Universities’ skewed budget priorities: When did academics become expendable?

The verdicts about Fall 2020 are rolling in: rising infection rates, sporadically attended face-to-face classes and ongoing pressure for faculty to support students too stressed out or sick to stay on track. For both professors and students, uncertainty is deforming every aspect of academic year 2020-21, including fundamental pedagogies and general possibilities for engaging with one another. Given this historically 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 experience? And with ad hoc 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 have peeled 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 20-21 teaching/learning scenario already guaranteed to be chaotic and ever-shifting, many faculty have been assigned 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 instructor’s time and energy precisely when they most need that focused attention. There is also the devastation of part-time instructors’ livelihoods, 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 clear about the impacts that reactionary budget cuts to academics is having on students in this chaotic year: Overloaded faculty must choose either to abandon critical research and service commitments or to neglect students. Given that, for many faculty, scholarly projects are time sensitive, 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, international faculty and students, and LGBTQ people, precisely 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 assigned increases to my 20-21 teaching load, I am, for the first time in my decades of teaching, declining to work independently with graduate students who have specifically requested my expertise. Like most faculty, I take my responsibility to student learning deadly seriously and so it has been wrenching for me to inform them that the university would no longer support 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 our 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 same energy that makes their classes attractive to students 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 dedicated teacher-scholars for whom student learning is utterly precious. We can’t help but ask ourselves: “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 an unfocused frenzy to “trim the fat” even though, at universities like mine, the unfolding budget reality is much better than the doomsday scenario that had been predicted.

And what a lost opportunity! Rather than marking the end of learning-centeredness, the pandemic might be heard as a call to recommit to it. There may well be “fat to be trimmed,” including within academics, but some panicked universities — addicted to coffer-draining Division I sports and exorbitant administrative salaries — are electing to make 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, is either offline or has been radically curtailed. What do universities have to offer students that could possibly be more important than academics? It is a terrible insult to the students and families now placing such extraordinary faith in universities to get it right that the academic mission seems to be falling so low on the budget priority list.

Pandemic 2020: Are universities treating the disease but killing the patient?

The virus in our midst is especially deadly for those with existing underlying health risks, though most of us who develop symptoms will eventually emerge relatively unscathed. So too, though nearly all U.S. colleges and universities are being touched by the pandemic, only some have already died or are languishing on life support. And while financial ruin may be what actually kills some, for far too many others, the true cause of death will be their failure to respond ethically and sustainably to the crisis rather than the crisis itself. Predictably, universities built on a genuine foundation of equity, respect, and sustainability are likely to survive and, eventually, to thrive, while those infused with hierarchy, secrecy, and reactivity began to teeter and crumble almost the very day that stay-at-home orders went into effect.

To take one example, my university has been at the national forefront with respect to cutting personnel and planning radical restructuring schemes, changes that may permanently reshape the university’s instructional and research capability, despite the unknown long term impact of the crisis. It was as if, one day, an abstract budget target number appeared in the sky, like the bat signal, with provosts and deans rushing to create and implement slash and burn plans that have included little or no substantive input from faculty, staff, or students. Whether my institution, Western Michigan University, is actually financially worse off than universities that have taken a more measured, holistic, stakeholder-based approach, I cannot say. As is (not incidentally) the case with many large, hierarchically run organizations, budgets are often so complicated and opaque that it can be impossible to separate fact from fiction, accuracy from exaggeration.


Though the actual underlying rational for the budget targets may be murky, the impact on our campus community has been clear: early layoffs of hundreds, with, we are told, many more to come soon. In addition, we are seeing the early signs of marginalization, merger, or elimination of academic departments, according to factors that seem to have nothing to do with metrics of productivity or cost-benefit analyses. For example, my university has also been among the first in the nation to take steps to merge or eliminate its successful and cheap Gender and Women’s Studies Department (my tenure home) which focuses on LGBTQ youth, students of color, women, and sexual assault survivors. It is the sort of move that, though sadly unsurprising to those who do diversity work, has recently earned the condemnation of the National Women’s Studies Association for its apparent opportunism. NWSA chides universities “that are using the crisis to implement cuts they have been unable to make in the past because of faculty and student opposition and organizing.”

The true devastation of top-down ad hoc slash and burn policies isn’t primarily the intrinsic suffering they cause to campus constituents, especially to students, but the fact that this suffering is inflicted from above, for arbitrary or implausible reasons, and that it falls so disproportionately on the most vulnerable. Though, to be sure, elite administrators have agreed to symbolic cuts to their sometimes jaw-droppingly high salaries, their lives and livelihoods remain largely untouched. It is as if there had been a treaty signed by administrators from the outset that, whatever cuts and restructuring might occur, the university’s existing salary inequities, power structures, and habitual priorities must remain unchallenged. Rather than serving as an opportunity to reaffirm our commitments to compassion and equity, at too many organizations, this crisis is being leveraged to further erode such values.


It is not higher education’s financial crisis alone that will ultimately determine which universities will live and which will languish and eventually die. Consider, for example, two equally resourced families of equal size, faced with the same dire economic news. The patriarchal head of the first family sighs regretfully and immediately drowns two of his children in the well. Problem solved! Fewer mouths to feed! The second family, though, sits down together to study the situation. Are these numbers accurate? Is there any way to challenge the apparent facts of the new reality? If not, are there parts of the family budget that can be trimmed to free up more money for necessities? Because this second family’s approach is values-based, participatory, and deliberate, they are better off even if, ultimately, their shared suffering is great. For one thing, their children, though skinnier, will probably still be alive to help harvest the fields when, one day, the corn grows again. But also, having remained true to their core values, the heart and soul of this family remain intact.

Those who rush to drown their children, or otherwise sell their souls to the devil to address a crisis — no matter how apparently grave — have already lost the war against this latest scourge. When the dust clears, we may celebrate the buildings and privileged employees still left standing, but we will also speculate about what transpired behind closed doors and secret meetings in exchange for such physical survival. In the long aftermath of catastrophe, we will ask: Who collaborated and who resisted? Who stood by and watched while others were pitched into the well? Such a climate of suspicion and resentment will stain our universities well into the future, undermining our will to inspire students or give our best to our disciplines or institutions. The problem universities are facing right now, then, is a financial one, to be sure, but it is just as much an ethical one. We are in the midst of a moral trial that invites us to peek behind the facade of classrooms, cafeterias and football stadiums to find out who we really are. And it does us not one bit of good, if, in a frenzy to keep the patient’s body alive, we kill the very thing that makes that life worth preserving in the first place.

Pandemic 2020: Let the university hunger games begin!

Does anyone wax longer or louder about respect, transparency, diversity, and equality than university presidents, provosts, and deans? For decades, at commencements, convocations, retirement ceremonies, and ribbon cuttings, we have been serenaded by one misty-eyed official after another reminding us of the unutterably precious value of our unique voices. These are not just pretty words, we have long been assured, but values rooted deeply in the shared governance structures that underlie our universities in the form of faculty senates, collective bargaining units, and enough faculty committees to make our heads spin. Our universities, with their enlightened and compassionate leaders, their egalitarian and rational decision-making processes, are oases in the midst of the nation’s MAGA barbarity, right? Sure, we have our ethical challenges, but no one can question the basic decency of our institutions, can they? No wonder it has been a shock for many of us that the moment times got really tough, some of our universities set out to stage their very own hunger games.

The premise is simple enough: A powerful, centralized oligarchy forces subjects to “volunteer” for an elaborate killing game intended both to solidify dependence and obedience, and to entertain the elites. Not only are subjects compelled to send their children into these orchestrated killing fields year after year, but they are expected to do so willingly, to dress up, smile, and join in the festivities surrounding the games. They are required not only to surrender their lives, then, but their own consciences and voices of protest as well. As deadly as the games are, their larger purpose has more to do with killing peoples’ spirits than their bodies. Though I have read lots of dystopian novels, I was especially moved by this aspect of The Hunger Games when I finally got around to reading it a few months ago. I could not shake the image of otherwise proud people coerced by artificially induced scarcity into killing one another while pampered elites looked on, sipping champagne and placing bets on who would be left standing at the end.

I was primed by my reading of The Hunger Games, then, to pay special attention when my institution, Western Michigan University, began listing and picking off its “non-essential” employees just a few weeks into the pandemic crisis, the first of many devastating personnel decisions that have emerged since. Hundreds of “expendable” employees have now been laid off and hundreds more have been told to expect our marching orders in the coming weeks, according to lists that have already been compiled and are being scrutinized by other inner-circle administrators behind tightly closed doors. Carefully choreographed, stylized messaging from presidents, provosts, and deans insists that this is all necessary for the good of the whole, and that we must do our duty and somberly accept these edicts. After all, these decisions have not been easy. In fact, they have kept the president up at night and been heartbreaking for the deans. Can’t we see the terrible position they are in, under extraordinary pressure from even higher ups, huddled in their private chambers, compiling human elimination lists to be shared with us when they’ve decided it’s the right time for us to know?

As with the hunger games of fiction, the damage here isn’t only to people’s lives and livelihoods, but to their hearts and minds. We, the remaining subjects of this newly authoritarian realm, are expected not just to live with whatever decisions spew forth from our “leaders,” but to get on board. In the spirit of shared sacrifice, we are expected to return as cheerleaders for our university in the Fall once the bodies of our faculty and staff colleagues have been cleared away. After all, didn’t the president and deans themselves accept voluntary pay cuts of five or ten percent? Well, no, those symbolically small cuts haven’t actually gone into effect yet but they will in a few months. You know, probably. Meanwhile, like the traumatized subjects of the eleven districts outside the pampered capitol city, we remaining university faculty and staff whisper among ourselves, knowing we should speak up, but terrified that it might be our own head next on the chopping block.

For example, though I belong to one of the most “protected” employee groups on campus, I assume that the letters of concern I sent recently to administrators have placed my career in even greater danger. After all, their decisions to not even acknowledge my messages were surely not intended to reassure me that my voice is still needed at this university, if, in fact, it ever was. And though I know, as we all do, that these administrators are, themselves, being pressed by even higher level “bosses,” this does not erase their basic ethical responsibility to me and the other faculty and staff entrusted to their stewardship. Partly because so many professors routinely remind our students that “just following orders” is a poor excuse, we have a hard time buying this when it comes from our intelligent, remarkably well-compensated, administrators.

It isn’t just those who have drunk the Kool-Aid who are now apologists for these clearcutting sprees by administrators desperate to meet budget targets based on rationales from higher up so obscure that even they themselves may barely understand them. As is nearly always the case with systematic injustice, elite administrators must leverage longstanding inequities between employees to meet their goals. At universities, there is often a sort of petty bourgeoisie of middle managers who help rationalize elite excess and soften resistance from below. Such complicity and accommodationism is critical because it helps obscure the fact that there is no actual necessity to the cruelty unfolding on our campuses. Our very real budget crises don’t require us to suddenly devolve into a Game of Thrones bloodbath. For example, my colleague, Charlie Kurth, describes a progressive furlough approach that could help us weather this situation and emerge even stronger in our fundamental social justice values than before. But try sharing these more progressive, compassionate, egalitarian strategies with your university administrators. Their responses, or lack of them, may be the quickest way possible to learn what, deep down, this horrific spectacle we’re being required to enact is really all about.