Money or something else?

On Friday, the UFF-USF chapter approved a resolution that urged the maintenance of separate identities for the Department of Women’s Studies, the Department of Africana Studies, the Institute on Black Life, and the Institute for the Study of Latin America and the Caribbean. The resolution focuses entirely on the intellectual value of having separate identities. That focus does not mean that faculty and the UFF chapter do not want USF to save money. But faculty do not want the budget crisis to be an opportunity for other changes that endanger our shared academic values.

The discussion on Friday

In the rush to save money, members said at Friday’s meeting, the administration could take steps that marginalize units and departments that play a whistleblower’s role for society, conducting research on sensitive topics that can make the powerful uncomfortable. One colleague reminded me Friday that a few years ago, the university merged the Department of Environmental Science and Policy into Geography, and he raised the question: would the actions taken in this budget crisis systematically erase academic units whose research and teaching touch on politically sensitive topics such as global warming, energy, foreign affairs, and social inequality?

Some faculty at the meeting Friday noted that one of the units targeted for absorption into a larger unit would be the Institute for the Study of Latin America and the Caribbean, whose program received a stellar evaluation in the task force report given to the provost. Why change that structure, if it runs a program successfully on a shoestring? As another colleague has quipped, it looked like USF was going to create a School of “The Other,” and it doesn’t seem justified by the task force review or the money. By my calculations, absorbing ISLAC within another unit would save the university less than $40,000 in base budget and disrupt its operations while the people in ISLAC become part of a larger unit.

I expect that several departments targeted for merger (not just in the situation discussed here) will make proposals to save money without giving up departmental autonomy, and the faculty will be observing how administrators respond. If administrators use the creativity of solutions that faculty might suggest to preserve functional structures, then they will be making better choices among poor options. I will not criticize the administration for trying to save money, but when the budget crisis appears to be a cover for making other changes that are justified neither by cost savings nor by a fair evaluation of a unit’s operations, the administration will be perceived as tone-deaf at best.

Naomi Klein, institutional isomorphism, and USF

I have heard comparisons made between our current situation and the recent book by Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine (you can read an online summary of her argument). Klein argues that advocates of free-market or neoliberal policies have deliberately crafted a strategy of waiting until a natural or economic disaster strikes and then pouncing with policies that would never be approved in a stable environment. I have heard the argument that there are always ideas and vague plans for restructuring that float around USF, and they become viable when there is a shock such as the current budget crisis. Whether or not the idea is tied to the concrete circumstances we face, it becomes far more likely. Or, as one colleague suggested on Friday, he fears that the creation of a School of “The Other” has always been a solution in need of a problem, and maybe the budget crisis has served up the problem.

I am not sure we have to go down the path of Klein’s argument to explain events at USF. Sociologists have the term institutional isomorphism (JSTOR article) to describe the diffusion of institutional structures. In some cases, the parallels are coerced, as when the No Child Left Behind Act required that all states receiving Title I fund (for the education of poor children) also agree to test all children, every year, in grades 3-8. In other cases, the parallels come through a normative process. In her research, one of my colleagues traced how the Catholic bishops created a structure of parochial schools in the late 19th century that paralleled public school offerings. So today, if a child attends a Catholic high school, there are the same set of subjects (generally speaking) that one finds in public schools, but the parallels go beyond the curriculum to extracurricular activities, with Catholic schools’ sports teams, debate teams, and so forth.

There can also be cases of normative isomorphism that are clearly dysfunctional. Sociologist Mary Metz described the scripting of “real school,” where high schools all present a facade of isomorphism—bells, curriculum, sports, graduation—even when one school is in a leafy suburb that graduates 90% of its students and another schools is underfunded and graduates less than 50% of its students. The common script of high school too easily obscures the problems in individual schools

There is no doubt that the language of the USF Strategic Plan is all about institutional isomorphism: Our Board of Trustees wants us to be AAU (the American Association of Universities), AAU eligible, or at least like AAU institutions. This institutional ambition isn’t new at USF (as those who remember Frank Borkowski will attest), and plenty of other institutions have trod in the prior path of higher-status institutions (or tried to follow the trajectory of aspirational peers, if you prefer that language). And to some extent, faculty and departments will use such isomorphic tendencies to their tactical advantage when seeking faculty lines, operational support, and so forth.

But now we face a budget crisis, and anyone who looks at the university should fear that USF’s language of AAU status is looking less realistic and more like the “high school script” that Mary Metz described. Are we an AAU-worthy institution, or will we just play one in the movies?

Academic cannibalism in a budget crisis

That question about the value of reorganization is not just a quip: The aftermath of reorganization beyond budget cuts will be embedded in the academic culture of an institution. When departments and centers disappear, chairs and directors are not sitting at the table with deans and cannot negotiate for budgets and faculty lines. When USF comes out of the budget crunch in several years, there will be two critical decisions: how do we rebuild the faculty, and how do reward faculty who were loyal and productive through the crisis? One cost of departmental consolidation is the loss of voice for programs at the college level.

There is another and more damaging cost, too. In the past ten months, I have worried that faculty and academic units will be tempted to play academic cannibalism, pointing at other units to suffer more than they. I fear that the language of strategic choice has given far too much legitimacy to those tendencies. The playing field is not level as we start this process: We have hills or mountains of high-status research and graduate education overlooking a broad plain of student credit hour obligations, those “enrollment corridors” that the old Board of Regents and the new Board of Governor have imposed.

With shrinking funding, the sea is starting to creep up on the edges of the plain.As funding recedes and the waters rise, we may end up with a research archipelago reigning over a lagoon of undergraduate and masters programs overtaken by poor funding. No one benefits by such a situation. Even if a department starts and ends a budget crisis in better relative position than others, funding cuts will bring all of us down.

Transparency in the agenda?

The vague talk over the past ten months about reprioritizing and the promise of transparency may have made faculty even more anxious. Wholesale reorganization (or “college reengineering,” as I have seen in the past few days) does not help. The funding crisis is not the fault of the administration or the Board of Trustees, but as I have said repeatedly, we are faced with bad choices and worse choices, and the worst choice of all would be to reorganize far beyond what budget cuts require in futile hope of mimicking an AAU structure.

The productivity costs of reorganization are real, and while they may be justified in some cases by budget savings, to use the budget crisis to reorganize beyond what is necessary is going to drive faculty away from USF and set us spinning our wheels for several years just responding to the reorganization.


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