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Friday, August 29, 2014

Friday, August 29, 2014
I exaggerate a bit.  When the press covers for-profit diploma mills or exploding student debt, it is smart and skeptical.    When they cover college funding or ed-tech, it gets gullible and naive. 

Take a recent entry from the New York TimesBringing Tech Culture to the Staid College Quad.  First of all, what non-hibernating person thinks the college quad is staid?  A major Atlantic Monthly analysis of "The Dark Power of Fraternities" showed being on the quad endangers your health.  In staid Santa Barbara this year, some of my students were date-raped, stalked, framed by the local cops, and killed in a drive-by shooting.  The college quad sees protests about racism, abortion, foreign policy, police violence, and administrative misconduct.  The quad does teaching and research that is generally over the horizon of the average newsroom.  Staid is a patronizing and ridiculous word for today’s universities, which are fully immersed in their surrounding societies, while having also to stay ahead of them.

If the outdated stereotype is one problem with college coverage, falling for sales pitches is another.   Journalists seem now to believe that professional educators are a selfish special interest, while corporate marketers are impartial observers who offer the true picture.

The Staid Quad article is about the high cost of college textbooks.
In a report last year, the Government Accountability Office said the price of new textbooks rose 82 percent from 2002 to 2012, only slightly less than the 89 percent rise in tuition and fees, and far higher than the 28 percent rise in overall consumer prices.
Very bad. Textbook prices are outrageous. Who gets to explain the problem? Dan Rosensweig, the chief executive of Chegg, an education services company. “Learning has been an inefficient market,” he says. This fits with the stereotype that teaching is inefficient and teachers like it that way, so they are just fine with overpriced texts. Chegg.com’s comparative shopping service is apparently the answer – improving price information will make textbooks a more efficient market and thereby lower prices.

Actually, no.  Students aren’t price gouged by universities or their generally sad, post-book “bookstores” that sell big gulp water bottles and school sweatshirts. Students aren’t price gouged by faculty, who have zero control over text pricing.  Students are price gouged by publishing monopolies, who set prices on a captive audience.  Academic publishers are gradually strangling university libraries to get 20-36% profit margins on scientific journals, where investigators review for free but pay to publish.  The same goes for textbooks.  You can't write a good article on excessive textbook prices unless you can say "exploitative economics of academic publishing," but that's what this ed-tech article does. Textbook prices have risen because for-profit educational services make as much money as they possibly can off students, and seek market positions that protect this pricing power. Sure enough, Chegg charges for tutoring and job placement services that universities currently provide their students for free. And yet we are supposed to think that Chegg-style for-profit services will cure cost problems that their sector has produced.

There have been free services at the public college near you, but not such good free services anymore, since the public colleges that serve the lower- and middle-income, socially-un-networked students who really need job placement have been subject to year after year, decade after decade of budget cuts.  These public colleges now spend in many cases ten to fifteen cents on the dollar Harvard spends on its students.  The California Community College system, with its wealth of first-generation and low-income students, has 2000 students per advisor.  So why don’t the CC's have more advisors.  Because they don't have the money. Why don't they have they money?  Now we're getting to the right question.

They don't have money because state politicians keep cutting their budgets.  This pushes us one more step.  Why these constant cuts to the state share of higher ed?  Well, there are strong competitors that weren't around 50 years ago, like Medicaid and the world's most overactive prison system.

But there is also the tax avoidance culture of the corporate America to which “educational services” companies belong. Think Apple, tax avoidance champion on 35% profit margins (important revelations here and here). Think Google, who furnished the engineer who started Udacity, the company dedicated to driving market inefficiencies out of teaching by replacing teachers with screens—until that turned out not actually to work.  Think the whole iEconomy, engaged in continuous tax arbitrage and thus social disinvesting around the world. Think effective corporate tax rates at 12.1%, 1/3rd the nominal rate, 1/3rd the rate you and I pay. Think Bechtel, UC's partner in national lab management, "one of the country’s largest engineering firms, [re]organized as [an] S-corporation to avoid corporate income taxes."  Think the growing gap between corporate profits and corporate tax returns, on the federal level, which is not so different from trends in the states, where corporate taxes are down to 5% of revenues (California).
Whether or not the products of the private alternatives to public universities actually work, the cuts continue, conveniently for Chegg et al., who can charge for services that used to be free in the public universities that tax arbitrage continues to destroy.

Should journalists have to talk tax code every time they praise ed tech? No. Should they ask whether the educational solutions of corporate marketers aren’t in fact the problem? Absolutely yes.

And what I am as a professor doing about the high price of textbooks. What I have always done: Order old editions that have lots of used copies around. Put copies on reserve in the library. Give desk copies away. Scan and post documents on protected websites. And of course overuse my departmental xerox machine--which we'll have money to replace around 2023.
Posted by Chris Newfield | Comments: 2

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Wednesday, August 27, 2014
As you may know, there have been rumors of a significant rise in the co-payments that UC's health insurance plans require as part of coverage of "specialty drugs" that are often needed by the most endangered members of the workforce (people suffering from cancers, MS, HIV, liver ailments etc). In the aftermath of Union pressure and employee mobilization, Vice President Dwaine Duckett has announced that there will not be changes to the ways that "specialty drugs" will be treated by the different health care plans.

It is difficult to tell whether this was, in fact, a serious possibility that was pushed back by union activism or simply something floated in the course of discussions.  But it is a reminder that next year's UC health insurance options are in the process of being finalized and it is important for faculty and staff to keep their eyes open or contact their local HR offices about possible changes.

It is now a year since the debacle that was the roll-out and implementation of UC Care.  Although UCOP liked to emphasize the moderation of employee premium costs, it soon became clear that the shift to UC Care also shifted some costs onto employees for certain procedures, and that there was concern about new fees and reduced availability of physicians.  In fact, it was the example of UC Care that helped trigger the worry about the co-pays on specialty drugs. You may recall from analysis we posted last fall that one of the effects of UC Care was to raise the costs of specialty drugs dramatically.  In some cases individuals had to pay co-payments of up to 30% of the cost of drugs (although there were monthly and annual limits).  It is also the case that many employees doctors were no longer included in Tier 1 (thereby raising costs that way as well).

On top of this cost shifting there was the larger question of the reduced coverage offered to employees at non-medical center campuses.  The ultimate example of this, of course, was UCSB.  The only major hospital in the area Cottage Hospital refused Tier 1 coverage because of what UC was offering in payment. The only major clinic was pressured into a Tier 1 contract, but only for  one year.  It is unclear what, if any, Tier 1 coverage will be offered to UCSB this year.

Finally, people need to be aware that retiree health care for out of state retirees has been modified dramatically.  Since health care for employees looks like overhead to UCOP, further cuts are in the offing.

We have a number of old posts that you can check to refresh your memories of last year's UC Care roll-out and other changes.  Open enrollment is in two months so now is the time to raise issues or concerns with your local HR offices.

Employee Benefits Posts and Links

Remaking Posts:
Health Care Troubles and a Simple Solution (October 9, 2013)
The Plot Thickens on UC Care in Santa Barbara (October 10, 2013)
Some Further Questions About UC Care (October 12, 2013)
More on UC Care (October 15, 2013)
UCR Faculty Association Letter on UC Care in Riverside (November 17, 2013)
UCSB Health Care Update: The REst of Tier 1 is Yet to Come (November 23, 2013)
Obamacare and UC Care (December 9, 2013)
Union Logic of the Insurance Changes: the Case of Retiree Health Care (December 15, 2013)
UC Care Stories (March 14, 2014)
Further Troubles with UC Care (April 10, 2014)
Posted by Michael Meranze | Comments: 0

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Saturday, August 23, 2014
As you probably know, at the beginning of August University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise decided to rescind an offer of a tenured position to Steven Salaita formerly of Virginia Tech.   Professor Salaita had been chosen by the American Indian Studies Program last October after, as far as I can tell, passing through all of the appropriate Academic vetting processes at U of I. The offer was, as all job offers are at U of I, conditional on approval by the Board of Trustees.  For some reason, the Illinois Board does not meet to make final approval until September, after most new faculty have started their jobs.  In the interim, under conditions that remain clouded in mystery, Chancellor Wise apparently became convinced that Professor Salaita's tweets on the Israeli-Palestine conflict made him unqualified to join the faculty and she chose not to submit his name to the Board of Trustees.

Chancellor Wise's latest statement on her decision can be found here.

There have already been responses to her statement.  I list three below:

John K. Wise has posted at the Academe Blog.

Peter Kirstein has a comment here.

Timothy Burke has a commentary here.

Whatever one's views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the BDS movement (which are the underlying points of political controversy here) Chancellor Wise's statement only highlights the dangers facing academic freedom from administrative intervention into faculty judgment about the appropriate scholar to fill a position. Chancellor Wise insists that her decision "was not influenced in any way by [Professor Salaita's] positions on the conflict in the Middle East nor his criticism of Israel."  This claim is then followed not by any discussion about why Professor Salaita's offer should be withdrawn but by generalized commentary about showing respect in the classroom for people holding alternative positions and for alternative positions themselves. Her statement is so vague that, as John Wilson points out (linked above) it could apply to a biology professor who was disrespectful of creationism.  Or, I would add, if you were to take a different political position, should an administration be able to prevent an appointment of an anti-abortion tweeter because some of his or her teaching might upset pro-choice students?

What appears to be at stake here is criticism of Professor Salaita's tweets.  I have already commented in the Los Angeles Review of Books on the threats to academic freedom posed by administrations and Boards seeking to control people's statements as citizens on social media.  But this case sharpens the point.  As the blog Mondoweiss points out, Professor Salaita has a long teaching record which shows no evidence of the dangers that Chancellor Wise claims to fear, i.e. whatever one's opinion on his tweets there is no evidence that students feel unwelcome in expressing their thoughts or alternative views.   And if there is no connection between tweeting and his interaction with students in his classrooms then there is no relevance to the tweets.

The Board's defense of the Chancellor's decision displays an even more disturbing confusion. The Board insists that "we" (I think they intend the University but it could just be the Board) "must constantly reinforce our expectation of a university community that values civility as much as scholarship."  They apparently believe that this entails discourse that will not make students or others feel uncomfortable.  Now it is certainly right that colleges and universities ensure that professor's don't demean or abuse their students--and there are plenty of mechanisms to do that.  But to insist on some undefined standard of "civility" in debate and to claim that it is as important as scholarship is, frankly, absurd.  Part of a student's higher education is becoming uncomfortable as your accepted ideas are challenged, defended, and rethought.  The level of confusion here is enough to justify asking the Board to stay out of these decisions.

There are other deeper issues that need to be raised.  As far as I have been able to determine Professor Salaita's appointment went, as I said above, through all the normal academic channels.  But there is no evidence that, when Chancellor Wise developed concerns, she returned the file to the appropriate faculty organs to ask for clarification or extra materials.  Nor, apparently, was there any attempt to communicate with Professor Salaita.  In other words, what we have here is an administrative override of a considered faculty judgment based on unproven concerns that there might be some relationship between social media and the classroom.  Given that, it seems unreasonable for Chancellor Wise to insist that the decision was not politically motivated.

Nor is the claim, forwarded by some, that since Salaita was not already a member of the U of I faculty there is no academic freedom issue anything more than a red herring.  If academic freedom is to mean anything it must be a system.  For it to work nationally and internationally scholars cannot be worried that if they say or publish something a board or an administrator at a position they seek will block their appointment.  It is incumbent on faculty and on colleges and universities to honor academic freedom not only of their own members but of scholars at other institutions.

Finally, although administrators have the authority to set priorities and determine how faculty lines are distributed, the decision about the individual scholar chosen is primarily a faculty one and should not be imposed or denied by upper administrations separate from the faculty review process.  At the University of Illinois under its present Chair Christopher Kennedy the Board already intervened in two previous cases of individual faculty positions.  (See here and here)  Indeed, Chancellor Wise indicated that she did not forward Professor Salaita's appointment to the Board in part because she doubted it would be approved.  It is quite possible that she has been charged with doing their work for them.

Although this case is, of course, singular it reveals a more general pattern.  Boards and upper administration are pressing against the autonomy of the actual scholarly and curricular life of universities and colleges--something for decades has been organized and overseen by faculty.  The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) has recently insisted that Boards take an even greater role in university and college affairs and that shared governance "cannot and must not be an excuse for board inaction."  Instead they insist that

trustees must have the last word when it comes to guarding the central values of American higher education--academic excellence and academic freedom.  The preservation of academic freedom, freedom of expression, and the integrity of scholarship and teaching rightly falls under their purview.  While the occasions should be rare, they must be prepared to intervene when internal constituencies are unable or unwilling to institute urgently needed reforms.

I want to be clear here.  Despite the calls for academic freedom and expression, the central theme of the ACTA statement is that trustees are the only group that can view the institution and its relation with society whole. Therefore, more than narrow faculty or even preoccupied administrators, they must control the relationship between the university or college and the wider world.  Central to this relationship is reputation, only this is defined by ACTA as public acceptance rather than academic autonomy.  ACTA wants to professionalize Board service so as to limit the professional claims of faculty over their own areas.  Indeed, since faculty are so focused on their professional responsibilities, ACTA suggests, they are unable to see the big picture.  It is this logic that justifies the Board of Trustees at Illinois to support the Chancellor in overriding all of the normal faculty review processes.

The approach advocated by ACTA and enacted in the Salaita case threatens to undermine the academic autonomy that faculty have struggled for since the early twentieth-century. If faculty lose their autonomy, the autonomy of colleges and universities will be lost as well.

All those who want to prevent higher education from becoming even more of a sphere of reputational fear and institutional timidity need to push back against this vision as forcefully as they can.


Posted by Michael Meranze | Comments: 17

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Saturday, August 9, 2014
This week has seen the thin veneer of amateurism removed from the image of the NCAA. Two separate decisions--one by the Association and one by a Federal Judge should make it clear that the NCAA is big business, that it depends on profiting off of its athletes while denying them fair recompense, and that its business model is fraught with legal and ethical problems.  It will take some time to see the effects of these decisions but some quick responses are offered below.

1) Yesterday Judge Claudia Wilken released a judgment in the legal case brought by Edward O'Bannon and others against the NCAA.  O'Bannon and his fellow plaintiffs argued that the NCAA acted unfairly by profiting from the use of their images and names without allowing them to share in the profits.  The NCAA argued in part that they prevented athletes from sharing in their profits because it was important for college athletics to remain "amateur" and that paying the athletes directly would undermine that image.  The Judge rejected that position and ruled that, in fact, the whole notion of "amateur" had changed over time and that there was no legitimate legal reason to prevent the athletes from gaining compensation for the NCAA's licensing of the athletes images.  You can read the entire decision here but the salient point is that the Judge insisted that athletes at Division 1 football and basketball programs should be allowed to share the profits, that their shares could be placed in trust during their time in school, and that the amount placed in the funds could be capped at no less that $5000 annually. One expert estimated that if NCAA Division 1 schools did cap at the minimum the amount would could be up to $300 Million dollars over a 4 year span.

2) The second important event was the decision by the NCAA to grant to the power sports conferences greater autonomy over their own actions and greater authority within the Association.  The power sports conferences had threatened to break away from the NCAA and in response the Association apparently agreed to stop pretending that it was a single entity and to allow those campuses with oversized athletic programs with oversized power to separate themselves from the athletic hoi polloi.  The decision opens the way for the richer conferences to offer more scholarships and larger scholarships.  They will also, after Judge Wilken's decision be in a better position to create the trusts to allow athletes their small piece of the licensing pie.  Although one can expect to see coaches salaries going up a lot more than the monies offered to athletes. Amateur athletics is big business after all.

Of course waiting in the wings of all of this ongoing question of whether student-athletes are employees and have the right to unionize.  That issue--raised by Northwestern football players--is a long way from being settled.  Perhaps, though, it might lead not only to fairer compensation for the athletes but also to coaches remember that student-athletes are supposed to be students and not setting up practice requirements in such a way that they have to regularly miss class.  What can I say...hope springs eternal.


Posted by Michael Meranze | Comments: 0

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Tuesday, August 5, 2014
Higher ed policy is suffering through a long siege  of intellectual gridlock.  The default result is what I've been calling permausterity, a chronic funding shortage for public colleges that now rests on a chronic lack of confidence in the job they're doing.  This has become a vicious cycle that feeds itself.  

Making matters worse, faculty responses are fragmented, when faculty respond at all.  Some of the most eloquent voices are increasingly disenchanted: William Deresiewicz got so much pushback for his recent piece, "Don't Send your Kid to the Ivy League," in part because he seemed to be saying that even our premier universities are turning America's most successful students into mercenary sheep.


(1) Why Can't College be Cheaper?

Dr. Deresiewicz's piece upset many supporters of the college ideal (e.g., Jim Sleeper), and one reason is that it seemed to lend credibility to this year's leading higher ed question: "is college worth it?" If Yale sucks too, why not give up on rebuilding funding and learning and get on with the inevitable consolidation of higher ed into two dozen university-corporations along the lines of the media industries and IT? The Apollo Group could provide the management, Coursera the online platform, Pearson VUE the assessment, and Harvard-MIT-Stanford the quality control.  Three percent of the college population could still go to prestige-brand research universities and liberal arts colleges, which is about the percentage that goes to them now.  Everyone else would, in this scenario, get converted over 10-15 years to varying combinations of blended learning and online-only. In spite of the MOOC ebb that began last summer, tech-based disruption and downsizing remain at the top of the national higher ed agenda.   

There are good disruptions that should be implemented, bottom-up, in universities, and also obvious reasons not to turn universities into digital learning corporations.  One of these reasons has to do with how people actually learn (as opposed to how they receive and replicate information packets). Some of the growth in student services is a market-driven "amenities race," but much of the growth comes from new structural support for better learning. Fixing the country's educational levels is going to require more and not less money for student services, more and not less funding for active learning, and more and not less payroll to hire permanent faculty.  Adjunct Nation has new allies in Congress, which will also support a deeper discussion of educational quality. We need post-contingent education (see, for example, Jennifer Ruth's recent posts (here and here).


Another large cost is research.  The country expects the vast majority of its basic research to come from universities.  And yet few policymakers and general voters understand who pays for research and how much it costs.  The traditional funders have been the federal and state governments, but states have been reneging on their side of the deal for years, leaving the feds in the lurch.  At the same time, the feds have been partners in this decline, having never explained to state policymakers, much less to voters, that they did not fund the full cost of research.  Admitting that research loses money has been taboo, since it conflicts with Washington's demand that science lead directly to economic growth.  States have cut funding in part because they didn't know they were in effect also cutting economically strategic STEM research.


But in the last few years things have been looking up.  Washington D.C. agencies are finally going public with their concern that we don't know how to pay the full costs of university research after all.


(2) Research Shortfalls are Real

In 2012, the National Science Board published Diminishing Funding and Rising Expectations: Trends and Challenges for Research Universities, and in the same year the National Research Council of the National Academies released Research Universities and the Future of America. Both criticized the states' wholesale retreat from public funding.  Both reports noted that universities are increasingly on the hook to pay for research from their own internal funds--even when the research has an outside sponsor. Institutional funds are now the "second largest source of funding for academic R&D, accounting for $11.2 billion of the $54.9 billion of academic spending on S&E [Science &Engineering] R&D in 2009" (NSB p 16).  The NRC report stated that "The institutional contribution to research has been growing faster than federal funding," which, they added, diverts money from necessities like instruction and maintenance (NRC p 125).

Then, this past June, the Council on Governmental Relations, a leading research university lobby, chimed in with the same message and more graphic detail.  Under the title, "Finances of Research Universities," its report offers a good primer on the differences between private and public university funding and then gets into some of the gory details of research costs.  If one of your summer resolutions is to tone up your skill with calculating F&A overhead on MTDC, then this is the report for you.


The big takeaways are that universities' internal funds are the fastest-growing source of research funding, and that universities' share is large.  The total university contribution has grown again since the NSB and NRC reports, from $11.2 billion to $13.7 billion per year.

Over the period from 1976 to 2012, the share of R&D expenditures assumed by colleges and universities has grown faster than any other category. Institutional Funds accounted for 21.6% of all R&D expenditures in 2012 (adjusting out the ARRA effect) as compared to 12.0% of all R&D expenditures in 1976—a growth factor of +80%.
COGR provides a number of interesting tables, using in many cases data from the NSF's Higher Education Research and Development Survery, or HERD). Here is one:

Reseach and Development (R&D) Expenditures by Funding Source as a Percentage of All R&D Expenditures


State support for R&D is a third of what it was pre-Sputnik (1956) (although unadjusted totals continued to grow).  Federal support, though much more stable, is now heading back down towards its pre-Sputnik share. Over the same period, universities have doubled the size of their piece of research funding. Their share has doubled since the 1970s, in spite of excellent growth rates of federal research funding--or actually, because of this federal growth.  In 2011, a useful article in Nature pointed out a further problem, which can be seen in one of its figures: 

Public universities do twice the dollar amount of research that privates do, and yet spend twice the share of their own funds in subsidizing it (24% vs 12%).   Hence the title question, how can public research universities afford to do the research society does in fact want?

Back to the COGR report, which concludes with some bureaucratic fighting words:
The university subsidy is a legitimate issue and one that use be addressed honestly and constructively by all stakeholders.  [Forcing] universities to fund real, unreimbursed costs through non-federal revenue sources [makes them] potentially reduce investments in core missions and infrastructure. Ultimately, this impairs a university's ability to strategically plan and invest in its future research enterprise. (23)
In other words, concealing true research costs hurts the overall university while also hurting research.

I'm happy that a high-level organization is now explicitly saying that unrecovered research costs "are a financial burden with severe implications for the future productivity of research universities" (19).  This is progress.


(3) How Much of the Research Shortfalls are Recoverable?

There's a big wrinkle we now need to consider.  What kind of research costs are universities covering through their Institutional Funds? 

Universities need to support extramural research with outlays for facilities and administration (F&A), whose reimbursements have been capped at 26% since 1991, though only for universities. They also need to build and renew overall infrastructure and pay for research that isn't supported by outside sponsors (which includes nearly all research in the arts, humanities and qualitative social sciences).  They must help start new labs, sometimes build new buildings for them, seed new projects that may attract outside funding at some future date, and provide bridge funding for faculty who are in-between grants but have labs to run and grad students to train.  A combination of these and other activities accounts for the $13.7 billion that universities spent of their own money on research in fiscal year 2012 (out of a total of nearly $66 billion).  (The NSF breaks down costs by university in this table.)

The NSF tries to figure out how much money goes to various research categories through the HERD survey mentioned above.  The COGR report cites its findings as follows:
Of the $13.7 billion, 56% ($7.7 billion) was in the form of direct funding for faculty or student research projects, 9% ($1.3 billion) was devoted to cost sharing, and almost 34% ($4.6 billion) represented unrecovered indirect costs. (2012 HERD Survey)
In other words, somewhat over half of university research expenditures supports the research of their own faculty and students. A third goes to cover costs incurred by sponsored research that are not covered by the sponsors. Another tenth goes to cost sharing, which always involves sponsored projects. Summing up these figures, we might conclude that 44% of Institutional Funds subsidize extramural sponsors, while 56% cover internal research projects.  All of these costs are within the normal scope of research university activity--and, to get pious for a second, form part of its obligation to society.

But is this breakdown correct? The COGR report suggests it is by singling out the $4.6 billion as the main subsidy burden universities bear. It equates, in the report's terms, "to a staggering multi-million dollar obligation per university," and raises a "widespread concern as to the sustainability of the significant investments made by research universities" (19). COGR thus implies that only about one-third of universities' research outlays could be recovered by fixing reimbursement policy.


Other documents tell different tales.  The COGR report itself offers a case study (Chart 13, p 20) of a "Private Research University, Southeast."  This university spent $505 million on research but received $390 million in revenues, which required it to chip in $115 million of its own money.  So nearly 23% of this university's total research costs came from Institutional Funds.  The line-item breakdown of expenses lists University-Funded Research at $33 million, or  a bit over 28% of the Institutional Fund contribution.  This is half of the average for "direct funding for faculty or student research projects" in the HERD survey.  (It is also only 6.5% of this university's total R&D expenditure.)


To take a further case: when the University of California's Commission on the Future tried to get a handle on the university's costs, they summarized research losses like this:

In recent years, the University has received over $3.5 billion per year in extramurally-sponsored research grants, of which over $780 million per year is designated for indirect costs such as facilities support and research administration.  But the actual indirect costs of extramurally-funded research are estimated to be $1.5 billion. (page 111)
UC was thus losing $720 million a year on a research gross of $3.5 billion. This meant that 20.6% of its R&D expenditures came from internal funds, which is very close to the national average.  But this statement suggests that sponsored research caused the entire shortfall.

So we have three stories about the extent to which research universities must spend more money than the public understands in order to cover costs on behalf of research sponsors. 

  1.  A third (or at most 44%) of Institutional Funds go to subsidizing costs of sponsored research, costs that the private sector would likely insist be paid in full.  About 56% goes to non-sponsored or "internal" research for faculty and students.
  2. Something like a quarter of Institutional Funds go to non-sponsored research.  That leaves three-quarters supporting extramurally sponsored research. 
  3. More or less all Institutional Funds go to filling in these shortfalls in sponsored research funding.
Which story is correct? I think the best answer at the moment is all of them, depending on the university. Wealthy private universities may well be close to (1), spending most of their internal funds on their own faculty's non-sponsored projects.   Less wealthy privates and some major public research universities may be close to (2). Both of these stories are about major research losses of somewhat different sizes.

The extreme case of (3), in which nearly all Institutional Funds subsidize sponsored research, may be right for the case for which it was developed, the University of California.

To check whether this could possibly be true, I offer some seat-of-the-pants numbers for one campus, UCLA.  It has formally recorded Institutional Funds expenditures from at least two sources, its Academic Senate Committee on Research, and the Office of the President's Research Grants Program Office (RGPO). The former, in the pre-cut year of 2007-08, dispensed about $2 million in travel and research support.  The latter, over a three-year period 2010-13, spent $44 million per year (  Annual Report page 25).  (I apologize for mixing years but here I'm just going for scale).  I'll assume that UCLA got about one-fifth of RGPO system resources based on its large size.  That means the campus spent $11 million of Institutional Funds through formal channels on faculty and student research projects in a period when it was grossing around $1 billion a year in extramural research funding.  In other words, UCLA spent 1.1% of its Institutional Funds on designated faculty research. 

This is obviously not the whole picture of internal research funding, but we don't have public information on the use of discretionary funds retained at various administrative levels--but also no reason to think a large percentage of this unknown figure goes to non-sponsored faculty research.  Throw in the fact that Committee on Research funds go to some extent to top up extramural grants. You can then see why the UC Commission report rounded up to the claim that essentially 100% of Institutional Funds go to paying for unreimbursed indirect costs of extramural research.

The implication of all of these stories, especially 2 and 3, is that public universities can pay for research, but, as we go forward, only if federal, state, and private funders stop asking them to subsidize a large chunk of indirect research costs.


(4) A Few Steps Towards Improvement

Regardless of which story is correct for a given university, they all point towards the following list of to-do's.

A. University administrations should say openly and often that research loses money. It must be publicly supported because it loses money.  The more fundamental the research, the greater its long-term social potential, the more likely it is to lose money for years if not decades. The Internet provides an easy example of this point. 

B. Point out that effectively freezing public funding to hundreds of research universities is undermining the country's research ecosystem.  Converting higher ed to online, in whole or in part, will wreck that ecosystem.

C. Act on these NSB, NRC, and COGR calls "to cover the full costs of research projects and other activities they procure from research universities in a consistent and transparent manner" (NRC Recommendation 6, p 122).  (It is already official University of California policy to charge sponsors enough to "cover all expenses, direct and indirect" (APM-020 Revised Regulation No. 4, II. 3)  Set up a multi-year plan for fixing at least the one-third of the problem that all agree is attributable to sponsors' underpaying of indirect research costs.

D. Sort through Stories 1-3 above. Get clean numbers, campus by campus, for "indirect indirect" costs--all the set-up costs that support extramural research rather than research that is ineligible for extramural funding. This will mean distinguishing clearly that research which, for historical and institutional reasons, depends wholly on Institutional Funds. It will also mean campus admins publishing those numbers to their communities, so that they can be understood and discussed.

E. Identify and quantify the needs of the large, complicated sphere of this (mostly) qualitative and/or truly experimental research that cannot receive external sponsorship. Explain why its ineligibility to receive external sponsorship follows from the historical shape of Western scientific, military, and industrial development rather than from a lack of merit or social value.  (This needs to be done for a society that doesn't generally understand market failure, spillover effects, or noncommercial social value.) Then make sure that this research has equal or superior claim to Institutional Funds.

Universities need finally to get ahead of the curve on research costs. If they don't, the "unbundling" pressures will only increase.
Posted by Chris Newfield | Comments: 1

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Tuesday, July 22, 2014
Image for U of O
by Jennifer Ruth, English Department, Portland State University

This is the second of a two-part post.  “Why are Faculty Complicit in Creating a Disposable Workforce?” appeared last week.

We need rapidly to increase pressure on university administrators for change. I believe that administrators are slowly digesting the (academic and public relations) downsides of relying on instructors to whom the institution makes no real commitment, but at the same time they are under unprecedented budget pressures. Chris’s post on public austerity spelled out many of these pressures. We desperately need to build a coalition that unites university constituencies in efforts to increase state funding.

But the adjunct crisis is tricky in this context. It is hard for university leadership to translate the ethical and political disaster we’ve all created with contingent labor into any form of public appeal. Most obviously, administrators attempting to explain the deleterious consequences of adjunct reliance might be interpreted as insulting a significant percentage of their employees. It seems inescapable that at least this part of the fight to restore the public university is going to have to be assumed by the faculty, primarily at the level of departments. We can try to mitigate the degree to which the fight is an adversarial one pitting departments against central administrators, but some conflict is unavoidable.

In Part One, I argued that we should insist on the funds for full-time tenure-track positions by withholding the use of cheap adjunct sections. I spent most of my time discussing the inter-departmental psychological obstacles that must be overcome to pursue such a strategy.

Let’s say, though, that your department successfully makes it through the discussions needed to build consensus. You collectively have decided to dramatically reduce adjunct usage as part of a plan to rebuild decent positions. What happens then?

Here, in part two, I explore what such a recommendation could possibly mean given that adjunct usage is baked into university budgets. Were we to do this—i.e., tell everyone expecting adjunct sections that we are trying to get good positions by not putting these sections on our schedules and then do just that—just how big a bomb would be set off?

First, we should consider the scope of our universities’ economic dependence on adjuncts. I’m going to use my own university as my basis so please bear with some details regarding Portland State. State support for the university has dwindled to only 11% of the budget. Our endowment is negligible. Consequently, our revenue is driven almost entirely by tuition. Tuition has been raised repeatedly over the years and, for a number of good reasons, cannot be raised any higher for the foreseeable future.

The professoriate at PSU consists of three faculty groups: tenured and tenure-track, full-time non-tenure-track, and adjunct. If we set aside the (very important) issues of job security and academic freedom, we can consider TT and full-time NTT faculty to be comparably-treated groups in pay, benefits, and work expectations. (There will be objections to this characterization but relative to the third group of faculty – adjuncts –it certainly holds true.) We have seen considerable tensions in a full-time workforce birfurcated into those with access to tenure and those without. The term “2nd-class citizen” for NTT faculty is invoked regularly, which tends to crowd out the more fundamental problem--the existence of our “3rd class citizens.” True to the national stereotype, adjunct faculty are largely invisible within the PSU University community. Full-time NTT serve on Senate, interact regularly with their TT colleagues and administrators, and are represented alongside TT faculty in the union (PSU-AAUP). To the extent that adjuncts’ voices are heard, it is primarily through their union, which bargains separately. Finally, it’s worth noting that a higher percentage of PSU’s professoriate are full-time (TT or NTT faculty) relative to the national average (29% vs. the 20% the Delphi Project cites as typical[1]).

Adjunct faculty deliver roughly 30% of PSU’s student credit hours (SCH) while full-time (TT and NTT) faculty deliver 70%. A whopping 92% of every tuition dollar earned by an adjunct instructor is net revenue compared to 24% of each dollar for full-time faculty. This means that after deducting expenditures (salary, etc.), the percentage of university base revenue contributed by adjunct SCH is 42% compared to 58% by the full-time faculty SCH. Nearly half of the university’s budget is built on adjunct usage.

In other words, the adjuncting that was once rationalized as a stop-gap and ad hoc measure is now the lifeblood of the budget. Were there to be a coordinated effort across departments to stop offering adjunct contracts, the university would go into full-blown cardiac arrest. I understand why the comparisons of adjunct faculty to slaves strikes many of us as both inappropriate and offensive, but one can see from this information why the analogy is tempting. To economically sustain itself, the public university needs people to perform work that it cannot afford to compensate, at least not remotely adequately. It goes without saying that this situation is hardly unique to PSU, though our desirable urban setting in Portland, Oregon probably gives us an unusually large pool of qualified people to exploit.

In this context, what would happen were departments to resist adjunct usage by imposing what amounts to an adjunct strike (albeit one initiated by the professionally-salaried full-time faculty)?  Most likely, they would meet with enormous and frantic resistance. Chairs and directors who won’t sign adjunct contracts could be pressured or forced to step down. Rumors would fly that administrators plan to retaliate by finding ways to shut down participating departments and to deny their junior faculty tenure. Second only to the guilt you’d feel for abruptly turning your back on the talented adjuncts who taught for your department for many moons is the guilt you’d feel about the panicked students piling up in the main office because they couldn’t get the classes they need. Forced to take out more student loans to extend their time in school, they would feel swindled. What university admits students, they would rightly ask, and then makes it impossible for them to graduate?

Who would knowingly go down this road? And yet if we don’t start taking some steps in this direction, nothing will change. It is true that without radical intervention on anyone else’s part, adjunct organizing, where it is legal, will make adjunct usage more and more expensive. This might ultimately land us in a similar place, but how many years from now? We need more good jobs now and some pain in reform is unavoidable. We have been getting something for cheap that allowed us to do things we wanted. That most of these things were worthy, such as keeping students on track for graduation, is beside the point. With no sudden windfalls (from the state or federal government or from donors) on the horizon, we have to bust our way out of this predicament with the same pint-sized budgets that pushed us into it.

Here’s how I suggest we start: Have the discussion within your department. Learn your own university’s numbers and then your own department’s specific numbers. Explain to your Dean that you feel you can no longer in good conscience be complicit in the abuse of adjuncts. Simultaneously reassure him or her that you are prepared to do everything in your power to lessen the “damage” done to all the constituencies that in one way or another benefited from the adjunct abuse.

What is within your power to change will vary widely by department. How your department organized its labor thus far, the disciplinary protocols driving research expectations (and, thus, promotion and tenure), the service needs: all of these things and more will play a part in determining how much room you have to maneuver. The goal, though, is to offer up as much as you can in return for new lines. The idea is that you might have to absorb some of the work previously done by adjuncts but, in return, you will get new full-time lines and you will no longer be complicit in adjunct exploitation. Remind your Dean that you are only doing now what you always should have done and what you will have to do in the future. Remind him or her that if you wait, you will be making these changes on a union’s terms not on the university’s.

Some further steps: Assess the department’s past in relation to the growth in adjunct use. When did your department start the practice and why? Take a fresh look at existing circumstances. Are there faculty who went down to half-time but you never argued to restore the missing instruction in the form of a new hire? Are there people who once carried full courseloads but are now directors of programs or otherwise engaged but you never made up the loss (except by way of adjuncts)? Figure out how you got where you are and what the lost opportunities for new full-time hires were in the past. It is important to document this background.

Find all low-hanging fruit. Are there enough funds for sections that could be bundled into full-time positions before asking for new investment? Are there funds for “perks” (and, yes, I mean heretofore necessities like travel money) that could be redirected? Are there ways to avoid low-enrollment classes? Are you and your colleagues willing to resume advising and mentoring, making a professional advisor unnecessary (freeing a salary plus benefits that could go to a full-time instructional position)? Are there staff positions that could be economized?

Eliminate as many course releases for full-time faculty as possible so that it’s clear that whatever adjunct sections are left over are not there to benefit full-time faculty but are the result of real need. Putting up some of your “own” money is how you buy good will with, build trust with, and minimize the possibility of retaliation from administrators.

This is already more than anybody wants to hear so I’ll stop for now. Believe me, I get why nobody wants to hear any of this. Mounting this full-frontal assault in real life resulted in scorched earth among full-time departmental colleagues, some of whom were old friends. (Weirdly as I’ve discussed for this blog before, the earth was less scorched between the department and the university administration.) It also resulted in a few new tenure lines and a few saved national searches.

Given how far we’ve gone down Contingency Road, the way back is going to be more painful than anyone wants it to be. But the rewards make the effort necessary and worthwhile: less exploitation, better education, internal relations based on improved equity, and a larger contribution to the public good.

Posted by Chris Newfield | Comments: 7

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Thursday, July 17, 2014
This post focuses on the University of California's budget situation, but it is broadly applicable to public colleges and universities across the country.   More evidence of the national pattern came in this week, with reports of Moody's negative outlook on higher education's finances.  The Chronicle of Higher Education's Don Troop provided highlights of Moody's view of the overall sector.  UC reflects the convergence of all but the fourth of these trends.


  1. Growth in tuition revenue remains stifled by affordability concerns, legislative ceilings on tuition levels, and steep competition for students.
  2. State financing of higher education will increase, on average, just 3 to 4 percent—not enough to meet the growth in expenses.
  3. Already stiff competition for sponsored-research dollars is getting stiffer, with success rates for proposals dropping from 19 percent in 2008 to below 15 percent last year.
  4. One in 10 public and private colleges is suffering “acute financial distress” because of falling revenues and weak operating performance.
  5. Public colleges will begin to feel the impact of underfunded pensions and health benefits for retirees.
  6. Most public colleges and many private ones will be unable to achieve a 3-percent annual growth rate in operating revenue, Moody’s benchmark for sustainable financing at a time of low inflation.
Moody's also slapped UC with a minor downgrade, from the second-best rating to the third.


1. Did Tuition Hikes Make Up for State Funding Cuts?

As the UC Regents discussed the budget this week, the headline figure for California higher ed is the five percent public funding increase over last year. This has convinced most people that UC and CSU are getting a good deal from the state.  I've heard the same from some faculty, who tell me that UC is on the mend, and that we should stick to our work and let the economy recover.  Sadly, I don't see this mending in the Regents' budget documents.  What I do see is a hardening of the downward definition of public higher education through budgetary means, with no public debate.

The overall state picture is the same today as it was in November, when I wrote an overview entitled "The Old State Funding Model is Dead."  It is still dead, and if you are rusty on our current budgetary framework, you might want to (re)read that summary of the state government's perspective on UC and glance at the chart of the past fifteen years of budget trends. 

In the coming year, UC will receive around $2.8 billion in general fund (GF) receipts, which is about $2.2 billion below where it would have been had its budget grown in step with state personal income after 2000-01 (I use UCOP figures here, page S-4).  That GF total now includes debt payments on UC's General Obligation (GO) bonds, which the state had formerly paid on its own, so operational GF receipts are more like $2.6 billion. This is exactly where GF funding was ten years ago--not counting for inflation or enrollment growth, which Jerry Brown has decided the state will no longer fund.  Proposed future state increases are too small to move the University much off this bottom.  

The state has convinced itself that UC has made up for state funding cuts with huge tuition increases.  But as big as they are, they haven't replaced the cuts.  UC grossed $727 million in tuition in 2001-02 (Table 1, or about $1 billion in current dollars) and about $3.2 billion this year (same table), for a gain of nearly $2.2 billion in today's dollars, which seems at first to make up exactly for the GF cuts since 2000-01.  

But the net tuition gain is under $1.5 billion after financial aid is taken out, so we now have a net loss of $700 million.   Throw in enrollment growth of 55,000 students, which is the same as having added two additional UCSB campuses (and not just one hamstrung UC Merced).  UCOP continues to claim that they spend $19,590 per student, but let's say they only spend a third of that: we've just added $330,000,000 in additional operating costs and pushed the net loss in the GF-tuition swap to well over $1 billion per year.   In other words, tuition increases have only made up for something like half of the state cuts.  UCOP's claim, with somewhat different assumptions, that tuition increases have made up for about one third of the state funding cuts, is also plausible.  

Public universities, in short, did not have a "tuition option" for solvency even when they could raise tuition a lot--which they no longer can.


2. Austerity and Institutional Debt

The current public university path, if UC is an example, is a perverse combination of austerity and structural deficit. It is perverse because the only good thing ever alleged about austerity is that it pays down deficits, whereas this kind of public university austerity will not.  Perverse austerity is conventional wisdom in many lands, as Paul Krugman has tirelessly pointed out.  In Austerity: the History of a Dangerous Idea, Mark Blyth argued that austerity isn't about fixing its target institutions--like public colleges--but about hurting those institutions in order to help others--like banks.  UC austerity is about hurting UC -- or, more precisely, about defining it downward in part to lessen its budget claims.  

I'm making this point because another dangerous idea is for faculty, staff and students to sit back and let  projected economic growth fix the university.  It won't.  All Regents budget documents now contain sentences like this: 
Given the funding shortfall, campuses will need to weigh and balance among competing priorities with the understanding that there is not enough increased revenue to fund mandatory cost increases, let alone the other high-priority costs identified in the November budget plan.
The is the equivalent of the older, tactful Surgeon General's warnings about smoking cigarettes: "this budget may be hazardous to campus health."

OK, this is not big news for those of us who've been following this for years.  But there's something poignantly revealing about the documents this month.  The state offers small bits of funding to UC here and there, mostly on a one-time basis, for specific projects, normally known as earmarks.  A particular one-time item, $50 million in supplemental funds based on higher-than-expected property tax receipts, was cancelled by the governor before the Regents had a chance to celebrate it.

Then there's the pension.  UC employee contributions have now risen to 8 percent of salary, and UC's employer share is going to 14 percent of payroll.  UC asked for the state to fund just next year's new increment on the employer contribution to the pension. This would be $64 million to cover the increase from 12 percent to 14 percent in 2014-15.  The state rejected even this fractional contribution.  

The state's point may be that the pension is UC's problem because the UC Regents created it, with their two-decade pension "holiday" in which neither employer nor employee made contributions.  But it's not like the state wants to force accountability by naming names and cleaning house: Gov. Brown recently reappointed several long-term regents who among other things were directly involved in this ongoing lack of basic fiduciary responsibility. I assume that the pension liability helps Sacramento keep the financial dunce cap on UC's head, forcing humility in its budget demands.

A major result of the university's political weakness and the resulting austerity is more institutional borrowing.   A normal sign of an improving economy is that institutions start paying down the debt they accumulated to get through a downturn.  That isn't happening here. UC needs to borrow to make its contribution to fully funding the UC Retirement Program (UCRP) by 2042.  It has been borrowing from its Short Term Interest Pool (STIP) for several years, and now wants to borrow another $700 million next year to make all of last year's (2013-14) planned payment.  Without getting into the weeds of this issue, I'd summarize UCOP as saying it still can't afford to return the pension, by 2042, to 95 percent of the level at which all liabilities are covered, without continuing to borrow. (Two weeds: UCOP is saying it can't afford "modified ARC" for that year on its own; and although the document claims faculty Senate endorsement, this plan appears to be less than the Senate's call for 100 percent liability coverage by 2042).  The pension is set to be significantly underfunded for most of the next thirty years. It will be a permanent political target and a burden UCOP will set against operating funds, with the likelihood of future liabilities incurred to pay down the pension liability.  

The sadder example of ongoing debt is the request for "external financing for the UCPath project." UC Path was UCOP's flagship solution to UC inefficiencies that were allegedly wasting taxpayers' money--in other words, new enterprise software for the systemwide consolidation of payroll and human resources functions.  This is boring, important back office stuff, hardly good material for a political campaign to show the state "UC means business," but that's what it became.  Rather than funding each campus's decades-old effort to upgrade its systems on its own, UCOP sought centralization, which predictably introduced new levels of cost, complexity, and inefficiency, since centralization is often not actually efficient.  

I had heard nothing good about UC Path from people trying to implement it on campuses, and have tried to ignore it, but this week it has resurfaced as a problem at the Regental level.  The project timeline has grown from 48 to 72 months, and its costs are said to be $220 million (it had spent $131 million by May 2014) . Worse, the repayment schedule has mushroomed from seven to twenty years. Annual payments are to be something like $25 million.  Campuses are to be taxed to pay for 2015-era systems until 2035, which is like taking out a twenty year mortgage to pay for your refrigerator, except that your fridge will be working better in 2035 than next year's PeopleSoft product.  Since the concurrent budget document  notes efficiency savings of $30 million per year (top of page 4), UCOP may be spending $220 million to save a net $5 million per year over a couple of decades--and going into debt to do it.  In the end, an efficiency measure has turned into a literal liability.


3.  How to Respond? 

Moving forward, I'm afraid that officials are going to have to get much better at admitting mistakes like UCPath, and then actually undoing them. I couldn't listen to the recording of the UCPath conversation, but Cloudminder made it sound like a lot of restrained finger-pointing with no solution in sight. Did anyone say, "well, this seemed like a good idea at the time, but it's not. Let's just cancel it, figure out where we went wrong, and come up with something better"?

A related issue is getting over the idea that technology will save us.  It won't. Technology is always a sociotechnical system, with people adding tacit knowledge, relationships, and much else that tech really can't replicate or replace.  Universities need de-bureaucratization, not more technologized bureaucracy.  They need organizational redesigns, including large scale simplification and task reduction.  That's where the real savings are, but it's not about pooling, herding, or firing people, but about first fixing the jobs that they're supposed to do.  Of course technology is part of the solution: it just can't decide organizational functions and purposes.

On the plus side, UC officials have gotten good at describing the funding shortage. In a recent op-ed, UC Berkeley's Vice-Chancellor for business and finance, John Wilton, bites the hand that feeds him micro-restorations:
Despite UC Berkeley’s [strong] performance, state funding has been cut more than half in real terms over the past decade. Consequently, “public” funding now accounts for only about 13 percent of our total operating budget. While this year’s state budget reflects a 5 percent increase, this results in a 0.6 percent increase in Berkeley’s total revenue. At this pace, it will take us until 2026 to reach the same level of state funding, in nominal dollars, we received in 2003.
This kind budget memory is helpful.

Second, universities have been testing the message that cuts damage educational quality.  I don't see any other issue that will get the public to care about X percentage of cuts vs. X minus Y percentage of restoration by year Z.  The only meaning the numbers have is students missing the boat to the next society because public universities can't give them cutting-edge knowledge and cognitive skills.   Mark Yudof said as much at a Regents' retreat almost two years ago, where he stated that cuts have meant "a quiet but steady erosion of our academic quality at almost every level.” 

What we don't have but desperately need is a consistent public explanation of the educational quality problem, a clear articulation of the budgetary fix, and a mobilization of university communities, students' families, and the wider community. The time of change by political counternarrative has come and gone.  VC Wilton's ended his piece with a general exhortation: "We are in this together, and time is not on our side. We should all take up this cause now, before it is too late."  True. But were we to take up the cause, what would we actually do?   
Posted by Chris Newfield | Comments: 11

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Sunday, July 13, 2014
by Jennifer Ruth, English Department, Portland State University

The Modern Language Association (MLA) is under fire for not fighting hard enough against the adjunctification of the professoriate. An excellent piece in Inside Higher Ed criticizes the recent MLA report on doctoral programs for accommodating when it should challenge the trends that destroy PhDs’ prospects. In blog posts and in The Chronicle for Higher Education, another group calls for the MLA to consider a 4:1 salary ratio: the highest-paid person (the Association’s executive director) should be compensated no more than four times the lowest-paid person in the profession (the adjunct). The intent here, Marc Bousquet writes, is to “goose” the MLA leadership into action by forcing it to glimpse its ample-salaried self standing in disturbing proximity to the anorexic adjunct.

Taking the MLA to task makes sense. One of our biggest professional organizations, why is it helpless to stem—much less reverse—deprofessionalization? It’s not that it doesn’t take the problem seriously. As the people rising to its defense in the comment threads observe, the MLA has formed committees and organized panels on the topic. It has issued important policy recommendations (a recommended floor for adjunct wages, for example). Indeed, it is confusing to know what to think when you move from one person’s righteous denunciation of the organization’s foot-dragging to someone else’s list of the worthy steps it has taken.

Whatever the MLA’s record, the urge to hold somebody accountable is a good one. I hope that it indicates that we are sick-unto-death of distracting abstractions. Who can stand to hear the phrase “systemic forces” again? “Market forces” is even worse. However brilliant and even accurate it might be, another David Harvey-inspired argument about the impact on the university of the post-1970 neoliberal transformation of the global economy won’t help us. If anything these analyses contribute to a feeling of fatalism in which we assume any actions we could take will just be swept into the neoliberal tidal wave. Over the last few years, for example, the term “structural adjustment” has begun to replace “crisis.” While the former term is surely more honest when referring to deprofessionalization—how long can something continue and still claim to be a crisis?—it’s also chillingly impersonal. At least “crisis” suggested emotion and emotion suggests people. And I have the strong and unhappy conviction that if we want to effect change, we have to hold flesh-and-blood people accountable for what’s happened and what continues to happen.

The urge to hold specific people accountable is one that people understandably suppress. Nobody wants to blame people she might actually know for what is obviously a complicated national problem. One solution to this queasiness has been the safe but largely impotent invocation of the nameless, faceless Administrator. I’ve been in too many conversations—perhaps you have, too?—in which hand-wringing leads to an appetite for blame and this leads to happy agreement that “administrators” are the source of all evil. We identify a common enemy in a group of people with whom we do not identify. This was my go-to conversational move when I was an assistant professor, but now that I’m tenured and even more so now that I’ve served as department chair, I can’t go down that well-worn discursive path without feeling ashamed of myself. My experiences at a state university relying on a high number of contingent faculty have taught me that nothing is likely to change until we take personal responsibility for what has happened to the profession.

I don’t know Rosemary Feal (MLA executive director) but I bet she thinks more about adjunctifaction than some people I do know. It’s not comfortable to say this but I know too many people who are skilled at not connecting the dots of their own actions to the profession-wide devastation they read about online or in magazines. Feal got it right when a few days before these recent controversies, she was quoted in an Atlantic.com article as saying that along with the help of trustees and accreditation agencies, this fight needs the support of middle administrators.

By “middle administrators,” I assume Feal has in mind people like the tenured faculty who start new minors with off-track labor, the directors growing programs out of thin air, the chairs who have to graduate majors on woefully strapped budgets, and the associate deans and deans who advise these afore-mentioned people that it is easier to get permission for an off-tenure than for a tenure-line appointment. These are the middle managers who have built our current academic labor system much more intimately than have the highly visible obscenely-paid presidents of tier-one universities.

The middleman “needs to choose not to be complicit in a system that abuses adjuncts,” Feal is quoted as saying. Yes, we need to choose not to be complicit. By “we,” I refer to all tenured faculty. Why do we have tenure if not for the freedom (or luxury) it affords to avoid acts that contradict our consciences? Tenure means we don’t have to fix lab results for the pharmaceutical companies who donate to our universities. It also means that we don’t have to write and sign contracts that make for widespread misery.

I think many people would agree with this. So why do we do it? Why is creating adjunct sections so tempting for people who know better? My department has done it for years. Hiring off the tenure track has enabled us to: 1) hire people with higher courseloads to meet student demand without undertaking the hard work of time-intensive searches (rather, a chair makes a phone call); 2) hire people with higher courseloads without asking how this might—or should—prompt us to rethink our more desirable conventional jobs bundling teaching, research, and service; 3) hire spouses not as spousal hires but into non-tenure track positions since they are easier to secure; 4) hire people for curricular areas we find alluring without committing to those areas in perpetuity; 5) grow niche programs on all-adjunct labor to boost our overall student-credit-hour numbers so that we have more capital to ask for tenure lines; 6) hire adjuncts to give full-time faculty course releases for research and other projects; 7) add new sections at the last minute when all the others fill up so that our students have the classes they need to graduate; 8) hire our graduate students in the hope that teaching experience will make them attractive for full-time jobs elsewhere; and, of course,  9) continue to run the full gamut of courses during budget crunches that we hope are short-term but that often become long-term. Some of these motivations are more understandable than others but all of them have made the world in which we now live.

I once talked to a chair of a different department who felt very guilty about her use of adjuncts. She brightened, though, when she told me that she was working on a plan to improve the situation. She had submitted a proposal to the dean for a full-time non-tenure-track position to both teach and manage the thirty-odd adjuncts she typically employs. This new person, she said, could improve the adjuncts’ lives by holding occasional social events and developing a helpful handbook. This woman is an excellent chairperson in many respects but I don’t understand why we don’t use the power of our privilege to stop running our programs on disposable appointments. Sure, it is a hell of a lot of work strategizing, re-arranging, coordinating with other bodies (such as Senate), cajoling, foot-stamping and stonewalling to insist that we grow responsibly – but it’s easier to sleep at night.

Actually, the truth is that I know perfectly well why we don’t do more about this problem: because when you tackle it, you don’t sleep better. You may even sleep worse. We do nothing in large part because the people who came before us or we ourselves have already done the damage. At first each contingent position was a canny solution, a short-term and apparently victimless strategy for weathering tough times. It is now our collective disaster that (flesh and blood) people depend on even the worst non-tenure-track positions. It turns out that bucking the system that is already in place is as hard on the conscience as maintaining it. Even if in the long run better jobs with access to tenure are created and this improves the university (and, in turn, society) by strengthening academic freedom, particular individuals likely will lose out. No matter how ingenious the circumstances designed to move us from a majority off-track to majority on-track workforce, no matter how irreproachably conscientious, there will be outcomes that feel unjust from someone’s perspective. This is by far the hardest part of making change. Since both options—bucking and not bucking—are painful, the path of least resistance (doing nothing) is the one we typically choose.

Hard, too, but in a different league from taking people’s jobs away, is that bucking the system wins one enemies because tenure-track faculty have come to benefit from the compromised labor system we deplore. It’s really nice, for example, to tell that treasured junior faculty member that you will hire an adjunct to cover her class so she can finish the publication she needs to achieve tenure. It’s really nice to learn that you can drop next term’s class to complete the book that’s been weighing you down for five years, the book that will change the world . . . or slightly reframe a small part of it for the five people who read it.

I can hear in that last sentence that my tone is turning sour. I am in danger of ranting about university plantations and caste systems, about lifeboaters and migrant workers, so I’ll stop. But you see what I’m getting at. I’d like us to help our middle managers to not be complicit with the deteriorating conditions of the profession. We might start by understanding that when we ask for releases from our chair (for whatever more or less excellent reason) we are often asking them to hire adjuncts. We also need to resist the temptation to ask for adjunct sections so that esteemed friends, perfectly qualified lovers, and prodigiously talented graduate students can earn a small income.

Let’s be even bolder by asking our directors and department chairs to stop hiring off the tenure track for any reason and by helping them use this strategy to demand new tenure-line positions. The first baby step towards getting good positions is refusing to create adjunct sections. Insist that your department wants to meet student demand but can only do so ethically and professionally with tenure-track positions.

You will be called naive. That’s to be expected. What’s harder is when people call you doctrinaire because you resist the creation of an adjunct section for, say, someone’s brilliant son or daughter when teaching one class is everything to this adult child at this moment in time but isn’t it, really, nothing—infinitesimal—in the grand scheme of adjunctification? Might you also inadvertently make it more difficult for your students to graduate? Might you have to spend many hours forging alliances with faculty across your university to put pressure on deans and your provost to create new tenure lines? Yes and yes. It could be worth all of this, nonetheless, because you could move from hand-wringing to turning the system around, job by job.

“Why are we complicit in creating a disposable workforce?” is part one of two parts. Moving from refusal to possibility is the subject of part two, which appears next week. How do we effect change when contingent labor is now written into our universities’ fiscal strategy for survival?

Posted by Chris Newfield | Comments: 10