But Will It Fly?

Economists warn us that we are facing the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, and that we should expect hard times through 2010 or 2011. Florida has been hit harder than other states, and several state universities have announced major cuts: Florida International announced that it could lay off two hundred employees, while Gainesville warned that some of the most popular programs in the state faced the knife. USF administrators have proposed many rearrangements, some of them having little to do with the immediate financial crunch.

The fiscal year ends in two months, and after the governor takes a veto pen to the legislature’s budget, USF will be informed what its budget will be next year. Even now, the proposed budget is grim, and if the governor vetoes the 6% tuition hike included in the budget, the financial outlook will be grimmer. Even that budget may be inflated: at the latest United Faculty of Florida Senate meeting, UFF (statewide) president Tom Auxter warned that the real figures may not come out until November. Our legislative contacts report that Florida’s political leadership may be trying to make it through the elections without letting on how bad the fiscal situation is, and a special legislative session after the election might cut the state budget further. When Provost Ralph Wilcox says that USF has an obligation to meet its payroll, he is expressing a welcome realism.

On the other hand, the administration says that much of the reorganization is not just for budget-cutting. As observed previously (see Sherman Dorn’s commentary), many faculty think that administrators can take advantage of emergencies to institute otherwise impolitic changes – even changes having little to do with the emergency. And although our administration sold much of the reorganization as an opportunity for future accomplishment rather than a necessity for dealing with the immediate crisis, the administration has followed the hard sell strategy of insisting on committing to reorganization NOW.

It is during a crisis that clarity is most valuable, so we should separate out the two threads of the emergency and the opportunity. Let’s begin with the emergency.

Background on the Emergency and the Opportunity

Last fall, Provost Khator, in consultation with the Faculty Senate, charged a Budget Priorities Task Force to “review all academic centers, institutes, departments, and programs, and prepare recommendations that would allow us to make budget reductions strategically.” This task force only examined academic units within Academic Affairs on the Tampa campus, and was structured so that no reviewer was connected to a unit that reviewer helped evaluate. On February 29, the Budget Priorities Task Force submitted its report (see the 126-page PDF document), which listed brief ratings (on “centrality”, “quality”, “demand”, and “viability”) and evaluations of the colleges and departments. The document was released publicly, before chairs, directors, and deans had the opportunity to respond. Considering the number of units evaluated, the evaluations were inevitably terse and occasionally inconsistent with past reviews conducted by external panels drawn from a unit’s own discipline. That inconsistency and the lack of a pre-release review opportunity led to some departments’ being surprised and disappointed at both the process and the result of the task force. Many departments responded in March.

The evaluations did suggest some cost savings, and in particular tended to recommend that free-standing institutes find new funding sources. Several departmental mergers were proposed, particularly of units that seemed to be having difficulties. Perhaps the idea was that the synergy of merging two departments would improve performance, but certainly such mergers would reduce administrative costs.

Editorial comment: it is not clear that reducing resources – either by merger or by other means – would help any unit. If the university has a strong stake in a unit, then a wiser course may be to provide additional resources and perhaps additional nagging. On the other hand, if the university is trying a tactful way of abandoning a low-priority program at a time of budgetary stress, a merger can provide good cover.

In March, the second (opportunity) thread appeared when Arts & Science chairs received notice that administrators were contemplating breaking up the college, with natural sciences being merged with engineering. That move would be accompanied by other shuffling throughout the university. Decisions on these changes were to be made within a month, and in this compressed time scale the emergency and opportunity threads appeared to be conflated. At the April 14 meeting with engineering and natural science faculty, the provost and a few supporters of the college-level reorganization spoke of benefits to natural science of having its understaffed departments merged into a large college, although speakers were vague on how these benefits would materialize and in what form. Most faculty expressed concerns, most notably why an immediate commitment was necessary for changes unrelated to the budget problem.

Some faculty supporters of the merger hoped that it would resolve longstanding administrative problems, notably inequitable allocation of credit for external funding. But the suggestion that the university might simply address these administrative kinks was met by a pointed response by Engineering Dean John Wiencek that the opportunity called for more than “tweaking” policy.

Reactions and the Future of the Reorganization

After Arts and Sciences chairs complained about the discussion (or the insufficiency thereof), the administration has backed down from its initial plan to commit to the reorganization in April, and now plans to make the commitment by July 1 when the next fiscal year begins. And at its April meeting, the Faculty Senate resolved to “establish the Faculty Senate Task Force to Review the Administrative Structure of the University of South Florida,” and to meet on May 21.

But the most visible publicity this spring has focused on the proposal that Africana Studies, Women’s Studies, the Institute for the Study of Latin America and the Caribbean (ISLAC), and the Institute on Black Life (IBL) be merged. The proposed merger was seen as downgrading these units, and the resulting uproar, including last week’s student protest, was reported in the local newspapers, Inside Higher Ed, and the Chronicle for Higher Education. Some money would be saved – not much – so this could be a cost saving measure or perhaps (as some feared) a tactful way of abandoning low-priority programs.

Legally, the reorganization of USF is a management decision, but it has academic consequences, and as the reorganization proceeds, the Faculty Senate will be engaged over the next year. And reorganization affects the terms and conditions of employment, so the United Faculty of Florida watching the situation very carefully, especially the consequences for tenure-track faculty. A few dozen faculty have consulted with chapter officers over the past few months, and that will certainly continue. (The current officer list is posted on-line).

But will this reorganization work? As a package, it is supposed to cut the budget while seizing an opportunity to develop interdisciplinary research and not harm academics. The stakes are high: USF faces tens of millions of dollars in cuts, and these cuts must come from somewhere. In bad budget years, nerves fray and morale sinks as the administration faces only bad choices and worse choices. And this is a horrible budget year.

An effective reorganization requires not only much political capital but also broad support and widespread assistance. A top-down reorganization, devised and dictated by a small group of people, will cost a lot of political capital to sell and may have too little support and assistance from faculty and professional ranks to succeed. Every university that aspires to greatness must be a “loosely-coupled” system requiring the voluntary and committed action of faculty.

This is the hard-headed argument for faculty governance: because faculty work in the gut of the university, it is better to have broad support for an imperfect organization than apathy about theoretically better one. Several years ago, the Board of Trustees and the United Faculty of Florida agreed to language in the Collective Bargaining Agreement committing both parties “… to principles of shared governance, which require that in the development of academic policies and processes, the professional judgments of employees are of primary importance.” That lofty language carries a gritty reality. The goals of the university can best be met when faculty and administrators work together. This summer, the choices that the upper-level administration makes, and the process involved, will not only determine whether few or many have a stake in USF’s success, but whether USF succeeds.


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