Cutting Academia Badly

A lot of people have asked me to link to and comment on the SUNY Albany cuts and some of the reactions to it by some online academics…

To cut a long story short, the SUNY system took another round of cuts, and the President of SUNY Albany decided to cut whole programs rather than keep trimming around the edges.

Classics, French, Italian, Russian, and Theatre

cut by directive, at short notice and with little open consultation.

Gregory Petsko wrote a high profile defence of the humanities, from a science perspective, and the Dangeral Professor hisself pitches his penny’s worth in, while Chad sideswipes humanities’ defenders and provides his own reasons

It is interesting and important reading.

It is also just the opening salvo.
More cuts are coming for the state universities, and some will be brutal and prolonged.
And the trimming is mostly done already. Further funding cuts will necessarily lead to permanent elimination of programs, because that is the only way to save serious amounts of money.

This will be done in various ways, some ham-handed and irrational, and some open and well thought out, and all will be infuriating, because it means entire fields will be cut and people will be fired – faculty and staff.

No money, no salaries, no people.
It is difficult to make significant savings in costs without letting people go, and in academia, with tenure, that means closing programs.

Worse than that, it takes a couple of years to realise the savings of cutting programs, because people actually have to be given notice, students in the program have to be ramped down, and there are transition costs with letting people go.
So it is not enough to just cut.

Hence furloughs: furloughs, the temporary cutting of salaries (while usually keeping benefits and retirement basis at the nominal level), is the only way to get major immediate savings.
Furloughs alone will keep a university going for about 2 years, if there is expectation of funding being restored as things get better.
If cuts are permanent, furloughs provide short term cost relief, while combination of permanent cuts and increases in tuition go through.

Furloughs are brutal on standards of living and local economies – the cut in take home pay goes straight into discretionary spending, and since most people have large fixed costs, a 5% furlough should typically lead to 15% or so cut in discretionary spending.
In college towns this wreaks havoc with the local economy, decreasing the velocity of money and reducing the tax base further.

Cutting staff has other interesting side effects: for example, a lot of small businesses leverage of one family member having a safe job with benefits, working for government, or education. Firing staff can double the indirect economic effect as the private business their public sector job was cross-subsidising vanishes.

This is a nasty negative feedback loop, and education is not a small economic sector.

Academia will mostly survive. There will be some losses of whole institutions, and many major institutions of higher education will suffer long term damage. It takes decades to build an institution both in capabilities and reputation, destroying it takes only a few years.

What will start providing positive feedback into the economy is harder to see; eventually age and demographics will provide a reset, but that would take longer than I care to wait for.

In the meantime, remember, it is not the french they are after, they are also coming for you.