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.
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?