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Next Budget Victim? Joy

May 14, 2009

Step away from that copy machine, and don’t even think about serving lunch at that next faculty meeting. Oh, and that class you love with 20 students? Double it. On second thought, couldn’t you just triple it?

Welcome to the world of higher education in the thick of an economic recession. While tenured faculty may feel more secure in their jobs than employees in more beleaguered industries, there’s little question that the quality of life many professors have come to expect is deteriorating at many institutions. Workloads are increasing while pay is stagnant or falling, and the threat of layoffs has brought an edginess to the Ivory Tower that some professors say hasn’t existed in decades.

“For some of us older folks, it’s like ‘Oh, another budget crisis; we’ll bounce through this like we have in other years,' ” says Richard Reis, a professor emeritus of mechanical engineering at Stanford University. “[But] the magnitude … of the cuts this time around at other universities and our university is much greater than in the 30 or some years that I’ve experienced as a professor. That is different -- wholesale questions about departments in some cases.”

The anxiety that’s spreading across academe became readily apparent to Reis several weeks ago when he opened up a discussion recently on his blog, Tomorrow’s Professor. One of Reis’s readers, clearly stressed by budget cuts at his own college, thought it would be comforting just to hear how others are coping with the downturn.

“Please hear my cry for help! My department is facing an 18.4 percent cut, and I know we’re not alone,” the reader wrote to Reis. “I need some desk-top information and solace about what others are facing, and (even better) what they’re doing about it. There’s so much suffering out there right now. …”

Dozens of responses flooded Reis’s inbox, as a group of largely anonymous professors turned Tomorrow’s Professor into a virtual confession booth. One wrote of using sick days to avoid the distractions of a bare bones department where staff are so depleted that students can’t find answers to basic questions.

“I find I’ve started using more sick days. I need them and that’s why they’re there,” the faculty member wrote. “I work at home whenever I can (A) so I’m not interrupted by students who can’t find a staff member … (B) so I don’t have to pay for parking. Also, I’ve picked up more work on the side -- which interferes with career progress[,] but I need the cash.”

Even faculty who consider their positions relatively stable are seeing the budget crisis chip away at the quality of their lives. Time that was once used for planning or research is devoted to tasks staff used to handle, like filling out expense reports or answering phones.

“I think there’s a feeling of death of a thousand cuts,” says Larry Rudiger, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Vermont. “There’s so many of these little things.”

At the same time, faculty are under increased pressure to demonstrate their worth. Program reviews have added intensity and frequency at some institutions where the search for some fat, any fat, has taken on a ravenous quality.

“It makes it a lot harder. If you have to justify what you’re doing, you’re not doing what you’re doing,” says Gregory Eells, director of counseling and psychological services at Cornell University’s Gannett Health Center. “They are no longer able to do what they love, because they have to justify it.”

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Seeing longtime staff laid off or programs threatened takes its own toll, Eells adds.

“It’s really an issue of grief and loss,” says Eells, who is president of the Association for University & College Counseling Directors. “You’re used to having something in your life, and you have to let it go.”

Even so, Eells says he and his colleagues are trying to keep the budget crisis in perspective.

“It impacts morale in the downward direction, but I think most of our staff are grateful to have a job and have a sense that it could be a lot worse,” he says.

Stressed Out Students, Larger Classes

Despite the challenges, some faculty see silver linings. Tracy Robinson, a faculty member at Western Michigan University, says she’s found her colleagues are more open to new ideas in the current environment. Robinson says she’s noticed, for instance, that faculty members in training to incorporate more distance learning into their courses have become receptive to ideas they once resisted.

“We are able to just feel energized or feel more proactive about ways that we can take the best of what we have as a university and look for different markets [of students], rather than sitting back and letting things happen,” says Robinson, an adjunct instructor in the Department of Teaching, Learning and Educational Studies.

That said, Robinson has seen some changes that discourage her. Her students, many of whom are paying their own way through college, are increasingly spread thin trying to make ends meet.

“Even in one year, I’ve seen a big difference in the quality of their work,” Robinson says. “I think it’s because they are far more stressed working far more jobs … living at home when they haven’t before.”

Those pressures on students leave them less time to “learn for the sake of learning,” and they instead do just enough work to get the grade they want, Robinson adds. That sucks the joy out of education for students, and lessens the experience for faculty as well, she says.

“They’re going to go in the classroom [after graduation], and how are they going to teach for 30 years about loving learning when they never had time to do that themselves?” Robinson says.

In states like Florida, where budget cuts have been particularly deep, faculty are finding the quality of the classroom experience increasingly compromised. Kris De Welde, an assistant professor of sociology at Florida Gulf Coast University, has seen a class that had 35 students in 2007 scheduled for 50 seats in the coming fall.

“That really affects my pedagogy,” says De Welde, conceding that multiple choice exams will increasingly take the place of essays in her class.

If class sizes grow now, De Welde says she has little faith they’ll ever return to their previous levels. While that’s a hard pill to swallow, she says she’s just focused on staying employed in academe.

“There’s not going be even a foot to stand on to say ‘I demand my classes go back to 35,’ “ she says. “But I’d much rather have larger classes than lose my job.”

 

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