Freedom from Blog

Don't call it a comeback . . . .

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Maryland Model

For a progressive journal and blog, the Washington Monthly has had a pretty shitty record on higher ed issues of late. They jump on every available corporate bandwagon and boondoggle to rant about the "failures" of higher ed in America. Luckily, if we all just become the University of Phoenix (whose 6-year grad rate for on-line degrees is 4%!), students will magically get better education for the cost of a couple of Big Macs.

Their most recent effort is better, but consider me skeptical that Maryland provides a reform model for the rest of the nation. The basic idea is that the MD public university system agreed to undergo large scale efficiency reforms under a GOP governor who also slashed state funding and allowed big tuition increases to cover the difference. That made higher ed a salient enough issue in gubernatorial politics that the next gov, a Dem, could impose a tuition freeze while massively boosting state support. So MD got the best of all worlds: cost controls, greater efficiency, better service (from profs), and increased public sector funding. Quite a bank shot. The political stars align so that elephants and donkeys compete to accomplish the right thing while advocating opposite things. Is that really replicable?

More worrisome from ground zero in TN is that none of the supposed inefficiencies in the MD system actually seem to apply to us. Profs at comprehensive unis had to go from teaching 7 courses a year to 7.5 (I, not atypically for here, have taught 9 every year). They're also expected to be on campus five days a week rather than just two. Once again, I appear to be well ahead of the curve. The budget cuts in play are also quite different: $40 million in the entire MD system vs a projected $25-30 million/year for my school alone. This after years of lean. My department, like most others, has already given up almost all of its travel budget, release time, and discretionary funds. Something like 95% of our departmental budget is faculty pay, wages which are moderately low compared to peer institutions and have not increased in a couple of years (nor will they for at least a few more). Meanwhile, despite our size, we've never really trafficked in the huge freshman lecture courses that MD has replaced with on-line and undergrad-led courses. When making draconian cuts in preparation for the expiration of stimulus funds, we'll have little choice but to fire untenured faculty, decrease course availability, and boost class sizes, though, unlike MD, we don't actually have existing classroom space to do so.

I'd like to blame our sorry-ass Dem governor for this mess, but it is a national problem to which no one (save MD) seems to be responding well. I am curious, however, as to the view on the ground up at College Park. If only I knew someone up there.


At 8:15 AM, Blogger fronesis said...

Yeah, if only we knew someone in College Park...

I had been wondering (and worried) about what things might be like down there, Tmcd. Your post here confirms my fears.

I can't speak for the public MD system, but I can say that up here in the uber-posh private land of 2/2 loads (max) and lots of money, there have been significant and deep cuts: salary/hiring freezes, big department operating budget cuts, big cuts to admin salaries, and travel/research budgets halved. Of course, there was enough money flowing around beforehand, and people have it easy enough, so that these cuts don't fundamentally change what we do or the overall quality of our job. My big lecture class has 8 sections and 4 TAs to accommodate an overly *large* incoming class. And I could only afford one conference.

But none of this is a big deal at all, and while we haven't heard this for certain, most folks are expecting raises next year and a restoration of research budgets. In the scheme of things ,there is nothing to complain about.

The impact on us is different: we are having people poached because there are still some places out there with seemingly *limitless* funds, and people have it so well here that even the minor cuts for this year led some folks to jump ship. I worry that at a place like Berkeley, we will simply lose a world class university because everyone leaves.

But the big worry all around needs to be in places like yours. If we don't do something to shore up the damn then there will simply be no future for all the PhD students coming down the pike. And at a certain point, people with your skills and abilities will get fed up and just go get a job that pays you some fraction of your worth. I feel like Universities such as yours are hanging on mainly because folks like you tough it out through goodwill and commitment, teaching 9 classes (most of my colleauges can't even comprehend it; I tell them I used to teach 8 and I don't think they believe me) and STILL remaining committed to your students.

At 12:24 AM, Blogger tenaciousmcd said...

Fro, interesting how similar our situations are short term but not long term. Our immediate problems sound much like yours: hiring & pay freezes, constricted departmental budgets, etc. The only reason it is not worse is the stimulus, which has preserved our state funding level for two years (a legal req. in the bill). Prior to passage, we were planning for a 15% cut in total departmental budget and warning our most junior tenure track faculty that they might not have jobs much longer.

What happened next, however, was that the governor told our board that he expected us to prepare for all the same cuts (and now even bigger), just in three years (now two) rather than making them instantaneously. The idea was to use the present economic crisis to legitimate a massive and irreversible long-term shift in which the state would start defunding higher ed. So instead of firings and "furloughs" (basically refusing to pay us for several days of work each month), we got a couple of years to push buy-out plans and find every available inefficiency. Which is hard if your main problem is that you're facing huge enrollment growth while under-capitalized. And the buy outs don't look like they're going to be sufficient, especially since most of the takers so far are staff not faculty.

Meanwhile, our administration decided this would be a good time for a radical reorganization of the university: splitting, combining, and creating both new colleges and departments. Last year we were fending off merger with Philosophy (which was fending off complete elimination), this year it's Geography. Plus a merger of the College of Lib. Arts with that of the Sciences. None of this saves any money, of course, and it sets up horrific hurdles for the coming cuts by pushing them onto novel admin. units with little cohesiveness or legitimacy, unknown decision processes, and unfamiliar leaders. (My suggestion: we volunteer to take Geography, and then fire them all when the budget Reaper comes calling!)

So we're all left with a sense of impending doom, a sword of Damocles hanging over us, but trying to plot a strategy to preserve what we can. It feels like Steve Martin in The Jerk, gone broke and picking up the stuff around his house he wants to keep before trudging down the street in his walk of shame. It won't be THAT bad, of course. Won't be pretty either.

It might help if we had a state electorate (like MD?) that cared about higher ed. We don't. The popular view is that we teach a couple of classes and then lounge by the pool all day plotting Marxist revolution. I may teach a 4/4 (plus summer), but the public assumes that means I only have to work 12 hours a week. Even better, this is with a popular Dem governor. The next guy will almost assuredly be GOP.

At 2:15 PM, Blogger Frances said...

I was very surprised to read that story in the Monthly. My department is run by an autocrat, and I'm not on the faculty senate, so I haven't really been following institutional politics. The idea of "Maryland as model" just makes me think that the rest of the country must be in very sorry shape.

I knew that tuition had been capped for a few years and that there was a whole lot of capital improvements (renovations, new dorms, etc.) going on in College Park and in the rest of the system.

But that's it as far as high points: we've seen our budget cut every year. No raises last year or the year before. Furloughs of five days for faculty last year and this year. Highly restricted hiring. Significant staff cutbacks.

As for the "efficiency" increases, some of these have been accomplished via a whole lot of smoke and mirrors. To get faculty up to the 5 1/2 classes per year, they've come up with various accounting gimmicks. Nobody on staff at College Park is teaching more than 2/2, unless they're in a non-research position (i.e., they haven't published anything in such a long time that the administration has forced them to teach more classes). Many senior faculty in my department teach less than 2/2.

The only high point from the point of view of my college is that we're the beneficiaries of "redistribution." This is a long term initiative internal to the university to redistribute resources to majors that have grown over the past 50 years from majors that have shrunk. We have the highest student:faculty ratio in the university in my college. Last year there was a big protest/walk-out of our college's students to protest the inequities. So, as a consequence, when the university this coming year has to bear an overall 8% hard money cut, my college will not be cut at all. In other words, other colleges and departments around the campus are going to be cut back by more than 8%.

See what I mean: does this sound like a model system to you?

At 7:36 AM, Blogger fronesis said...

Frances: Your internal redistribution point is an interesting one from my perspective. We, too, have the highest student:faculty ratio, with literally 20 times more majors than some other departments with similar faculty numbers (we aren't all that big).

Yet here it counts AGAINST us. The attitude is: we are more of a 'service' department (where service to undergrads is looked down upon). So the departments without undergrad majors actually get more of the funds, proportionally. This can only last so long, one would imagine, but so far it's holding up even under these conditions. We had to beg to replace a line this year (a crucial one), yet one of the other departments to which I'm referring to went ahead and had a 'talk' by someone that they the turned into a 'job talk', i.e. they just brought one person out to woo him without any real search. Crazy!


Post a Comment

<< Home