Lifeboat: A Conversation About The Incredible Shrinking Budget

December 10, 2008, 3:22 pm

Yesterday we had a big meeting at Zenith: more members of the faculty attended than at any previous meeting I can recall, except for one about ten years ago when our last newly hired president was introduced. The Radical and several co-conspirators used this unusual quorum to kill a major university committee to which they had been elected. It was a hideous, time-waster of a major committee, one that received institutional problems that no one wanted to do anything about, made recommendations after many circular and ill-informed debates, and saw those recommendations sent to The File That Has No Name by the administrator who had been appointed the boss of us. In retaliation — I mean, response — to this institutional travesty, we secretly devoted our energy, not to issues that were dumped on our doorstep, but to creating a rationale and a strategy for killing the committee. The problem was gaining not just a quorum, but a two-thirds majority necessary for altering the Faculty Handbook. And then voila! A new president was hired and everyone, we imagined, would come to the introductory meeting to get a glimpse of him. So we put our motion on the agenda, and here was the beauty of the whole thing. Because the people who came were people who are too apathetic to ever come to meetings, but made an exception for that one, they were instantly persuaded that we the committee shouldn’t have go to meetings either. They voted resoundingly in favor of our motion before a somewhat dumbfounded set of administrative officers who discovered unexpectedly that they were not the boss of us. No sirree.

What was on the table yesterday was something different: how Zenith will close a yawning budget gap that is conservatively predicted at $15 million: read about our problems here. They probably aren’t so different from your problems, right? Except if you teach at a public university or a community college your problems are worse.

I won’t go into what was said at the meeting, as it is against my blogger ethic. But one of the things I would like to explore in future posts is the nature of community, and scholars’ capacity for empathetic connection — or lack thereof — to other types of workers in and beyond our workplace. This becomes particularly apparent at a meeting like yesterday’s, when it became clear how very tuition driven Zenith is (I have no idea how this compares to other institutions our size); how volatile we can expect our financial aid budget to be in the next few years (or maybe even starting tomorrow); how much the recession may drive other costs up (or down, in the case of fuel, for example); what the long term costs of certain kinds of temporary disinvestment are (Library, physical plant); and how few options a college has to generate immediate, extra cash to cover its expenses, assuming there is anyone to buy what we would offer.

That I can make this list in such a cogent way is some testimony to the presentation we saw yesterday, which was, I would say impressive and reassuring, to the extent that it addresses my basic problem: I don’t want to run the university. I want to know that the people in charge are thoughtful, competent and doing the best they know how to do. But of course, what makes the future very anxious for me and many of my colleagues (in varying degrees) is what I did not put on the list: faculty salaries. And while this has not been decided, it looks like salaries will be frozen for next year. Where else do you get $2.3 million? Everybody pitch in and sell a kidney?

Needless to say a projection that salaries may flatline for an indefinite period produces resentment, fear and rage. So in the remainder of this post, I would like to toss out a couple questions that are worth asking yourself as you process your own resentment about your flat salary projection.

Are you being asked to give back salary? And do you live more or less in debt, assuming that there will always be more money? There is no rule anywhere that prevents academics from being asked to take a salary cut. Therefore, you might consider being relieved that you will have the same salary this year as next: whether it will be worth the same amount of money or not is not the question. No one should assume they will always make more money forever. It is this philosophy, writ large, that has brought us to this pass: salaries will always rise, home prices will always go up, endless amounts of debt can be covered (almost) by next year’s raise/bonus, increasing the pool of homeowners, by whatever means, is always better. You see what I mean? Rethink this, not just because you might want to lower your blood pressure, but because your life decisions and future happiness shouldn’t always be pinned to having a salary that barely matches your expenditures. While you are at it, start watching Suze Orman on television.

I am getting tenure/promoted this year — what about that big raise I was supposed to get? Well, I think they should find money in the budget to pay this out, frankly, because it will compress salaries in the middle ranks even more than they are compressed already. But don’t forget what you will get for tenure — a job for life. For life. That’s more than the part-time clerical they just let go over there has.

In what way do you, really, in your heart, believe that faculty are the most important people in the institution and that everyone else is dispensable? Examine this, OK? Because it is not just that there are a range of people who directly support your professional existence (IT, librarians, more administrative assistants and secretaries than you know about, deans, blah, blah, blah) but actually, it is only rank snobbery that makes you think your work is inherently better than theirs. You need to know this about yourself and work on it.

Do you pay any attention to the general health of the institution, or how money is being misspent, except when your own self-interest is threatened? When was the last time you took an interest in whether the faculty lines authorized really addressed student demand and were worth committing funds to? Or whether you should stop copying the articles assigned to your seminar on the department machine only because you are too lazy to learn how to put them up on line? Or whether it is really ethical to process all of your pleasure reading through your research account? And furthermore — that dean who you think is one dean too many — how would you like to deal with the students who are so strung out at the end of the semester that they are endangering their health? Or the bulemia club over at Tau Theta Zeta? That might be a good job for you — or you — or you — and we could save the money next time a dean vacates his or her job.

Isn’t letting the administration get away with a salary freeze just lying down and letting them walk all over us? No, keeping your trap shut, repressing your anger at how you are treated, not disagreeing with anyone who might ever vote on your promotion, and never saying or writing anything you believe until you have a tenure letter in your pocket is letting people walk all over you. Agreeing to a salary freeze, when it is explained as part of a well-reasoned plan is sticking out your hand and playing your role as a partner in the enterprise.

The strangest thing I have heard — and I have heard it from more than one person — is the narrative of sacrifice, in which a faculty member claims to have chosen university teaching when other, far more lucrative work was possible, but in an act of self-abnegation chose to teach the unwashed masses who seem to cluster regularly at private colleges and universities. Having made this sacrifice, the story goes, no others should be required: nay, this person should receive raises while others near and far, working class and middle class people working in soulless occupations, lose their jobs.

While it is not required of us to be grateful for having jobs as unemployment gallops to new highs, it is worth remembering that life isn’t fair. When we are not being rewarded with cash prizes for our accomplishments, it might be a good time to figure out if there are personal rewards other than money that cause you to stay committed to teaching and the production of knowledge. If there are not, I strongly suggest you use the safety of your tenured position to explore another line of work that would make you happy.

If not, my advice is this. Gratitude for your job security isn’t required, but it might be seemly. And since this doesn’t seem to be widely known, let me just say: being a university teacher is not the moral equivalent of being a priest, a social worker, a member of the Peace Corps, a safe-sex worker or a community activist, in which you have traded affluence to serve others. If you think that is the entire reason why you chose to teach and write you are, frankly, delusional, and suffer from profound status anxiety.

And just think: on that day that you looked at the two lines at Career Planning, one leading to the Graduate Record Exam, and the other leading to an interview with Bear, Stearns, when you followed your heart and became a scholar, the Goddess might have been actually looking out for you.

Don’t disappoint her now.

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