Digging in the Couch Cushions To Pay the Light Bill

inefficiency happensOne of the consistent complaints about higher education is our apparent inefficiency. Admittedly, there are some areas where we can cut costs, but there aren’t as many available efficiencies as our critics assume. If your university is like mine, we’ve endured about all the cuts we can handle: 17% last year, 10% the year before. Pretty soon you are past the fat and sawing the bone.

productivityseminarAny savings left on our campus involve buying cheaper toilet paper (or telling students to bring their own), asking staff to clean their own offices (bring your trash bags to work day!), or cutting whole programs out of the curriculum (Music programs are overrated!). We spend our time trying not to give up an arm and a leg while our legislature is pushing us to cut our nose off to spite our face.

Critics of universities like to attack diversity offices and multi-cultural affairs programs as if somehow cutting those programs would transform the university budget. Certainly, we see universities across the country building little mini-water parks on campus, increasing inter-mural programs, and installing climbing walls. Dorms, except at the elite private universities strangely enough, are increasingly posh. Gone are the days of closet sized cubicles and shared bathrooms. These one-time capital expenses are coupled with mid-level administrators whose salary and benefits are the fastest growing costs at a university. Perhaps, they say, you could live without such luxuries.

We could easily return to the days of dingy dorms and we could eliminate athletics, inter-murals, and other student services activities. No more weight rooms, climbing walls, or swimming pools. However, while it might surprise many of our critics out there, the largest portion of students who fail to finish school are those who are academically eligible. We lose more B and C students in any given year than any other cohort. It might also surprise some of our critics to find out that 18 year olds who feel disconnected, un-involved, and isolated tend to perform poorly in the classroom.

We might further note that as minority populations increase on college campuses and as diversity improves, there are tensions and difficulties. Put simply—these programs that seem so easy to attack often pay for themselves in recruitment and persistence toward degree. Students can go anywhere to earn a degree; universities are in open competition as they develop a campus culture. Our students aren’t,  as a colleague once told me, simply brains on legs. They are undeveloped frontal lobes with hormonal imbalances that make the federal debt look like a model of consistency. And they have to go to class, live with strangers, wonder why that girl across the room smiled at them, and figure out why that guy in the dorm ignored them last night. Part of the university life is, simply put, helping teach students how to live and providing support and resources along the way.

Faculty research is another easy target but the assumed savings aren’t really that great. Requiring that our colleagues at University of Texas or Texas A&M teach full loads won’t really save that much money. If it did, then tuition at some place like Angelo State (where we are all teaching a full load) would be dramatically cheaper. Eliminating research, however, misses the point. UT is UT because the faculty do ground breaking research. If that didn’t matter, Angelo State would have 50,000 students and UT would be struggling to grow.

Do we need another article on Shakespeare? No, but Rick Perry didn’t need to set up the Texas Enterprise Fund and we also don’t need to provide tax breaks to oil companies. Last time I checked they were doing pretty well for themselves. I also don’t need a rum and coke every night, but I’m sure everyone in my house is glad I get one anyway.

hamletThe Texas Enterprise Fund isn’t just about providing start up funds: it serves notice that Texas is a business friendly state. In much the same way, all research isn’t about practical, pragmatic application outside the classroom or university. A research project discussing Cormac McCarthy won’t save any lives. But, and here’s why we keep reading and studying literature, it might help someone understand her shared humanity and the research project itself demonstrates to our students the value of engaging in research, in seeking expertise, and in moving beyond simple (and sometimes simplistic) experiential knowledge. Actively engaging in research shows our students that we recognize “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Being an informed citizen requires that we move outside our own knowledge base, seek out credible sources, and use our critical thinking skills to make decisions. College faculty practice what we preach.

What seems clear from the attacks on higher education is that we are mired in the tired arguments of the past. I care if my students gain skills and get a job after they graduate, but I am just as interested in the intangible, indirect benefits of the many things we do. As a faculty member, I am offering information, giving my students tools, showing a pathway that will allow my students to take that epistemological journey. I’m teaching them, as the biblical parable recommends, how to fish. As a university, we are offering our students a transitional space to grow intellectually and socially. It’s not the only way to do those things, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do them.

Teaching and research are often inefficient human activities whose dividends are long-term positives. What might seem a waste today is a possible gain tomorrow, but we can’t offer people that path if we are spending all our time searching the couch cushions for enough change to pay the light bill.

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

4 Responses to Digging in the Couch Cushions To Pay the Light Bill

  1. LetSdeG says:

    Interesting post, John.

    I agree that higher education does a lot more that it is given credit for. You ARE preparing people to become effective stewards of their chosen crafts; in effect, yes, teaching them “how to fish”. But, I don’t think higher education should be a sheltered working space for 4 years (or, however many the students are enrolled) for either staff or students. What is happening outside has to manifest itself inside, somehow. You are teaching them ‘how to fish’, but the climate around you is changing and without some understanding of the challenges of the outside world, how can you teach them properly? How are you really preparing them?

    Fact is that the country has been struggling economically for several years. Creating efficiencies is a reflection of the lean world we need to live in to get over the hurdles we face, and I don’t think higher education should ever be immune to that. I do see your point about the impact of curtailing certain activities that benefit students, especially those that promote engagement with the university, at large. But, again, there has to be balance. There has to be a conversation about what stays and what goes to ensure as many people get the education they want, affordably.

    • John Wegner says:

      Thank you for the comment. I don’t disagree. I think one of the greatest weaknesses in higher ed is that we struggle to keep up with that blending of outside changes with our teaching. In some ways, that also speaks to the importance of a rigorous research agenda. I have to stay current or I can fall into that rut where I’m teaching with mimeographed notes that are 20 years old. Affordability is certainly important. I think one of the most interesting things that I’ve seen, though, is that while tuition costs to the student have increased, college enrollment has increased. Certainly, we are seeing some of that impact on student debt increases, but, and I do think this is important, much of that debt is concentrated in some very specific disciplines and schools. Having said that, my guess is many of my colleagues would love to see less funding go to the frills (fancy dorms, climbing walls, etc) and, perhaps, we’re overstating their relevance to recruitment and retention efforts.

      As you say, a conversation is a good idea. I wish we could have that conversation, though, before the legislature is taking a chainsaw to our budget. Decisions made in those moments aren’t always the best choices. I think that for many of us in higher ed, we feel pretty sure we’ve given our pound (plus some) of flesh. Thanks for responding.

    • 17% this year? 10% last year? If I were asked to “create that sort of efficiency”, I’d be on the street.

      • John Wegner says:

        Those are just the two most recent years. In 2003, we took a 10% cut that was never restored. Texas, strange as it may sound, is in better shape than other states. Florida, Missouri, and some other states have seen 40% cuts in the last 5 years. We are headed for a national train wreck in higher ed.

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