellor White et al. are doing: only getting to (1) or (2) on a  long list, and not to the rest--to impact on courses, curriculum, departmental health, student access, success, food and housing, not to mention the continuity of the professions that keep universities alive.

Drell and White aren't to blame for the defective managerial culture in higher ed nationally, but they are enacting it here. Universities have long dealt with present fiscal crises by sacrificing the future: in addition to their epic passages of deferred maintenance and the like, they have addressed chronic financial shortfalls by hiring temporary faculty rather than permanent ones or by hiring no new faculty at all.  They have not invoked items (3) through (7) above and said to their legislatures, governing  boards, senior managers, wealthy donors, etc., "we cannot offer quality instruction, which in universities always includes a research dimension, by adjuncting more than X percent of our faculty."  (X was traditionally 1/3rd averaged across the sector.)  They have not said this. The long-term results have been
  • massive shrinking of the tenure-track job market
  • destabilization of doctoral study (doing intellectual as well as personal damage)
  • transformation of advanced study into precarity
  • endangerment of the quality and continuity of academic disciplines
Management is an intellectually challenging practice, at least when done right. And doing it well is crucial to the health of academic life. Although I'm very aware of the university's many negative legacies and practices, I'm also an institutionalist, a bit churchy in my sense of the value of universities as intricate and animating systems. I also grew up on Michel Foucault, who, for all his pessimism about the deployments of law, rights, and liberal institutions to impose rather than check power, saw sovereignty as partially replaced by governmentality, in which various powers engaged in the disposition of all the elements of a system, in some kind of efficacy.  I have a lot of respect for the difficulty of the administrative job and for people trying to do it well.  But that is not what is happening here.  Managers are now getting set to wreck another academic generation, having failed to rebuild the public university employment base after the last big crisis in 2008.

A few concluding policy thoughts:
  • Tenured faculty need to bring this repeated sacrifice of the rising academic generations into the sphere of institutional politics.  This means strong objections to pauses, freezes, closures, and future downgradese.  We need to fight this, and design alternatives. 
  • Universities must demand new federal stimulus funds-- beyond the $14 billion (on a nearly $60 billion request) that POTUS signed last week--specifically to maintain the academic workforce. See Michael's post for context and argument. Another giant federal stimulus bill is going to have to happen in the next few weeks. The main point of stimulus funds is sustaining employment.  Given the employment crisis in the society at large, universities should be increasing hiring and trying to employ more people, to ease the pressure on other sectors. Universities should use the crisis to absorb unemployed PhDs from former years and put them to work in the jobs these graduates of our doctoral programs sacrificed years of their lives to do.  More tenure-track employment will also upgrade instruction such that the undergrads we've sent home are more likely to come back. See MLA Executive Director Paula Krebs' excellent short piece on this topic.
  • The federal government should allocate bailout funds to universities only on the condition that they reverse hiring chills and freezes, maintain their workforces, and try the countercyclical economic work of expanding them.
We don't need another massive hit to a higher ed system that was already weaker in 2020 than it was in 2008. We can't take another bloodbath in the academic job market. We need a New Deal for higher ed, starting with the doctoral job market.


SR said...

Hi Chris, thanks for this--and for your and M's pandemic coverage. I'm faculty at Cal Poly, SLO but had no idea about the CSU "hiring chill" until reading your post. The memo you cite is dated Mar. 23, more than a week ago, but nothing has yet been announced at my campus. It's disquieting news, esp. as SLO faculty are currently gearing up for a virtual spring quarter.

Unknown said...

Excellent essay, Chris. The first I heard of this was from the new hire who has accepted our offer (I'm at Cal Poly Pomona, she's at Berkeley), but not yet received the official one from the provost. Very embarrassing. The CSU Academic Senate was given the Chancellor's letter announcing the "slow down", but our campus president still has not said anything about it to us. We ask the dean, and she says our hires are going forward. The recession wrecked the professoriate badly enough, reducing tenure-track hires to a trickle and creating a vast contingent teaching staff of underpaid, over-worked, insecure adjuncts - "freeway flyers" - to teach our youth. This is what they do whenever there's a possible budget threat. God forbid they should stop hiring managers.

Anonymous said...

Appreciate the breadth of this piece and the argument it makes for expanding hiring. As a longtime adjunct, it is nevertheless a bit concerning to hear a touch of parochialism bleed into the argument at this point:

(universities) have not . . . said to their legislatures, governing boards, senior managers, wealthy donors, etc., "we cannot offer quality instruction, which in universities always includes a research dimension, by adjuncting more than X percent of our faculty." (X was traditionally 1/3rd averaged across the sector.)

With all due respect, zero percent of faculty should be required to teach without paid time off to conduct proper research. Further, universities (and the vast majority of tenured faculty) have been satisfied to let the present state of affairs obtain for the last 40 years, during most of which adjuncts like me have had to conduct research on the fly and find ways to deliver quality instruction to students with decreasing institutional support. Which we've done. As a result I've now taught more courses across more disciplines than any 5 TT faculty have in most departments I've taught in. I'm at least passably conversant with a wider range of literatures than more specialized faculty will ever be. From the standpoint of my undergraduate students, I am virtually indistinct from the most credentialed full professor in terms of what I offer them (which is more or less accurate), and I'm likely thought to be a better teacher than he or she is. This is the system we were asked to accommodate ourselves to, and we've done so. We won't be pushed aside in this crisis, and everything about the mis-governance of the university must come out now. We bear the least responsibility for it, and have shouldered the largest burden. This is the last chance the university has to do right by us, and many of us do not intend to allow it to happen.

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