A Difficult Question

A Difficult Question
December 17, 2010

It has taken me several months to write this latest column. I have started on it several times, and then stopped for a few weeks at time. Part of the reason is that I have been very busy, but another reason is that this is a difficult topic, and I have had a hard time deciding how to approach it. We are in the middle of one of the most difficult economic periods of this generation. Universities are under pressure, and at least in Texas, a recent survey indicates that people consider higher education the main area that should be cut when the legislature meets in January.

When I read blogs or commentaries where a faculty member discusses the current economic crisis and its impact on higher education, invariably there will be several comments that say "you should just be happy that you have a job." As I was considering topics for this column, I found myself self-censoring – I should avoid complaining about the current situation, because at least I have a job. However, I realized this is clearly a self-defeating attitude and a surefire path to the decline in quality of higher education. I try to count my blessings every day. However, it is also important that we make sure that we do our best as faculty to make sure that we are maintaining, to the best of our ability, the high standards that have made this country’s system of higher education the envy of the world.

I also ask myself if I really want my sons going to a university where the faculty are "just happy to have a job." I would prefer for my sons to be able to go to a university where the faculty have fought to maintain quality. However, we don’t seem to have a consensus on what it means to maintain quality. It’s clear that the size of the faculty will shrink, as seen at my previous employer, the University of Washington. The first step at UT has been retirement incentives, and the rest will come from attrition. My own department has already cut the number of lecturers we employ, leading to larger class sizes for the tenured faculty. These cuts are only the beginning, as the state of Texas faces, by recent estimates, a $24 billion budget deficit. How do you set priorities in this kind of budget environment?

In the past year faculty in the College of Liberal Arts at UT were asked to rank a set of potential areas for cuts. In response to these surveys, a faculty committee has begun to propose potential cuts. A recent proposal by the committee would dramatically cut the funding to several ethnic studies centers in the college along with other cuts. Apparently, part of the criteria determining the cuts to the centers was their "efficiency." However, how does one measure efficiency? Much of this was done according to a formula factoring in programs’ output in relation to budgets. It’s troubling that cuts to programs might be subject to some kind of algorithm, rather than the ongoing services they provide to faculty, students and staff. This is particularly true in the case of ethnic studies programs that have been the main actors in recruiting minority faculty and students, particularly graduate students.

Given the budget climate, I also have to ask myself what I would be willing to give up in order to maintain some of the programs that people have fought for since the 1960s. This is of particular relevance since I am at a university that historically has a very poor record on equity. Improving gender equity, a top priority of the university a year ago, has disappeared from radar screens. With ethnic studies programs under threat, it’s not clear what the impact will be on the commitment to recruiting minority students (at least beyond our sports teams – not to knock them; I was once an athlete, too). I am glad to have this job, but I also want to make sure that the door doesn’t close behind me.

Many faculty already play an active role in their universities, but we all need to step up, particularly since it is a zero-sum game. If I object to the types of cuts that are being proposed in my college, I need to work with the dean and the provost to help find better alternatives. If I feel that gender equity and minority recruitment need to remain priorities, I need to encourage more faculty to get involved with these issues. However, it is important to keep in mind that no matter how we approach the issue, the pie is shrinking. Even in states where tuition increases have been politically feasible (they are not here in Texas), budget shortfalls remain.

It is very unlikely that there will be agreement on where cuts should be made, but all faculty and students need to make sure they are playing a role in how priorities are set. Administrators need our input and our support. They are stuck between a rock and a hard place right now. I know that some things that I hold precious may not survive the budget axe, but I will sleep better knowing that I at least made a case for what I feel is important. I certainly would hate to see our ethnic studies programs lose support without looking at other alternatives. It all comes down to the fact that we are facing hard times, and it is not just the responsibility of committees and administrators to play an active role in these decisions.



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