University systems at a crossroads: Furloughs and funding of futures and fantasies

As the nation comes to grips with what is likely another great depression. Regardless of categories or quantities it is THE worst recession since the great depression. As the nation attempts to consider the ramifications of double-digit unemployment (I know that isn’t what they tell us, but they lie) and widening taxpayer, tax spender gaps several issues are arising for higher education. I find it interesting that that many universities are beginning furloughs before they have even reached the end of previous funding cycles. In other words they are saving money before they lose money.

Clemson University is instituting a mandatory furlough program for all faculty and staff of 5 days leave without pay. Utah State is also doing an mandatory furlough for five days too.  In the state of Maryland the entire University system is doing a five day furlough for all faculty and staff. Arizona State University has been especially hit hard with presidents and deans taking 15 days of furlough and all classified staff taking 10 days. All other employees take a 12 day furlough.

As the emergency planning scenarios are put into place consider what has gotten higher education into the place where it is now. Scraping for state funding at a meager trough already licked dry.

  1. Empire building: University presidents have large staffs filled with myriad vice presidents, chancellors, vice chancellors, and in some schools assistant-assistant deans. The result is a hierarchical leadership that is top heavy and non-productive in terms of adding to the bottom line. I would use the military as an analogy but they too have lost any idea of common sense in setting up an organization pared to the bone and high performance.  Too many offices, too many administrators, there is an appellation of “Too many cooks spoils the broth”. This is one the University systems (especially the large state systems) have proved quite well.
  2. Do more with less, do less with less, and finally do nothing with nothing. These are the steps of diminishing returns that started with the advent of the modern research university. As professors became intellectual property progenitors their teaching loads became less, and their research loads took on more importance. All at the same time as shrinking research budgets impacted their funding streams. There are other issues too, such as, the failure to productize intellectual property. The University professor used to be the production point of the primary task of the University. Do we still need them when graduate students have filled the ranks and taken over much of the teaching task? Not that having graduate students teaching is a bad thing; it is good for the graduate student. What is bad is that the University professor has abandoned the factory floor for the den of the lotus-eaters.
  3. Scholarship as consumerism. The movement to treat students as consumers has hurt the funding of the University and created horrific infrastructure issues. Just as an example Purdue opened a new 19 million dollar food court that seats 500. That could be new labs or computers, or funding lines for faculty. However, according to the article the students can get Brazilian barbecue.  This is part of a 200 million dollar innovation program. All of this pushed by consumerism. Instead of pushing scholarship and providing the tools necessary universities make strategic decisions to renovate instead of innovate. Of course university president inaugurations that cost over $220K are wasteful spending too. My office hasn’t been painted in 20 years and the walls are crumbling .
  4. Scholarship on credit. There is no possible way that the stratospheric rise in the cost of a University education could possibly have occurred without the associated loosening and changing perceptions of the credit industry. With college costs increasing significantly faster than inflation this is a situation where nobody can afford to buy the product. With Wall Street credit closing off, the foundation of the State University was built upon a matchstick raft, suddenly it is in trouble. Somebody lit the matches on fire. As we close in on 25% unemployment, credit markets continue to collapse, and the second great depression begins no stimulus package is going to fix the inherent issues.
  5. Hyper specialization, over specificity, false towers, and scholarly disdain. Lets get this straight. In the big picture of the academic world there are anthropological studies and sciences. The business school is nothing but the study of humans doing business. Sociology and political science, well give me a break, and yes I know faculty are swooning. Why is information technology found in the school of technology with industrial technology? Because they have the word technology in their name? Computer Graphics Technology programs in the school of technology make no sense either. They are highly technical disciplines but arts and communication. Everybody wants his or her own department head, dean, associate dean, and assistant-associate dean. The overhead is immeasurable. By the way physics and chemistry working together on a project is not interdisciplinary. Neither is sociology and political science some kind of interdisciplinary effort. Silos of unreasoning creation are empirical proof that the smartest people can be human too.

The largesse of the liberal education policies instantiated through court decisions in the late 1960s through the mid 1990s  and as a result the changing role of the University in society has created a series of problems. Credentialism and liberal financial aid policies drove tuition increases and reduced state funding allotments.  A series of court decisions removed ROTC from campuses and created a hostile environment for military members so new GI bill dollars  may be sent toward private or more attractive universities. The actual impacts on the state systems of the new GI bill is going to be minimal in my opinion. After recently watching a major research University president speak to the topic of military members entering university there was an off hand comment that they might look into it.

Let us be honest with each other. I am not going to make any friends in the academy speaking what I consider to be glaring omissions in common sense. Another point. The long academic traditions of American academia are basically fluff. America is only a little over 230 years old and the public school academia we know and love was basically a creation of the industrial revolution. Sure a few Ivy League types have been around longer. The meteoric rise of higher education really got started after World War II and during Vietnam. Basically as a response to returning service members, and those wishing to not be service members.  Still what tradition we have we should protect and regardless of political affiliation the University system has been an agent of positive innovation and transformation in the past.

So, how best to protect the treasure that is higher education and state sponsored Universities in America?

  1. Send Americans to school. A painful personal anecdote as embarrassing as it is. When I was applying to PhD programs I was told by one school in a letter that while my scores and grades were excellent I would not be accepted. Looking for a clue as to the nature of the double speak in the letter I called and talked to an admissions specialist (a title that still makes me twitch), and she said that if I were Chinese I would definitely be admitted but because I’m a state student they are full up. This isn’t a form of racism. What it shows is a desire to fill seats with higher paying foreign students who must take full class loads to maintain visa status and can be forced to work for lower than minimum wages. This is obviously a false economy and there are a bucket full of false assumptions and illogic in the statement. It remains that foreign students who enter the United States as the best and brightest of their nations and remain in the United States boost intellectual capital and that allows America to sustain a dominance of innovation. It is also true that state schools especially have a duty to the state taxpayer to recruit from home.
  2. Everybody teaches. The faculty engages in scholarship, teaching, and service. That should be true for the administration too. From the President of the University to the department head of a program everybody teaches.  From top to bottom if the primary mission of a University is teaching then everybody should be teaching. Otherwise administrator admonishments to adhere to mission statements are bankrupt as they fail to see the irony. This one item with the reduction in adjunct faculty could save most state schools huge amounts of money.
  3. Empires are economic evil. Even on large land grant Universities with humongous  research apparatus, the administration should be  much smaller. Though each state may have certain legal requirements to maintain specific offices where at all possible consolidation is the key. When I went to the administration building of a large land grant University recently I was talking to a vice president and I asked how many classrooms were in the building. His answer was none. He was a bit puzzled by the question and it was obvious that the irony of having a large building charged with administrating the mission of teaching that did not have teaching anywhere in it was not apparent. Consolidation means head count reduction and/or reassignment. Reorganization without cost savings mean nothing. Welcome to a new world academia administrations.
  4. Don’t take the same path you did to get here and expect to end up somewhere else. The profusion of deans and department heads must go away. Streamline programs. Everybody has computers. That does not mean the English department should abandon teaching English and suddenly take up teaching HTML as a technical communication. Neither should we at this epoch require keyboarding or general Microsoft Office skills courses as general education. Requiring that kind of course shows a complete disconnect by the University with the rest of society. Everybody can provide anecdotal evidence to support their position that students need some specific word processor skill or are not prepared for classes without Microsoft Office (I happen to use iWork but oh well).  I have fiduciary evidence. A three-credit course can average easily $1000. Video Professor will send me the first three disks of Office training for free. Oh and if I’m in the military I can do ALL of their training for free. Computers are pervasive and ubiquitous within the University. Departments should consider if they are teaching computers or with computers. As an example computer science in general teaches with computers, and electrical engineering teaches the computer.
  5. A few threads create the hyper-specificity of specialization within academia. The first thread, is that of ego: Where people want to be able to specify exactly what they are an expert within. The second thread is of education: Where doctoral programs are at the department level it is important to recognize the education. Each of these threads helps promote and continue the stove piping of educational institutions. To have the specificity of research or discipline is not the issue. To create department chairs and deans for all of those hyper-specific disciplines is an incredible waste. This unfortunately is a place where administrations have burned many bridges with faculty. Administrations have often used the department designation as a method of controlling allocations and revenue. If administrations had instead considered operational needs and imperatives of academic disciplines more important than the titles of the departments I wonder how much money could be saved?
  6. A bankrupt education system should see the irony in requiring lines of credit from students seeking an education. The University should be more about scholarship than vocation and less about consumerism. The continuing vocational trend of University has added to the credentialism and taken away from the role of the community college system.  Framing departments and colleges/schools of the University around operational needs rather than academic disciplines might alleviate some of the girth that has occurred. The organizational structure currently in place at most Universities is obsessive obesity largesse. This may mean faculty teach in multiple departments but with all of those new fangled accounting systems that costs billions to put into place I’m sure academia can figure it out. What education systems should not do is raise prices. By raising the barrier to entry you not only lose new entry level students you price out current students.

Some of the things you won’t see done but would cut institutional costs by half (based on institutional 16 week semesters).

  1. Cut operational costs by dropping spring break. Also drop dead weeks, and fall breaks from all future calendars. Student achievement may be impacted but what is that really saying? Students who can’t cope with 15 weeks straight work should be let into the work force? Operational cost savings approximately 2 weeks. Consider starting earlier in the fall and ending at Thanksgiving (told you this was crazy talk).  Standardize holidays with the federal calendar. Having financial and mail clerks on duty for days that there is no banks open, or mail services is an immediate concern.
  2. Teach only day classes on the ground and all night classes as online or synchronous distance learning. Using tools like Adobe connect an institution can transition infrastructure costs (otherwise known as brick and mortar costs) to participants. By closing buildings at night staffing costs will be significantly reduced. This mammoth transition though not without some costs could save an institution up to a whopping 2 months of operational costs. If you close the buildings at night there is a large cost savings. This effort will have higher impacts for non-residence schools.
  3. Institute absolute vigilance on financial aid recipients. Everybody who has ever been involved in higher education has seen or dealt with the financial aid pariah. That student who registers for six courses a semester gets the financial aid check and only shows up for free pizza in the student union. As a sore on the bottom of higher education these higher education welfare babies are a drag on the system and increase costs as they also represent the group that defaults on their student loans. Financial aid junkies need to go cold-turkey. Everybody deserves the chance to attend university, and everybody has the responsibility to put forth the effort. Reverse the system of financial aid. Aid will be given at the END of the semester based on the performance of the student.  Each student can get a one-time first semester aid package to pay up front but that is a lifetime award as a method of breaking the barrier to entry. In other words sign up for six courses, drop three, flunk two, and you only get aid for the next semester of one course. Harsh? So is a global economic depression.
  4. Consider 2X2 system wide course schedules. Another big idea but it can save up to 6 weeks of operational costs. The 2X2 systems are based on Monday/Wednesday courses along with Tuesday/Thursday courses. In systems doing this there are few if no classes on Friday. Close the school on Fridays through Sunday or at least severely inhibit services on those days. Send the bulk of the staff home and strongly discourage meetings.  Many Universities have instituted this already but just haven’t formalized it.  Beware of cutting costs be impacting student services like healthcare and recreation especially at residential Universities. I am bleakly aware of my own University, which has a growing residential population that closes the dining facilities at 2 PM. If you live on campus and want dinner we have the equivalent of 7/11 in a closet. 
  5. Be careful the use of business models for a non-business world. The public University should not be a profit center nor-should it use business logic to run. This may appear to be internally contradictory to the rest of the essay but let me explain. The University has no profit motive and can be MORE efficient than a business. I am reminded of several non-profit national organizations where they are incredibly efficient and track every dollar that enters and the total overhead before it exits to their charity or constituency. The University systems have been looking the wrong way for leadership on how to run their businesses. They need to look not at the corporate world like Wall Street that brought us two great depressions, numerous recessions, 30 to 1 leveraging of the stock shares, bubbles, bombs, and busts with short vision horizons. Instead the Higher Education establishment should be looking at charities that have overhead costs of 5 to 10 percent. Why can they be so efficient and the University can’t? I think if we can answer this question (and get past the “Then faculty should all be volunteers” ) then we will have some ideas at true cost savings.
  6. End vocationalism in the University. The rampant debate over the function of the University for societal interests is long and poignant. In the end we must accept at least some of the liberal education philosophy. Community colleges have long served the vocational role. The University produces engineers, thinkers, and thought leaders. The University has abandoned the role of innovator. Every school that touts the number of “employers” on their advisory board is guilty of this anti-intellectualism mindset.  Universities should look to bring together advisory boards that represent innovators, thinkers, and futurists who represent the needs of future generations. Not just the short vision horizons of corporate moguls previously discussed.  In an abrogation of all that is capitalism the corporate world is not the future it is but one facet of that future.  The future is innovation or strangulation by technicians.  The problems of the future are many; the fear is that we may have squandered the resource found in the intellectual brainpower of multiple generations, by stupefying vocational training. The University should be about HIGHER EDUCATION not experiential learning (read vocational training). Ok, this one won’t cut costs it is just a pet peeve of mine.

Here is the problem. Furloughs are short-term band-aids. The wound though is a gushing severed arm that isn’t likely anytime to grow back. Unless those guys down in the bio-genetics lab ever get the reptile-human genome thing worked out.  Over three decades of absolute fiscal malfeasance will not be fixed by a measly $1 trillion stimulus package. Any school looking at furloughs will likely just deduct the furlough from their 9 month employees directly no matter how they state they will do it. The faculty member will likely have to show up and teach as normal. There is no shared pain across the organization and that is a travesty and one of the many ways that administrations will abuse the trust of faculty.

In classic systems engineering (I laugh at the idea of uttering “classic systems engineering”) there is the idea of root cause analysis. Find the actual problem and fix that instead of just fixing the symptoms. Makes sense? The problem here is that the system is over burdened, filled with largesse created by an out of control credit market, mired by rampant consumerism and the system is failing. Correction. The higher education system has failed. Some schools will go along buoyed by good fiscal emergency management for awhile. Others will slowly curtail services and offerings. Others will simply flame out.

I know a little bit about this topic. I was the student body president at Westmar University in LeMars Iowa. Westmar was a small liberal arts university with a diverse population of about 800 students. Though it had issues the school was well on the way to financial success when the town of LeMars incredulously called a note due on the land. The $10 million note was a bond but nobody had ever expected the city to call it due when the payments were being made. Developers though had identified sections of the land as REAL ESTATE and where there is money to be made who cares about a University. Westmar closed two weeks before the end of the fall semester. The developer didn’t get what they wanted and begged out, the town lost the 800 students spending money without costing anything, the entire fiasco would make a poor movie, and I got to meet new people. Westmar is one of 12 universities the registrar at Iowa State holds the records for that have closed.

Tomorrow I could be called a doomsayer; I would suggest that it is more likely that I will be called nasty names this afternoon by my fellow academics. I know I don’t have all the answers or what might be any of the answers. Recently the President of a University when asked about plans to deal with the tax revenue issues responded that the leadership team was discussing the issue.  Another hallmark of success is transparency. If the organization has no way to be transparent due to the politics or infighting that open discussion may breed then it is too late. Change will be mired in the morass of political certitude only to meander through failure and despondency.

I have heard of university systems bringing in consultants to look at costing issues, which always makes me puzzled. On the one hand the university supposedly hires the smartest people with the best credentials across the widest variety of academic disciplines for the faculty. On the other hand why are they jumping past that pool to pay exorbitant prices for consultants not drawn from those “free” resources they already manage?  

I believe in academia as an agent of change. I know that there are university administrations that will use this period of financial crisis to cull the faculty herd and skewer some sacred bulls. Evil is in the actions of men without compunction. Distrust between the faculty and administration, is only counterbalanced by the woefully forgotten staff. At the same time there will be faculty who will only be drug to change crying “That isn’t how we ever done it” . I would like to point out that; 1) I don’t know of any faculty currently teaching who were in fact faculty during the great depression; 2) Since point #1 appears to be true all past experience is totally devoid of relevance; 3) As point #1, and #2 are likely true than we can only state this is a new problem that may require new solutions. When you consider that there were no large research universities during the great depression we are not repeating history but making it.  Many of the catastrophic pitfalls of the politics can be fixed by honesty and openness.

What is needed is a fundamental, substantive, shift in the higher education landscape. I have always been a proponent of Socratic dialog with my students over topics examining them from many varied directions. As such all of my suggestions can decrease barriers to entry, increase sustainability, radically reduce costs, inherently increase quality, have strong elements of resiliency, and so much more. None of them will be liked. I don’t know if anybody would start doing them on purpose. In many ways furloughs seem easier than leading change.


Update: Comments are respectfully solicited. The comments are moderated but only to keep SPAM to a minimum. Contrary points of view as well as support are valued equally. Social media is about sharing, commenting, and furthering knowledge. Comments on systemic solutions are especially valued. Thank you.

4 comments for “University systems at a crossroads: Furloughs and funding of futures and fantasies

  1. orangejayhawk
    February 20, 2009 at 8:06 pm

    Interesting post on academic structure. Worth reading a few times.

    I did not know about real estate development as the cause for Le Mars to call the note on Westmar. I never read that anywhere in the articles I have collected over the years.
    Former Gleam Editor

  2. sam
    February 20, 2009 at 8:43 pm

    That may have been a bad way to explain the entirety of the issue. The Le Mars Sentinel ran a series of stories that explain it from 10 years after the fact

    Though from my recollection there was an early discussion long before closing about selling off the soccer fields and other southern campus sections too.

Leave a Reply