My University is Dying

This past week my colleague and friend Sheila Liming published an intriguing column in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled “My University is Dying.” The piece is provocative. It speaks directly to her experience as the only candidate for tenure in our college of over 200 faculty members this year. The article is intensely genuine.

I thought I write a little response to it, not because I think it’s lacking or inadequate in any way, but as a gesture of support for my courageous colleague. I want to engage it.

There is one thing that I tend to think about when I think about “austerity.” It has little to do with the lack of resources or even budget cuts. I actually don’t think much about the shrinking number of faculty on campus (although I do worry about our increasing dependence on adjunct, contract, and visiting faculty). I don’t even really worry about its impact on my own commitments – like North Dakota Quarterly – although I am deeply saddened that budget cuts have caused individuals to lose their jobs (including my wife).  At a place like UND, the writing is more or less on the walls. The number of high school and middle school students in our traditional catchment area is declining and the larger national trend is similar. We will be a smaller campus with fewer students, staff, and faculty in the future. It’s also likely that our budget will be relatively smaller and our mission will probably change. I can be optimistic and imagine that funding will remain stable, though, and a smaller campus can actually provide a higher quality educational experience (and even more interesting and stimulating campus culture for faculty). 

What bothers me the most is that austerity on UND’s campus is not just economic, it’s ideological. It is grounded in four interrelated policy positions among legislators not just in the North Dakota or the U.S., but globally: (1) a distaste for channeling funds from the market into public institutions, (2) a belief that public institutions are inherently inefficient, (3) a pathway to greater efficiency at public institutions (and hence less funding) is by simulating competition, and (4) the primary goal of public institutions is the support the market. On our campus, budget cuts occurred at the same time that a failed prioritization project took place, we installed a new system for allocating resources on campus, and a new crop of administrators arrived including two successive presidents from the business world.

In other words, austerity was not just fewer resources and colleagues, but also a major shift in campus culture. A smaller university isn’t a bad thing and while transitions are never easy, we can accept that change is inevitable. 

The problem with austerity is not simply the decrease in funding or smaller faculty, but the concomitant expectation that we will have to compete with other divisions on campus for students, for faculty lines, and for resources moving forward through incentivized resource allocation. This has turned trusted colleagues and collaborators into potential rivals. Moreover, the flaws in the system of resource allocation has set into high relief the way in which the execution of austerity practices on campus is biased against the arts and humanities. 

In the abstract, a system where resources flowed to divisions on campus most in need makes sense. In fact, a system that rewards a certain efficiency in practice seems wise in any institution entrusted with public resources. Unfortunately, this is not really what happens. The humanities and the arts, for example, have suffered not because they’re inefficient in their practices, but because we appear to be less useful than our colleagues in the applied sciences and professional fields. As a result, the administration has its thumb on the scale established by incentivized resource allocation and this benefits some programs more than others. A very efficient program whose faculty teach many students might not be allowed to hire more faculty not because their program didn’t follow incentivized practices, but because incentivized practices fit awkwardly with the larger rhetoric and ideology of austerity which sees public institutions as existing solely to support the market. If a field does not clearly support the state’s economy – narrowly defined as the demands of employers in the immediate present – then the administration subverts the incentivized resource allocation process. In some cases this is random, but in most cases this follows loosely a series of documents that range from the relatively benign “Strategic Plan” to the vaguely authoritarian “Grand Challenges.” 

In other words, austerity on our campus isn’t just about declining resources, it’s about the implementation of a rigged game.

I’m not naive, of course, and I recognize that higher education has always been and continues to be rigged (after all, I’m a white, male, tenured faculty member, if I could ever do anything to deserve the position that I have, I probably wouldn’t survive the ordeal). At the same time, what makes the latest round of austerity on UND’s campus so painful is that the rhetoric of the administration promotes the response to the current funding challenge as both fair within an incentivized resource allocation scheme and transparent. They promote this seemingly salutary situation as a way to tell us that “we’re all in this together.” In fact, it’s neither fair nor transparent and we’re not in this together.

This may be better for the university in the long run. It’s too early and too difficult to predict. It is not better for the university at present. What Sheila describes in her column is the product of austerity both as an ideology, but also as our campus has responded to it. 

(I’ve written more about this general state of affairs in an article that I published here in a volume of North Dakota Quarterly that Sheila helped to edit!)

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