Higher Education

humanists and the academic marketplace

Stereotypical humanists don’t like to talk about money or markets. Well, let me amend that: they don’t like to talk about money or markets except in the context of Marxist-inspired critique of one kind or another. Though certainly not all rhetoricians would agree, I find markets interesting (and not entirely evil) public spaces. To me, rhetoric is about the marketplace–the market of ideas and discourses–which is perhaps why it garners ill will from other humanities.

But that’s just the opening context for what I want to talk about.

Yesterday, I participated in the presentation of our department’s five year "strategic plan" to the provost’s cabinet (very exciting stuff, oh yeah).  Watching the four or five other department presentations at the meeting, one sees unsurprising commonalities. Everyone is pinched for resources. Everyone has more students, fewer tenure-line faculty, and more contingent faculty. This is certainly true. It is also, I think, part of the genre. Strategic plans have to have problems to solve. The fundamental reason for a department to speak to the deans and the provost is to request resources, particularly new hires. Hence there’s almost nothing else you can say. This is the case even though SUNY is facing budget cuts and lean years ahead.

So that’s the second context, and there’s one more.

The college is in the midst of trying to figure out how to "compensate" faculty who coordinate graduate programs. The new plan results in a significant reduction in compensation (mostly course release) for our two current coordinators. Clearly no one in the department is happy about this new plan.

What can be learned from these three things?

I am certainly not going to celebrate the marketplace, but I think the market often corrects for mismanagement. I would contend that if you give someone the job of doing X, s/he’ll find a way to spend 40 hours a week doing X. Obviously there’s a limit to that contention, but the point I’m trying to make is that in a bureaucratic structure like a college, people will invent paperwork, procedures, committees, reports and so on. And I don’t mean to suggest they do this in a cynical way; it just kinda happens.

Now even though I have some anarchist tendencies, I’m not suggesting anarchy here. Instead I’m thinking more along marketplace lines. That is, I think, no, I know it’s easy for a department to ask continually for more resources when its not spending its own money. If, god forbid, an English department were a small business, it wouldn’t be looking to hire new faculty at $45-50K a clip plus benefits every year. It maybe wouldn’t be complaining about class sizes if the faculty directly benefited from teaching more students. Let’s say instead of teaching six writing-intensive courses capped at 25 students a year, you taught four of those courses and two lectures totaling 300 students. So overall you’d have 400 students rather than 150. Then let’s say you got $10 a head for the extra students: $2500. Then a total of 15 faculty in the department do this. Now you’ve got $37,500 in bonuses that the department can use, maybe not directly for salary bonuses, but to support travel or research or purchase equipment or books or maybe pay for releases for coordinators.

Of course the college doesn’t work that way does it? Instead it pays something close to $400,000 a year to have those students taught by adjunct faculty in small classes. So are you better off being lectured in a class of 25 by an adjunct or a class of 150 by a professor? The adjunct may be very well qualified and an excellent teacher, but is it right to be paying this person crappy wages when we could maybe do this more cheaply and more ethically? Plus how would you gauge the benefit of the savings. Right now faculty at Cortland get $500 in travel money. Everyone of these faculty could get another $2K which would send them to an additional two national conferences each year. What might be the intellectual benefit of this? The benefit of making and strengthening relations with colleagues? The scholarly opportunities that might arise?

And that still leaves more than $350K that the college saves.

Sure, folks will blast me for making such a comment. But my real point is that they way the college is set up, departments have zero incentive to find solutions to do their jobs in a more economical way, to decide what they can streamline. Why look for ways to cut corners when all that means is that you’ll get less money next year? Afterall, it’s that time of year when everyone is spending money in their budget like crazy so that they can spend it all out of fear that otherwise they’ll have less next year.

And you wonder why higher education costs continue to outpace inflation?

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