State University Budgets in the Neoliberal Age
Guest Blogger / December 8, 2022
BY RAPHAEL SASSOWER
Once upon a time, the administration of a sleepy state university proposed a new budget, offering the rationale that the new budget would “incentivize” departments and promote “entrepreneurial” conduct—couching it in terms of “decentralized” operations and rewarding colleges for increases in their student full-time equivalent enrollments. Three years into the proposed experiment (which was never fully implemented despite public promises), budget cuts postponed the replacement of retired faculty members while administrators demanded even deeper cuts. When the demoralized faculty begged for explanations, they were appeased with a year of free parking and a one-time $600 bonus. The administration regularly scheduled town hall meetings to assuage the most anxious and provide comfort for the skeptical few with PowerPoint presentations displaying platitudes about respect, recalibration, and shared governance.
Here’s another hypothetical situation: suppose a faculty member teaching a class on existentialism reported midsemester to the department chair that their syllabus is still being revised but should be ready before the semester ends. The faculty member explains that it is difficult to condense the full meaning of Nietzsche and Sartre, Beauvoir and Kierkegaard, let alone the enigmatic Heidegger, and proposes that perhaps translators and experts should be hired, and perhaps more time is warranted to rethink exactly what the syllabus should look like. In the meantime, the faculty member meets with every student, gives them articles to read and a blueberry muffin and listens intently to whatever questions they have about the meaning of life and their end-of-semester grade, not always in that order.
What would university administrators do? Might they rightfully ask, Were you not hired because of your expertise in the field you are teaching? Perhaps you should be replaced with someone competent who can provide a syllabus at the start of the semester for the troubling new normal of postpandemic university instruction. We cannot afford to pay your salary in this neoliberal era without a certain level of productivity. Show us results now!
While faculty are expected to be experts and to be reviewed annually, administrators hire other experts to accomplish their assigned tasks, and faculty are kept in the dark about their reviews. Blaming declines in enrollment on demographic shortfalls of eighteen-year-olds, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the state of the economy, administrators pretend that any one of these explanations is sufficient to ward off criticism. They double down on their neoliberal solutions to budgetary problems by insinuating that if the campus does not adopt new budgetary models, it will be left flat-footed in future crises. The asymmetrical relationship between faculty and administrators is clear: faculty depend on administrators to be able to fulfill their duties and are therefore expected to acquiesce to these new policies.
One could object that this analogy is flawed and does not hold, questioning how one can compare the simple confines of instruction and research with the complexities of university administration. Perhaps the analogy fails because of the reverse: how can one compare the complexities of pedagogy and scholarship with the simplicity of putting together and administering a campus budget? Whichever side one prefers, the analogy is neither accidental nor far-fetched. It was imposed on the academy, when it took its neoliberal turn decades ago, by boards of business-minded trustees in private universities or by elected conservative regents in public ones. Cost centers and entrepreneurship were part of a conceptual straitjacket faculty suddenly had to start wearing, and jargon about incentives and meeting enrollment targets abounded, mixed with truisms about transparency and accountability imported wholesale from outdated business textbooks. Students became “customers”; administrators, bosses; and faculty, the reserve army of the unemployed. Yet if the university does become a business, and tuition drives the budget, those students should be cherished, not terrorized. If recruiting students is a marketing enterprise, enrollment targets should be set in place, and those charged with reaching them replaced when they come short. And if a campus that’s suffering a deficit is tantamount to a business that’s losing money, then the CEO should not remain in charge.
The point is that “accountability” cannot be applied to only one rung of the academic hierarchy. Annual reviews should be administered across the board—not just to faculty—and made public. The neoliberal mentality of up-or-out should not be singularly applied to faculty but made visible among the privileged few whose salaries are paid for with the surplus value extracted from underpaid and overworked instructors. What happened to the ideals of higher learning and the pursuit of wisdom in sanctuaries shielded from the cruel realities of late capitalism? What happened to the lofty promises that an educated citizenry is the hallmark of democracy? Public universities should be viewed not as elite institutions but as custodians of the precious collective knowledge we can introduce to and distill from every person.
So, what can one do when faced with intransigent administrators? Write an email? Shame them publicly with an open letter to the faculty and staff? Organize an AAUP chapter on campus? No matter the strategy (I have tried them all), the lone faculty member who protests is bound to face colleagues more inclined toward appeasement. We need them as allies, they plead, reminding me of the cynical comment by a labor organizer who years ago said that “collective bargaining” in the twenty-first century has become “collective begging.”
If one is lucky enough to get a response from an administrator, it will be a one-on-one meeting in their office, where they use subtle intimidation techniques only the powerful have: let’s talk some more, let me put you in touch with this or that administrator who can more fully explain how wonderfully we are doing and how hard we are working for you. We have all the time in the world to waste your time—time you need to prepare classes, grade student papers, read and research for publication, and do some shared-governance service. Yes, we have time for you, you ungrateful troublemaker who dares to ask questions. Often, you leave the meeting feeling insignificant, powerless, and thoroughly cowed.
Raphael Sassower teaches philosophy and was the founding president of the AAUP chapter at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.