Will the University That Survives Have Been Worth Saving?
Budgeting philosophies need to put people first.
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As we in higher education consider how to best navigate these and other compounding crises — severe budget challenges from uncertainty around enrollment, stock-market volatility affecting endowments, the potential loss of housing-and-dining fees as a source of revenue to support other areas of the university, and massive cuts to state appropriations — we should lead with our values, and our values should lead us. If our core values are sacrificed to save our universities through a single-minded focus on maximizing revenue, will the institutions that emerge have been worth saving?
For the past few years, responsibility-centered management (RCM) has been the budget model of choice in higher education. Units and activities of the university — colleges, research centers, academic departments — are classified as “responsibility centers,” each required to generate sufficient revenue to cover its expenses. They do this primarily through enrollment, creating a strong incentive to offer large, broadly appealing courses with minimal workloads and maximal grades. Other core programs and services, whether libraries or counseling services, are classified as “costs,” their value reduced to something that can be measured on a budget spreadsheet. That designation is used as a hatchet, as if they were an expendable burden rather than essential to the university’s mission.
RCM is, then, a system of values that prioritizes infighting and manufactured scarcity to extract an additional buck more than collaboration and a commitment to mutually beneficial decision-making that puts lives and learning first. Under that “eat what you kill” model, units (“responsibility centers”) compete with one another — it’s a cutthroat game of zero sum. One more student in an Arabic class means one less student in a math course, and the two departments are required to treat each other as mortal enemies. Courses taught at less than full capacity are categorized as wasteful, rather than essential elements of a robust, diverse curriculum. Thus, with RCM providing the cover, administrators can claim that cuts in (formerly) essential programs were unavoidable, because the budget tells us so. Missouri Western State University, for instance, recently announced that it would no longer offer majors in history or English, a public statement that it is no longer a university that offers a robust, well-rounded liberal education.
Under this managerial regime, even deans and program chairs with the most high-minded values are forced to choose between wretched options. The values baked into the system all but require increased use of precarious, contingent faculty members; when an adjunct professor teaches a large, popular class, the program has a little more breathing room to fund faculty research or admit one more doctoral student. Even within the current reality of financial constraints and limited resources, it’s still possible to consider a much broader set of areas to cut. There’s no inherent reason that programs should have to choose between resources for research and secure, properly compensated faculty, but the budgeting philosophy makes these tradeoffs, as opposed to other options, seem inevitable.
We have been going down this path for a long time, but our response to the crisis of today may finally kill off the best of what remained of the universities of yesterday. If our methods for conducting higher-ed triage prioritize fidelity to this heartless, intracompetitive model that removes all humanity — and, likely, the humanities as such — from the university, what will survive besides the lowest-cost, highest-revenue programs? If the university completes its transformation into whatever the spreadsheets and analytics tell it to be, if its mission is reduced to work-force-training and extracting tuition from students (who will work for years to pay off the debt they took on for the privilege), then continuing to call such institutions “universities” will be a cruel joke.
What’s needed instead is a people-centered management approach to decision-making, even amid budget cuts, if we are going to survive this crisis and preserve the essential promise of higher education. While faculty and staff members are losing their jobs, those of us hanging on are being asked to fight to keep our universities afloat. But universities that exhibit a callous disregard for all who work in them are not universities worth fighting for.
We need an approach to administration that first embraces the highest mission of the university, and then determines financial priorities based on the fulfillment of that mission. Such an approach would require a commitment to:
A robust, broad curriculum. The pandemic is a reminder to those who forgot that humanity benefits from art, literature, critical thinking, and analysis. If universities pare down course offerings, eliminating smaller classes in favor of ever larger lectures or courses that provide only job-related skills, society will be all the poorer for it. Once the foundation of liberal education is gone, it is unlikely ever to return.
Accessibility and affordability. Whether through a nationwide free-college program, significantly increased Pell Grants, or broadly available loan forgiveness, if higher education is to be accessible to students during the coming recession, the federal government must use stimulus funds to support access to college.
A commitment to equity and diversity. When decisions about hiring freezes, layoffs, and retrenchment are made without regard to who benefits, who loses, and how those decisions express who belongs in our community, we all suffer. We must ensure that our faculty ranks look more like the students we serve, rather than letting diversity initiatives fall by the wayside because they don’t lead directly to increased revenue.
Fair employment for those who do the work of the university. Every fiscal crisis has been used as an opportunity to increase the precarity of those performing the campus’s essential work, whether cooks and cleaners or adjunct faculty members. Universities have a responsibility to treat all employees with dignity and respect. That means fair wages, access to affordable health care, and job security, even (especially) in uncertain times. If payroll cuts are needed, start at the top, not the bottom.
Responsible citizenship in our cities and towns.- Universities should consider how their actions affect the cities, towns, and communities they’re embedded in (and have a responsibility to). They should provide good jobs to local community members and make decisions about real estate and construction that do not displace working-class residents.
At this moment of difficult decisions, university leaders are faced with a choice: Will they move forward with integrity and moral courage, aspiring to the best of higher education? Or will they hide behind the shield of responsibility-centered management, pitting us against one another and betraying our greater purpose?