Take My Phone. Please.

March 18, 2011, 1:10 pm

“Why don’t you try two Dixie Cups and a string!?”

A couple years ago I began to receive e-mails from a dear friend in the University of California system; in the signature line, the e-mails said: “ACADEMIC OFFICE PHONE DISCONNECTED DUE TO BUDGET CRISIS.”  The first time I got this message the initial, draconian cuts had just been announced. Students and faculty were in the streets in California.  Many of us at private institutions were waiting for the ax to fall.  Later, we were accepting the news that there would be no raises the following year, and that by doing this our institutions might be able to avoid the layoffs of adjuncts and staff that many of the public unis were enduring.

Fast forward three years to where we are at Zenith, as far as I can tell.  We ended up laying off lots of those people, and allowing other positions to go unfilled. At street level, things are horrendously disorganized, and you have to make a special call to get someone to vacuum your office.  We have not received a raise that was not instantly swallowed by the increased cost of our benefits.  In real dollars, our pay is static and losing traction; research and conference dollars tend not to meet expenses incurred.

The health insurance situation is pretty scary too.  All employees are being asked to carry a greater share of our health insurance premium this year than last. Full professors are being asked to consider helping the administration to compensate associates and assistants by taking on the largest premiums, which is a major policy shift. Associates are not getting more than a salary bump at promotion, and are being asked to consider subsidizing in the compensation of assistants by paying larger premiums than they do, essentially nullifying much of the raise.  Staff have actually had their total compensation cut as a lesson to all of us about what the future holds.  Furthermore, everyone who works for the university is being asked to accept cuts in compensation so that the university can build endowments to pay for unlimited student financial aid and shave a percentage point off next year’s tuition increase.  This will make us the second or third most expensive liberal arts school in the nation, as opposed to the most expensive (which means it is still inaccessible to the vast majority of Americans.)

Now, lest you think I am a lunatic, let me just say:  the fiscal health of the institution might require these things.  I don’t really know:  I am surviving these changes by tuning them out and putting my queer shoulder to the wheel of my writing.  Because the misfortunes at chez Radical are slight this year, I also feel that the salary I am not getting could be interpreted as a kickback to the administration in exchange for having not been put in the position of making these decisions and becoming the object of outrage.  They are difficult decisions, with no easy answers, and universities being what they are, would have drawn criticism from some quarter whatever shape they took.

And yet, after almost two decades in which we have repeatedly been promised that Zenith will do something about a compensation rate that lags far behind our peer institutions, one can’t help but feel that they have thrown in the towel without admitting that they have done so.  You wish they would bring that big girl out and let her sing so you could stop thinking about it.

But here’s the good news.  Austerity has produced some moments of breathtakingly simple, but shining, intelligence, that may pave the way for a leaner but smarter budget.  For example, someone in the Zenith administration had the bright idea of phoning around to ask those of us who had not used the entire budget allocated for conferences already attended if all of our receipts were in.  If so, could we release the money to replenish the budget line so other colleagues might be funded for conference attendance?  My source tells me that they reclaimed $10K this way that otherwise would have been slushed into next year’s budget.   I think they should use $500 of it to give whoever thought of this a bonus.

In the spirit of accentuating the positive, I have a suggestion:  why don’t you take my phone?

I’m serious.  I don’t know how much my phone costs, but whatever it is, it is not worth it.  Here’s why:

  • I don’t think a student has called me on my land line in over three years.  Students always contact me by email, grab me after class, or drop by my office. Since teaching is 1/3 to 1/2 of my job, and students do not telephone me, this means most of my work would not be impacted by the loss of a land line.
  • In the past year, I think I have received fewer than five telephone calls from administrators or colleagues outside the department and program in which I am appointed.  They contact me by email too.  Those people who know me, or like me, well enough to call me on the telephone, call me on my mobile.  Those people who call me on my office phone often do not get that call returned for several days: I don’t check my messages at the office because hardly anyone ever calls me.
  • In the past year, I have probably made ten phone calls to administrators, all of which have been to deans, regarding a student in crisis.  If they are not there, I ask them to return the call to my mobile.
  • In the past three years, I have initiated exactly one conference call from my office phone.  I can now accomplish this on my iPhone.
  • I used to use the university WATTS line for work-related long distance.  I no longer need to do this, as unlimited long distance in the US and Canada is now part of a standard home telephone package and I have unlimited minutes on my iPhone in the US.
  • Because the university stopped printing an annual telephone directory, and fired or reassigned the telephone operators, I have no idea what most people’s extensions are and getting them is a tedious task involving the online directory.  Worse, we have a voice recognition directory that gives you the right person about 40% of the time.  “TENURED – RADICAL,” you find yourself enunciating into the receiver, for the fourth or fifth time. “Ringing – Benjamin – Clavical,” the robovoice intones primly. In addition, because our landlines do not have speed dials, it is just easier to program colleagues’ mobile phones (and the office extensions of administrators) into my own mobile. 
  • When I want to talk to colleagues in my building, I get up and stroll down the hall.  Since over half of my colleagues are junior to me, talking in person seems like the more civilized choice.  Furthermore, people under the age of 35 don’t even have land lines at home.  Why would they need them at the office?
  • Here is who calls me most regularly on my office telephone:  robocallers and textbook sales people.  Far off in second place are colleagues and administrators; and in a close third are parents, to whom I am mostly not permitted to speak.  In total, I would say I receive ten telephone calls a month on my land line, of which 1-2 are real people; I make about 3 calls a month.

So take my phone, Zenith.  Please.  By doing this, you could free up some money in our zero-sum bud
get game to reduce the cost of my benefits or bump up my research money.  Or give me a tiny bonus to subsidize my cell phone costs.   Or keep the money and allow me to deduct the cost of my mobile from my taxes as a legitimate business expense.  And it would clear a lovely space on my desk where I could put a vase of spring flowers — or a box of Kleenex, to prepare for the next round of budget cuts.

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