Thrift Makes Drift or Why the Crisis in Academe is Bad for Everyone

Issue One:

According to the Chronicle today, the University of Virginia has decided to phase out public computer labs as a way to save money in this economy.  The Uni statistics say that 99% of incoming Freshman start college with their own computer. No similar statistic is given for the number with access to a printer or internet. More importantly, the statistic does not include how many transfers and upper division students have a computer or printer. (This may be the Chronicle omission, it is unclear). Nor does it tell us how many of the 99% have access to specialized programs needed for social science or natural science research or graphic work in the arts. Needless to say, the number of overall students at UVA with the necessary access to computer technology needed in their fields is considerably lower than the quoted 99%

In fact, 651,900 hours of computer lab time has been clocked per semester by students in the same study. While UVA is playing up the fact that these hours include surfing and social networking, the study also says this time is used to write and print papers. It is also unclear if they have separated out “surfing” from actual research related searches. Nor does it seem possible to determine who is socializing online and who may be doing research on blogs, social networking, or twitter tho I doubt the later makes up a significant portion of the hours currently counted as surfing hours.

By phasing out computer labs, UVA will be bringing a complete end to the 1.2 million hours per academic year (not counting summer session) spent computing in campus computer labs. Their own study indicates that this will mean a loss to certain students of available printing options as well as needed software. Their solution to these losses is to make students pay an as yet unegotiated sum to temporarily license software that would otherwise be available to them. As it is, student fees are supposed to cover computer labs, software licenses, printing costs, etc. and even though they don’t in reality cover those costs for the university, there is no planned reduction in fees to coincide with the reduction in services offered. Meaning students are being asked to pay both student fees and individual short term licensing fees and printing fees.

Cutting non-teaching costs is essential to ensuring that instructors and classrooms are not compromised in the recession. At the same time, part of the basic learning process in most Liberal Arts programs is research and writing. And many of our courses across the disciplines have gone digital, ie the readings, course notes and updates, even the syllabus and/or lectures are often online. Computers have become an essential part of how the modern university teaches and learns. For low income students, the computer lab is the difference between doing their work and not. While they can access computers at the local library, such an endeavor translates to:

  • lost commute time (they are already on campus for classes even if they do not live there, the library on the other hand is an extra trip)
  • possible child care or work schedule issues
  • inability to print or questionable print quality
  • long waits and time use limits

In my experience, this is also means that work for the course is not done on time. This represents an undue burden on working class and subsistence level students whose participation, learning, and grades suffer over time with no attached explanation to graduate programs or employers that part of the problem was lack of equal access to pedagogical resources. The immediacy of this loss to less afluent students is obvious. However, it also represents loss to affluent students, whose education is subsequently dotted by the absence of collective knowledge in the classroom and the agreed upon import of diverse opinions and thinking that should be present therein.

The alternative, is for already maxed out students to take out more college loans or personal loans to buy cheap computers, so that the college is essentially shoving off its cost onto students who already are at the limits of their economic possibilities. While sacrifice is part of getting what you want in the world, the failure to provide access to key elements of the learning environment is akin to a regressive tax – poor students pay more than rich students b/c the cost to poor students is eked out in long term debt or evidenced by decreased learning and increased demand on department resources to mediate which in turn may mar the perception of the student and the willingness of faculty to mentor them. In the long run this impacts the departments and programs themselves as they narrow the kinds of students they both serve and attract, which narrows the faculty, and the research possibilities as well. One needs only look at the courses, concentrations, research, and grants coming out of a diverse WS Program vs. a homogenous one to see the impact even in marginalized identity studies programs that are supposed to center diversity (and I am not just talking race here).

The alternative often is a pedagogical shift that may not be beneficial to the overall learning environment. Instead of assigning papers, we give multiple choice tests. These tests do not require basic writing and analytical skills essential to future success in many disciplines.  The less writing students do, the less capable they are at it, so that upper division courses have started being derailed by having to set aside time for basic information like how to write a paragraph. (I kid you not. I’ve had to teach “what is a thesis,” “what is a paragraph,” “what is an argument” in courses populated by graduating students or first year grads.) Instead of assigning long readings, we assign abridged versions where key information has been cut out (so that they can afford printing costs at the library or don’t get fired for printing at their jobs, or can simply read online). In class, we have to modify how we teach because the lack of access to printing or computers means you cannot expect that the majority has done the reading or that they can collectively look at a section of the reading for closer study. The alternative is to either make packets or assign exclusively books both of which are costly options that represents a different form of economic burden. Worse, either option limits what one can teach. Limits on materials and concepts are limits on learning. Time wasted doing work that should have be done in highschool and perfected along the way in lower division courses is time wasted for students who have these skills and in which they will likely tune out, robbing the intellectual development capacity of the classroom all the more.

Issue Two:

Some colleges and universities are taking a cue from the State of California by mandating that paid staff take one day off at their own expense. In other words, they are shrinking the 5 day work week into 3 or 4 days. By decreasing the number of days they not only save on salary, they also potentially save on benefits since these too can be prorated to reflect the new work hours.  This means that administrators, admin assistants, student services, etc., are losing both real income and needed health benefits at a time when they likely need both the most. Positions that inevitably come open under this system stay open longer, leaving programs/departments without necessary support staff, student and faculty services run by interims or already overtaxed admin doing the job of Deans without Dean pay or possibly the needed expertise, and energy gets diverted to filling the most needed positions which can often leave those positions that keep both marginalized students and junior faculty from falling through the cracks wide open. The loss of diversity is an intellectual loss not just a numbers game.

Just like the loss of the computer labs, the decision to cut back hours does not reflect the realities of university life. The work load for student services is on the rise with both student enrollment and need. The admin assistant load has always been higher than the 40 hours allotted to the position cutting those hours down to 32 or 24 only ensures more unpaid hours and more attrition in this area. From a uni perspective, compromising admin and student services ultimately means compromising educations as overtaxed students cannot get their needs met, spend even more time frustrated and thwarted waiting in lines, on hold, or unable to get to counselors, advisers, disability offices, international student services, etc. because they are all closed 1/2 the week and overextended the other 1/2. From scheduling rooms, making sure materials are ready for classes or media is available for classroom use, to coordinating searches, admin’s jobs may be taken for granted but what they do really does ensure we can teach and attract gifted faculty.

Like the use of the 99% statistics in the case of UVA to minimize the actual impact of cutting computer services on campus, the cut in administrative work hours is sold by saying that “we may have lost admin but we saved faculty.”  The hierarchy is clear but the outcome is murky.


In both these instances people seemingly on the margins of the university system are shouldering the burden of a financial instability in which they had no part. Like when administrators target Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies to balance the budget when these programs/departments use less money than almost any other departments/programs on campus, the reality of these cuts reveals a hierarchy of needs and desires at the university that often compromise diverse learning, complex teaching, and ultimately the growth and standing of the universities making these decisions.

We are all anecdotally aware of non-academic programs leeching resources from the university budget. Whether those programs are failed sports teams and facilities at one uni, otherwise unattached research facilities at another, or maybe just an annual luncheon where the speaker fees have outpaced that of an Assistant Coach’s salary, is really dependent on the university in question. Some unis pride themselves on having state of the art coffee bars in every library and dorm, or world famous chefs at the campus eatery, for instance. Others continue to fund research facilities that drain almost 1/2 the rest of the university budget in electricity alone while giving very little back in terms money or prestige to the university. Instead of targeting marginalized groups, be it poor students, low ranking staff, or identity studies programs, we could easily target the “pork” in the budget, as they say in Washington.

Students for Green Campuses have also proven that green initiatives run correctly cut huge amounts of money out of the operational costs of the university. From switching to energy efficient light bulbs to properly insulating old classrooms and offices, to mandating recycled paper use or paperless systems, to asking that people unplug computers, classroom electronics, and vending machines at the end of their work day and not heating buildings or rooms on the hours they are empty or closed, to fixing leaking toilets, wash basins, and drinking fountains and installing low flow toilets (or putting a brick in each tank) and adjusting heating temperatures, basic environmentally sound changes save billions over time.  Some schools have even started community gardens as part of the sciences that in turn provide the bulk of the food to campus eateries others have made deals with local farmers for the same thing cutting campus food costs in half on average, in some places even more.

If there really is a concern that computer labs are going unused while sucking up budgets, then why not do what they do in almost every other country where I have lived or worked: put limits on the use and what types of use are acceptable. If there are only a few printers in a lab and they are attached to only a few computers at a time, then you can mandate that the people using those computers must be printing. If you limit the internet access on your system to university websites and library databases then people who are wasting time on myspace or facebook will have to do it somewhere else on someone else’s dime. In other words, there are tried and true ways to ensure that the bulk of work done in computer labs is academic in nature. Once that is established, a real study of the usage on campus may result in a fair and equitable decision to close certain labs or to only open labs during certain peak hours instead of arbitrarily removing all of them for good.

These are just things off the top of my head that I have either seen done or heard done to cut costs at unis. I am sure there are a billion others that people have witnessed or participated in around the world out of necessity or for a cause. While it may seem like so much ideological screed to some, it seems to me that “a different university is possible” one in which student, faculty, and staff needs supersede identity politics, pet projects, and manipulated numbers.

Ultimately we have to ask ourselves, what is the purpose of higher education and what is the vision and/or mandate of our institutions. If what we do to cut costs now negatively impacts that now or in the future then it really isn’t saving us anything is it?

6 thoughts on “Thrift Makes Drift or Why the Crisis in Academe is Bad for Everyone

  1. This is a great analysis. Just a couple of stray thoughts here:

    I’ve sat on the Admin committee at budget time. What looks like ‘pork’ from one perspective always looks essential from another one. Everyone’s got good reasons for their budget line, and I mean really good reasons. When the numbers don’t add up, something’s got to go anyway. It’s also worth noting that prestige is always associated with what may look like waste, ‘conspicuous consumption’, as Veblen told us. So carrying some pork is essential to the maintenance of academic distinction, which is a big part of its value especially for marginal students; just like wearing lots of jewels is a symbol kings and queens must ritually perform to create legitimating distinction.

    That the default budget cut is instructional facilities disproportionately favoring marginal students is unsurprising on the plain concept of marginality. These are students for whom higher education is a luxury, both in their own lives and for the society as a whole. The plain fact is that the occupational hierarchy will function quite well with a lot less people getting higher degrees. Middle managers can do that without a university diploma, and most of my students are going to end up middle managers or the equivalent one way or the other. Since education is not in itself capable of reordering the occupational hierarchy, this is not even a very substantive activist issue, except for those rare and wonderful cases where access to education results in greater social mobility than the ordinary expansion of the economy can account for.

    OK, all that said, everyone’s jostling for their piece of a shrinking pie right now and all my own sympathies are with those marginal students. I want my peeps to be the ones who do well. And I do have this wacky notion that higher education is for teaching people, as many and as openly as possible. So insofar as we can find ways to jostle in that direction, I’m all for it.

    • hi Carl.

      I too have sat on the budget (and managed a budget at a feminist non-profit for far too long which is a whole other balancing act) so I get what you are saying. For instance, I personally think there is no benefit to our university to pay the amount of sports staff that we do as we are not a nationally recognized football/basketball school and never will be, but that is my opinion and I think your draw/prestige argument apply here.

      When I said “Pork” I was thinking more specifically in terms of things most of us can agree are excessive. ex: a research facility that uses 1/2 of the uni’s operating budget in electricity but during its existence the uni’s prestige has dropped an entire tier or a summer institute that costs more than ES, WS, and Romance Languages Departments together spend for the entire year to put on but whose reputation has dwindled so much that the the uni can no longer fill the expensive lodge it maintains for the institute and the prestige it brought in has been gone for 10+ years, etc. Things people are clearly invested in somewhere but when crunching the numbers it becomes abundantly clear that they operate at a huge loss to the uni rep and funds.

      And while I think cutting the “pork” would make huge headway in any budget, I do think non-economic costs matter which is why I pointed to solutions that have both economic and social benefit. Greening a campus ups its prestige with most people and saves money. It doesn’t cut existing programs and may actually enhance or build new useful ones especially in the green economy Obama keeps promising.

      I also think you are right about the real purpose of higher ed, tho I disagree that marginalized folks in higher ed see their educations as expendable luxuries they don’t really need. And I too have that same idealism that higher ed was supposed to be about educating as many as possible, even tho I know it isn’t true and worse that the way it has worked out the kind of id studies disciplines I work in are actually helping narrow possibilities for marginalized students: smart radical brown people go into ES, ES PhDs get hired in ES programs but do not translate to jobs in other departments or programs, ES has some of the fewest lines and many of those go to non-ES PhDs, so what was supposed to shift the curriculum, the milieu, and ultimately the professoriate in practice often impoverishes (thru long term loan debt) the radical brown elements in the uni and then ensures they will not get a job in academe . . .

      When we take off the rose colored glasses and actually look at the realities of academe neither the targeted cuts nor the operating budgets of marginalized programs and services, nor the tenure process, nor . . . ugh! . . . none of it is really surprising and obviously supports Trotsky’s basic supposition that you cannot have revolution from within.

      That said, I’m going to continue to go on record pointing to how budget cuts intentionally target marginalized students and positions when other options would actually benefit the entire uni system and ultimately make those unis that choose them better equiped when/if this crisis ends. I don’t know what else to do as I watch my students slip through the ever growing cracks or the ones who remain get subpar educations. (And that should be ther bottom line for all of us, many of these changes impact all students, all pedagogical strategies, all programs/departments even tho they target certain students and certain programs. So if you can’t care about the margins at least care about the center, that is the argument I am really making here.)

  2. Couldn’t agree more.

    Your final sentence reminds me tangentially of a conversation I had once with a smart undergraduate in cultural studies at UC Santa Cruz who found her coursework so thoroughly steeped in the margins that she wondered if she was ever going to learn anything about the center. I experimented with the stock reply that the center is all around us and needs little educational reinforcement, but as a Persian woman she displaced that answer pretty decisively. I’m not making a point, I’ve just kept the conversation with me ever since and thought you might find it interesting.

    • I don’t know I think that is a different issue which has both its deconstructive positives (ie id studies can seem “in addition to” if not done in an inclusive way) and its negative alignment with the center (ie the seeming absence of the center means these studies are irrelevant or that they are only relevant as reactions or comparisons to the center b/c the center is still centered). I know when I teach ES or WS I am doing so in a way that centers marginalized voices but allows even the most traditionally educated student to incorporate and expand their existing knowledge and/or take it back to their “real” department to expand their research. This is where I do think we impact the larger curriculum and the focus or construction of research across the university despite the easy consumption of what was once meant to be counter-hegemonic by that same center.

  3. @ matt – welcome to the blog.

    @ Carl – just re-read this post and saw why you thought I meant the prestige programs as much as the “actual pork.” I did blur them in that paragraph even tho I kept them separated in my head. my bad for not catching that sooner.

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