Fractured fairy tales for furious faculty.

23 03 2012

I am not an accounting professor. I do not even play one on TV. However, I have learned something about how university budgets work over the last few years both because of my commitment to academics and out of naked self-interest. For both these reasons, I think academics should get a higher percentage of university revenue and a big part of academics is faculty salaries. Contrary to what seems to be a popular impression, however, faculty salaries are hardly the only things that cost universities money.

Let me illustrate this point with a story. A few years ago my university built three new dorms on campus. I asked my dean why we were building three new dorms on campus when the faculty didn’t get a raise the previous year, and he explained to me that the money for the dorms was raised through bonds. Future revenues from the students staying there would pay for the cost of their construction. You can’t do that with a classroom building and you certainly can’t do that with a new tenure-track line. When I mentioned to the President that now that the dorms were built it would be nice if raising faculty salaries became a priority, he explained to me that the money for the dorms and money for raises come out of different pots. There’s an infrastructure pot and an academic pot and it was wrong of me to link the two.

Then I read Michael Lewis’ The Big Short. I’m not going to bother you with a synopsis of that most excellent book, but it did make me realize something really important: If the university was ever in danger of defaulting on the bonds that built those dorms, the bondholders would not accept “the money comes from different pots” as an excuse for failure to repay. The market (whatever that is) would force the administration to take money out of academics to make sure that bondholders still got their guaranteed returns. In other words, the university could always move money from one area of its operations to another if it really wanted to do so. The “pots” were just a construct designed to get faculty like me to quit whining.

While the existence of “pots” demonstrates one kind of magical thinking, another kind of magical thinking involves making these same “pots” disappear. This is from a recent e-mail written by University of Colorado-Boulder President Bruce Benson to the CU campus community:

We are in a market economy and are a people-intensive enterprise. Some three quarters of our expenditures are for people. Delivering a quality education at CU means investing in people. Additionally, our business has increased substantially during the recession, with an 11.5 percent increase in enrollment the past decade and record enrollment on our campuses. Degrees awarded over the same period increased 34 percent.

Top administrative raises accounted for a small percentage of the total salary pool. The vast majority went to faculty, who are critical to the quality of a CU education. More than 85 percent of those who received merit raises received less than $4,000.

When I cited that e-mail before, I was appalled by its aim to displace attention from administrative salary hikes to small faculty raises. Yet look precisely at how Benson is doing that. Perhaps the vast majority of the money raised by tuition increases that went to raises went to faculty, but if they’re only in less-than-$4000 increments I can absolutely guarantee you that the vast majority of the money raised by tuition increases didn’t go to raises. The heating bill alone in Boulder would boggle your mind, let alone all the other expenditures it takes to keep a university running. And to imply that three-quarters of total university expenditures there go to people requires blinders the size of Ralphie the Buffalo. Some pretty big pots simply aren’t being considered anywhere in that equation.

One more story along these lines from Down Under (via Kate’s Twitter Feed):

Speaking out over sackings is easier than demanding universities increase staff costs by converting casuals to permanent, if only part-time, employees. No one expects vice-chancellors to do this without a cheque from Canberra and just now the government is not dishing out the dosh.

Universities in Australia don’t necessarily need a check from the government to make causal labor permanent (although that always helps). They just need to make creating good faculty jobs a priority. That means better salaries for professors of all kinds would have to trump other priorities on campus, such as administrative salaries (like in Boulder) or (if Australia is anything like the U.S.) the number of administrators they hire in the first place.

Only when such priorities change can both students and faculty live happily every after. Students get better classes taught by professors who can devote more time to teaching because they don’t have to struggle to make ends meet.

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One response

23 03 2012
RAB

Ah, yes, good old Fund Accounting. It did us in at the University of Bridgeport back in the 1980s.
I speak as someone who lost her tenured position by way of a forced strike that had as its intention a layoff of tenured faculty (69, to be precise) and then the breaking of the faculty “union”…in preparation for takeover by the Sun Myung Moon organization….
Let me tell you, THEREBY hangs a tale…

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