Balance Your Budget by Cleaning House

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

May 02, 2011

As we approach the end of another academic term, some institutions are still living off of stimulus money that did little to inspire solutions to mammoth budget cuts looming for the 2012 academic year, which promises to be one of the most difficult in memory for higher education.

I direct the journalism school at Iowa State University, a land-grant institution that strives to make education affordable in good or bad economic times. We've experienced layoffs, firings, and furloughs, and are still in the process of reorganizing within my college of liberal arts and sciences. My school is the largest academic program in the largest college at ISU, and our budget has been slashed by more than 20 percent in the past four years. Nevertheless, in the next academic year, we'll balance our budget without increasing workload for most professors, while graduating students sooner—thanks to streamlined curricula, enhanced by advising. To accomplish those goals, the journalism school and other units at the university have adopted or are in the process of adopting several of the methods below:

1. Curtail curricular expansion. Nothing is more responsible for the increasing cost of higher education than ever-expanding pedagogies. Too many professors want their course loads to harmonize with their research interests, and many create courses based on the latest technology. Others are unwilling to teach basic introductory courses, preferring to farm those out to underpaid adjuncts. Worse yet, administrators typically reward professors for new course creation. Expanding pedagogies are a part of our academic culture, but they must be curtailed. Early adopters should introduce new technology into existing classes, and hires should be made not on the promise of creating new curricula but on teaching within the existing ones. Promotion-and-tenure documents should be revised to reward innovation within the present curricula, too. Finally, no adjuncts should teach classes in which a current member of the faculty has expertise.

2. Consolidate rather than duplicate. Duplication abounds, sometimes within departments at the same state institution. Multiple departments teach multimedia, for example. Small graduate classes cover similar research methods and theories, stretching teaching resources to the limit. Because of duplication, we hire a phalanx of adjuncts.

3. Empower curriculum councils to prevent glut. Some faculty senates have councils or committees that are charged with keeping curricular growth in check. They know that the greater the number of courses, the greater the workload. Other faculty senates turn a blind eye, allowing informal or even no official documentation concerning duplication, approving new courses on pedagogical rhetoric rather than genuine need. Before approving any new course, such councils should either ensure that the new offering isn't duplicative or require that the requesting unit do so. In their proposals, those units should include a section on available resources to support the new class, just as we typically must document how courses are going to be covered when professors go on sabbaticals.

4. Require departments to define their scope with program-responsibility statements. To prevent duplication and reorganize colleges effectively, faculty senates and administrators should collaborate on statements defining what, exactly, each degree-granting department claims as pedagogical terrain. Every academic unit should create a program-responsibility statement that defines specifically what it does. For example, regarding my own field of journalism, the departments of English, design, education, computer science, and communication also teach media-related courses. But journalism and mass communication trains writers and practitioners "for hire" who create and disseminate content via demographics and psychographics of particular audiences. English creates writers for the ages, not for hire. Design creates artwork using digital media rather than disseminating content through those media; education uses similar technologies to disseminate different content; computer scientists program video games but should not create content for them; and communication departments study all of the above—organizationally, interpersonally, and interculturally.

5. Hone degree requirements. Doing so, you serve your majors and help them graduate on time. At one time my journalism school had emphases in science communication, visual communication, newspapers, magazines, broadcasting, and public relations. Students took courses in any of those to earn a degree in journalism and mass communication, although their emphases were not officially acknowledged or included on the degree. Streamlining our curricula saved us from the ravages of budget cuts. We ended emphases, sequences, options, and tracks, and began requiring lower- and upper-core courses and shared electives that provide instruction in social, print, and online media. We ceased allowing nonmajors and minors into our small-skills courses and funneled them into large introductory classes. (If they were serious about skills, they could become one of our majors.) We also used modules of seminars and workshops for experimental and innovative courses.

6. Establish clear teaching expectations. Otherwise professors will ask to be released from their teaching duties in order to do any number of other activities, like guest editing a journal or chairing a division of an academic association. Faculty workload involves teaching, research, service, and advising. At some institutions, the normal teaching load is three courses each semester; at others, four courses. At our journalism school, we begin with a baseline that requires faculty members to teach four courses a semester. Then we grant a course release for research and another for student advising. That means that a productive scholar who advises 25 or more undergraduates or graduate students can reduce her teaching workload to two courses a semester. Advising can be a boon for student retention, which ensures tuition money through our budget model and attracts prospective students.

7. Raise your own money. Some professors don't like teaching two courses a semester because they'd rather be in the laboratory. Solution: Get a grant and buy yourself out. Don't like being a chair and relying on the dean for your department's travel or professional development? Then raise money from donors. Competition for grants and donor support is keen during a recession. But if you're up to it as a professor or administrator, the money is there with the right protocols and strategies.

8. Revisit articulation agreements with community colleges. Many two-year institutions are responsible for preparing students to transfer to a four-year college to earn a bachelor's degree; articulation agreements define which courses should count toward that degree. While many community colleges do a good job at remediation, there are still too many transfer students who arrive on our campuses unprepared for the rigor of mathematics, composition, and basic science courses. Four-year colleges spend megabucks offering all manner of remedial services and courses to retain those unprepared students. Fixing the problem is as simple as assessing which community colleges do and don't prepare their students well, then amending or canceling agreements with those colleges accordingly.

9. Reorganize. Close nonproductive centers and institutes. If centers and institutes are viable, relocate them within existing academic programs under the control of current staff or unit administrators and offer degrees through them. Do the same for academic disciplines with 20 or fewer majors. You'll reduce the number of support staff, credit cards, and other amenities of formerly independent units too small to use them effectively.

10. Cut administration. Before, during, and after any reorganization of curricula, organization, or budgets, assess the workload and duties of administrators and eliminate positions that have become redundant. Department chairs should also request teaching support from deans and provosts for any faculty member promoted to an administrative post—otherwise, administration keeps growing at the expense of classroom instruction, shortchanging students. We should resolve to serve them more efficiently and effectively in the next academic year.

The best ways to help our bottom lines and our students are to acknowledge curricular duplication, technological consumerism, professorial entitlement, and administrative narcolepsy. In the end, we know our business better than consultants, politicians, and pundits. It's time we cleaned our own pedagogical houses.

Michael Bugeja is director of the school of journalism and communication at Iowa State University.