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Shared Crisis

January 15, 2013

Citing a recent wave of unilateral moves to eliminate academic programs by university administrators claiming financial crisis, the American Association of University Professors today released new guidelines designed to tighten the definition of financial exigency and increase faculty participation in deciding whether to close programs.

“We had a standard, and that standard was clearly being ignored” by a variety of institutions, said Michael Bérubé, who led a two-year AAUP investigation into department closures that resulted in the proposed guidelines and an accompanying report, "The Role of the Faculty in Conditions of Financial Exigency." “But addressing them one-by-one was like playing ‘Whack-a-Mole.’ ”

AAUP accepts that academic programs may be  cut due to true financial exigency or sound educational reasons, said Bérubé, professor of English at Pennsylvania State University and immediate past president of the Modern Language Association. But some of the cuts in recent years have not been based on a “you’re bankrupt and owe money to the mob tomorrow” imperative, but rather “festering” financial crises related to the greater economic climate in which administrations have looked to cut instructional costs before other, extracurricular priorities, such as athletics.

Institutions named in the report include the University of Northern Iowa, several within the University of Louisiana System and the State University of New York at Albany; all have eliminated academic programs and in some cases, associated tenure-track positions within the last several years, pointing to financial imperatives but without declaring financial exigency. Under longstanding AAUP policy, only colleges that have declared financial exigency may eliminate the jobs of tenured professors.

Additionally, Bérubé said, administrations in some cases have cut programs with low numbers of majors without thinking about broader curricular implications. At Northern Iowa, for example, he said, cutting the physics program last year left other science majors with a hole in their course loads where they would have taken physics classes. This is more commonly associated with recent cuts to language departments, a trend that can leave undergraduates with fewer options to fulfill language requirements. (A spokesman from University of Northern Iowa referred questions on this topic to earlier statements by President Benjamin Allen in response to a related but separate AAUP report on program cuts. In those statements, Allen said AAUP’s position was mere opinion, without punitive teeth, and that it mischaracterized the process by which the university identified programs for cuts and “misapprehended” the severity of the university’s financial emergency, among other criticisms).

Fundamentally linking budget concerns with curriculum concerns, the new recommendations outline a strict protocol for faculty participation in declarations of financial exigency and department closure discussions. Peer-elected faculty members should be involved alongside administrators at all levels of the discussion,  with access to least five years' worth of the institutions’ audited financial statements; current and following-year budgets; and detailed cash-flow estimates for future years, as well as program, department and administrative-level budgets. Program cuts – and the tenure-track job losses that usually accompany them – should also be a last resort, following attempts to cure budget ills by furloughs and other means, including cuts to extracurricular expenditures.

The new recommendations, which build on existing regulations dating back to the 1970s, also offer a clearer-cut definition of financial exigency, falling somewhere between an immediate threat to the survival of the institution and ordinary attrition in operating budgets; exigency can only be declared when “substantial” injury to the institution’s academic mission will result from prolonged and drastic reductions in funds available to the institution and only when determination of the institution’s financial health is guided by generally accepted accounting principles. The report includes an appendix with metrics by which administrators and faculty can jointly assess the severity of their financial crisis.

When cuts to programs are unavoidable, faculty should be given at least 30 days’ notice. The report also outlines a process by which tenured faculty should be reassigned, where possible, to another academic department.

John Lombardi, a former president of the Louisiana State University and expert on institutional finance, said that financial exigency has historically been a point of contention between administrations and faculty precisely because it means different things to different groups at different levels of the institution. Union groups tend to hold that any available funds should be spent on keeping jobs, while administrators have to balance a wider variety of obligations.

“Given the financial challenges of many institutions, we can expect to see continued controversy over these issues,” said Lombardi. “Often it's best to be sure everyone understands the budget, understands the context, and understands the decisions. This rarely produces agreement, but it does reduce paranoia and tends to focus on the real issues involving the money.  Then, when the administration makes a decision, we all know how it arrived there, even if we do not agree with the decision.”

Kent Chabotar, the president of Guilford College in North Carolina, who also has written extensively about the intersection of institutional finance and management, agreed that such debate will be ongoing. But administrations can ease such discussions by maintaining financial transparency at all times – not just in financial crises. That way, he said, there will be less suspicion and more financial literacy among faculty when it comes to making tough decisions. Institutions also can maintain standard student-to-faculty ratios or student-to-administrator ratios that will take some of the mystery out of the decision-making process in times of true financial exigency, he said.

Although AAUP’s investigation began as a probe into financial exigency, Bérubé said it ultimately became more about the importance of shared governance – something already “in tatters” across higher education. The report and revised recommendations are intended to be a “wake-up call” to faculty as well as administrators.

“You should be involved in this stuff,” he said of downtrodden faculty. “This is not something you should be taking lying down.”

 

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