How I am Surviving the Budget Cuts at the University of North Dakota

Over the last two years, the University of North Dakota has undergone a series of massive budget cuts. These are largely the result of cuts in state funding, limits on the university’s ability to compensate by raising tuition, and the decline in state revenues on the back of low agricultural and oil prices. When times are fat, public services in North Dakota are relatively well funded, but when times are lean, the state returns to a historic pattern designed to attract outside investment. Throughout most of its history, North Dakota has been dependent on outside capital to power its extractive industries and agriculture. As a result the state has done what it can to keep taxes low to attract outside investment. Over the last two years, low taxes and a reluctance to spend oil revenues, has led to cuts to higher education funding. This has coincided, predictably, with a shift toward vocational, practical, and professional priorities designed at least to produce a relatively stable workforce that is unlikely and, frankly, unable to demand top salaries from companies looking to invest in the area. Despite the prosperity of North Dakota over the preceding decade, there maintains a deep seated understanding of the state’s peripheral status when it comes to global capital and a resulting willingness to maintain the “development of underdevelopment.” 

This is frustrating for those of us committed to the humanities in the state. The goal of the humanities in our neoliberal age is to provide opportunities for economic and social growth in both our communities and the world, rather than simply fulfilling some practical need workforce development in the service of global capital. The humanities prepare students with the patience and discipline they need to make their own way in the world and this also happens to extend to the skills needed to control and command global capital. As a scholar of the humanities, I’ve tried to think critically and deliberately how to use my skills as a humanist to engage the current set of budget cuts while maintaining a certain among of sanity.

Of course, I have the luxury of being employed and my job appears to be relatively safe. On the other hand, I am not unaffected by the people around me losing their jobs, programs that I value being cut, and the general malaise that has set deep roots on our campus. As someone with the luck and luxury to be in a position of relative security, I have tried to think carefully about what I can do and how I should act to ensure that the larger project of higher education in the state will do more than fulfill the workforce needs of external capital at an appealing price.

Here are my thoughts on surviving the budget cuts as a tenured professor in the humanities. They move from the practical to the conceptual:

1. Don’t engage in pointless rhetorical displays. Faculty at the University of North Dakota are almost all very smart and clever. In fact, I rarely leave a meeting without feeling a bit humbled by my colleagues’ analytical abilities, their ability to explain and simplify complex issues, and their way with words. The same can be said of my interaction with university administrators. When faculty and administration are together in a room there is an abundance of ability, intellect, and experience.

To keep faculty informed in the budget situation there has been a nod toward transparency of the administrative process. Faculty have been invited to scrutinize budgets, attend fora, and provide feedback over the web. This is largely a bit of theater for off-campus stakeholders and an effort to keep on-campus folks in the loop about the nitty-gritty details of budget reductions. The communication is regular, often hard to follow, and not infrequently contradictory and halting. Everyone knows that the budget process is messy, incremental, and non-linear. Pronouncements by the administrators tasked with making the cuts reflect the messiness and contingency of the process itself.     

What baffles me, then, is the need that some of my colleagues have to engage in pointless displays of their intellectual and rhetorical prowess. When there is an inconsistency in something that an administrator presents or a policy disadvantages one’s program, department, or mission, there are few things less helpful than pointing out the inconsistencies or problems in a public forum. Administrators, despite the popular perceptions to the contrary, know their jobs, they know when they’re not making sense, and they generally don’t feel good about it. Making someone feel bad for pointing out the inconsistencies in their logic in a public way does nothing to change the situation. In fact, it much more frequently demonstrates a lack of situational awareness and sensitivity than any particular perspicacity.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t engage in the budget process. We should, but doing it with exaggerated rhetoric, smugness, and dramatic hand wringing, does little to advance the process.    

2. Distinguish between ideological decisions and “data-driven” decisions. Engaging the budget process in an earnest and productive way involves understanding where the pressure points are in the budget process and how to avoid pursuing unproductive courses of action. In my experience, there are two types of budget decisions currently being made. Some are data-driven. Enrollment figures, costs, space studies, grant revenues, tuition dollars, and the like provide a very clear data-driven framework for making cuts. Within this system there is a possibility of transparency with spreadsheets and cost/benefit formulas, and even line-item expenses. I have some moderate confidence that there are ways within this system to discover hidden savings and even opportunities for future growth. For example, small cuts that could have an outsized impact on things like retention and graduate rates impact tuition revenue and should be identified. Whenever possible these cuts should be avoided rather than kicked down the road. There should also be some sensitivity toward changes that do little more than redistribute students among programs and a recognition of how cuts in one college impact programs offered in another. As scholars who specialize in managing complex datasets, we can contribute to this kind of data-driven decision making. 

At the same time, there are priorities and cuts that are not data-driven, but, for lack of a better term, “ideological.” For example, there is a hunch that UND could become a global leader in UAS technology and that this field will develop into a meaningful contributor to the university’s local and national profile, generate remunerative public-private partnerships, and attract students and researchers. At the same time, there is growing skepticism that the humanities can continue to deliver on their promise of a more dynamic, informed, and productive citizenry or that such traits are even valuable in a population. These are difficult claims and positions to challenge, but, one thing is clear, they are not data-driven decisions. Arriving at a meeting intending to use data to challenge these perspectives is the equivalent to bringing a knife to a gun fight. These are hunches, speculations, and perspectives that have emerged across a complex political and economic discourse. There isn’t a spreadsheet or a data source that can undermine them.

3. Recognize the long game. When confronted with ideological decision making, there are real limits to what we can accomplish in the short-term. There are fads in academic and higher education leadership, there are trends in public attitudes to higher education, and there are ways of seeing (and hoping for) the future that are not easily changed at an institutional level. We can and should push back against a future that is bleakly utilitarian, subservient to the demands of capital, and accepts the peripheral position of North Dakota in the world (and views North Dakotans as merely a “workforce”). This resistance is a good and noble cause, but rhetorical displays and knives at gunfights are not the way to change minds.

As faculty, we have to recognize that many of us will be at UND for much longer than any administrator particular at the dean, president, and provost level. We will likely be around to see several cycles the latest trend, fad, or direction in higher education and in politics. I increasingly feel like my job is to work to change American society both on campus and in the community. My background in the humanities has prepared me to be patient, to grind away, and to be disciplined in my pursuit. I’d rather put my energies into the incremental, big-picture, battles than grandstanding at an on campus forum. As someone who recognizes the continuities between the distant past and the present, I feel reservedly confident that the great arc of the American experience bends toward freedom and not workforce training. Keeping that in perspective energizes my teaching and research even when that work is not appreciated in the current climate.

4. Put energy into rebuilding. On more practical grounds, we need to commit at least as much (if not more) energy into rebuilding than resisting. This may sound fatalistic, but there is only so much good resistance can do when the university is faced with such substantial budget cuts. Even if we were to protect a particular program or department through organized resistance, this will as often as not just distribute the cut elsewhere on campus. This is hardly an optimal result.

Rebuilding, on the other hand, offers a way to adapt a program to the needs of students, faculty, and the university within the new budgetary reality. In some cases, this will involve structuring a program in a way that reflects (but doesn’t necessary reinforce) new priorities. For example, a colleague of mine suggested adding “and Drones” to all course offerings. While this was clearly in jest (I think), the broader strategy of adapting programs to operate (even just superficially) within university priorities is something that can best be done moving forward rather than resisting. This needn’t represent accommodation or even acquiescence to programs and ways of thinking that we find incompatible with our disciplinary mandates, but it will require us to think creatively on how to conduct and position programs and departments within new administrative structures. 

5. Respect innovation. Finally, I know innovation represents a watchword for a nightmarish melange of neoliberal ideas about education. I also recognize that the rhetoric of continuous improvement is designed, in part, to undermine the significance of historically constituted disciplines and to push toward more and more contingent practices. And I obviously understand that contingent labor is one horrifically distopian future for both our society at large and academia particular.

At the same time, we can think differently and do things in new ways that are meaning, subversive, and significant. Whether we like it or not, the budget cuts are real. They’re going to impact our ability to teach and do research, our students’ ability to learn and succeed, and the states’ ability to compete on a global scale. We know this, but we also have the ability to mitigate some of these cuts by finding new ways to do things. One of the first steps to generated the needed change is to respect innovation despite its contemporary baggage and pervasive place in the world of higher education policy jargon.

If we tell our students that the humanities – in part – is preparing them for a world that does not yet exist, then we have to walk the walk and prepare ourselves to adapt to a changing world. This doesn’t mean giving up on the long arc of justice, freedom, creativity, and humanity, but it does mean putting our energy into places where it can best influence the future. 

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