Universities’ panicked budget cuts: When did student learning become a luxury item?

The verdicts about Fall 2020 are rolling in: face-to-face semesters that end by Thanksgiving, many other classes pushed online, and the imperative for faculty to be prepared to switch into distance mode learning at the drop of a hat. For both professors and students, uncertainty is shaping every aspect of academic year 2020-21, including fundamental pedagogies and general possibilities for engaging with one another. Given this unprecedented pressure on learning itself, why do some universities’ budget cutting priorities actually seem to be focused on dismantling, rather than strengthening, structures guaranteed to enhance academic quality and student satisfaction? With knee jerk budget cuts aimed squarely at the solar plexus of teaching and learning, why should universities expect students to stick around or return in the future?

For example, at my institution (the one I know best), in addition to early retirement carrots and sticks that will immediately peel away some of our most accomplished content experts and talented teachers, budgets for part-time instructors — many of whom are, themselves, fully credentialed and experienced instructors — are being decimated. Of course, at universities that have long been dependent on such “temporary” instructors, the direct and indirect impact on students is utterly predictable: In a Fall 20 teaching/learning scenario already guaranteed to be chaotic and ever-shifting, faculty have been warned by somber-faced deans to expect dramatically higher course loads, not lower ones. An obvious consequence, which few seem to be talking about, is that students will be expected to settle for a much smaller slice of their professor’s time and energy precisely when they most need that focused attention. There is, of course, also the devastation to the livelihoods of part-time instructors themselves, some of whom have been unstinting in their loyalty to exploitive institutions that now promise to abandon them to coax more teaching out of already beleaguered faculty.

And let’s be specific about the impacts that reactionary budget cuts to academics will have on students in the chaotic year ahead: Faculty faced with higher teaching loads must choose either to abandon critical research and service commitments or to neglect students. Given that, for many faculty, scholarly projects are time sensitive — for example, I am working on one that connects to the pandemic itself — research cannot simply be postponed until (or if) the university decides to reinvest in academics. Further, though some requirements and deadlines have been temporarily adapted, interruptions to the research momentum of grant funded, or untenured faculty will irreparably damage some careers. In addition, much of the service faculty will jettison to make room for higher teaching loads directly impacts students, including, for example, letters of recommendation, independent studies, thesis advising, and urgent curricular overhaul. As usual, this burden will fall most heavily on already vulnerable faculty and students, including faculty and students of color, and LGBTQ people, at a historical moment when they most need to be able to create and rely upon such community. And for some such vulnerable students, close contact with instructors can mean the difference not only between success and failure, but between life and death.

To take a simple example, having been warned to expect huge increases to my Fall 20 teaching load, I have, for the first time in my decades of teaching declined to work independently with a graduate student who specifically requested my expertise and deserves my attention. Like most faculty, I take my responsibility to student learning deadly seriously and so it was wrenching for me to inform her that the university was no longer supporting my ability to do such “extra” work. Ultimately, of course, though some such activities can surely be postponed, faculty simply cannot abandon all of our many other service and research responsibilities to divert full energy to the classroom and, as is plain for all to see, students will pay the price. Following the no-blood-from-a-turnip rule, even professors gamely determined to do their best will be forced to cut corners and dilute our offerings. And some professors’ morale is so badly shattered by elite administrators who demand sacrifices from faculty that they stubbornly refuse to make themselves, they will be unable to marshal their usual enthusiasm for students. This is, of course, the very professorial passion that has made their classes so popular in the first place.

As universities continue to prioritize exorbitant administrative salaries and jaw-droppingly expensive athletic programs in the midst of this crisis, they become ever more unrecognizable to humble teacher-scholars like me for whom student learning is utterly precious. I can’t help but ask myself: “If I were going to build a new university from scratch in Covid times, in a blisteringly competitive enrollment environment, where would I start? What would I invest in first and most?” It would, of course, be high quality student learning and the faculty research and scholarship, advising, and library support necessary to sustain it. As the pandemic strips away layer after layer of expendable university offerings and extras, the core academic mission — the excitement of cutting-edge knowledge, research opportunities and close work with faculty experts — should loom larger on universities’ radar than ever. Instead, however, at some universities, it is academics that is being treated as a luxury item in this unfocused frenzy to “trim the fat.”

The worst part about all this may be that it is unnecessary. In fact, rather than marking the end of learning-centeredness, the pandemic might be heard as a call to reprioritize it. I don’t doubt that there is “fat to be trimmed,” including within the professoriate itself. But some panicked universities — addicted to Division I sports and fat cat administrative structures — are implementing budget cuts that hit academics first, hardest, and longest.This is despite the fact that much “extracurricular” and bureaucratic programming, such as college athletics and all sorts of ceremonial events, will most likely be offline this Fall, and, perhaps, well into the future. The irony of it all is that universities have never been under greater pressure to prove to students that time and money spent at their institutions is worth it. In the midst of unemployment, at a time when students and their families are placing extraordinary faith in universities to get it right, what a terrible insult that student learning has fallen so low on the budget priority list.

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