Adventures in Ethics and Science

(As before, I’m still not sure whether, in the metaphor, the factory is building monkeys or staffed by monkeys. Perhaps, really, we’re in the business of making educated monkeys, and the problem is that our administration views this as akin to making widgets. Anyway, the point is: Explosions! Chaos! Shrieking! Brachiating along the pieces of wreckage!)

We had our beginning-of-the-semester faculty meeting today, and I have to conclude that our department is in an abusive relationship with the university (and system) administration.

Why I’m convinced of this is the simple fact that we have little to no idea what will make them spank us, at least not in advance of being spanked.

Just about five months ago, at the start of the Fall semester, I noted:

We have as a goal helping students to graduate (especially “super-seniors” who have more than the minimum number of credits for graduation but who still need to take one or more courses that meet their major or general education requirements). However, given the ginormous budget shortfall, we must also reduce our enrollments from where they stand right now on the first day of class — before our official “census day” next month. Basically, this means that we can’t add anyone to our classes, and we are well advised to pray to the deity of our choice that a bunch of our students drop.

So, I’d love to help you graduate, but I can’t add you to my course.

As it happened, a bunch of students who were originally enrolled in courses in my department did drop. We thought, at that point, “Awesome! Maybe we won’t exceed our targets and be punished by having our funding for Spring slashed!” — for that was the threat dangling above our heads if our enrollments were higher than those targets (although going significantly under the target for a class would get your class cancelled, so hitting the target on the nose was really the only potentially safe thing to do).

Can you guess what happened once our total enrollment as a department eased down to meet our target?

We started getting calls from deans. The deans who were calling would say, “I have Jo Bleaux here, who has filed to graduate and who needs to take a course in this general education area to graduate. The enrollment system shows that [some philosophy course satisfying that general education area, which one or more of the originally enrolled students dropped] has a seat free. You must give Jo Bleaux a permission code to add the course, since it is university policy to get these seniors graduated!”

Did it matter to the deans placing these calls that we were looking at a credible threat to slash our department’s funding (with which we do things like staff sections of general education courses students need to graduate) if we added these students to our classes and exceeded our enrollment target? It did not. Indeed, when this significant downside was noted to them, they chided us for scheduling our courses in rooms that could accommodate so many students that we would exceed our targets — even though these targets (and the threatened penalties for exceeding them) were not announced until well after those courses were scheduled.

But the deans won. We added the students. We braced ourselves for the retribution.

Except this time, as it turns out, it was a good thing that our department exceeded its targets, owing to the fact that some other departments in our college apparently fell well short of their enrollment targets. Our excess ended up saving the college’s bacon by putting the college as a whole within breathing room of its overall enrollment target.

But, now no one is quite sure what’s going to happen with the over-under on enrollments, either for the college or the departments within it. As such, faculty are not allowed to give permission codes for students to add our courses. Instead, we’re being asked to compile detailed waiting lists (where the details provide information for triage), which will be used to direct some hopeful students to our college’s associate dean, who will decide who can add and where in a way that balances the needs of the college as a whole.

In theory, we may still end up saving the college’s bacon. But the college seems committed to ensuring that we don’t get punished (with a funding cut) for providing this aid.

This assumes, of course, that the administration doesn’t change the rules on the college in midstream.

If I didn’t love this student population and my departmental colleagues, I am not sure that this job would be worth the constant disequilibrium. I’m hopeful that my course will go well enough for the students and for me that we can cope reasonably well with the explosions and flying banana peels.

Oh, and it sounds like the cuts in the budget for academic year 2010-2011 will be significantly deeper than the cuts we have now. So that’s something to look forward to.


  1. #1 MAL
    January 25, 2010

    Would you (or a kind commenter) mind explaining why there would be a maximum enrollment target? Is that a faculty-to-student ratio issue? It seems to me that the more students a department’s classes attracted, the better off that department should appear to administration. I’m obviously missing something, but I can’t figure out what it is. Thanks so much!

  2. #2 Janet D. Stemwedel
    January 25, 2010

    MAL @1: As near as I can determine, the enrollment caps are due to the fact that the State of California, being in a multi-billion dollar budget hole, cannot put up its share of the cost of educating a student in the Cal State University system for the same number of students it used to be able to underwrite — this despite the fact that student fees (what we call tuition) have been on a steep and steady increase in recent years.

    There is some real (and inflexible) cost for each student we enroll — undoubtedly a function of the fact that you need to pay people to teach ’em, and enter ’em in the computer systems, etc. Given the amount of money the governor and legislators agreed they could cough up for the current semester, we just had to take fewer students, or ram through another dramatic student fee increase to compensate for the reduction in money from the state, or turn over the tasks of teaching and putting ’em in the computer systems and such to cheap prison labor. (And I’m not fully convinced someone in Sacramento hasn’t floated that idea.)

  3. #3 Laura
    January 25, 2010

    Here, my friend, is what you need. Buy one for all your colleagues. Shoot them off during meetings, especially with deans present. It will make you feel better.

  4. #4 Schlupp
    January 26, 2010

    Laura, it’s out of stock. Must be the beginning of term.

  5. #5 Nick
    January 26, 2010

    I’m still laughing over the mental image of a campus full of students and professors swinging through destroyed buildings on girders to make it to their classes…

    Using cheap prison labor for the state university system is a brilliant idea! It takes a resource that California has in great excess (prisoners) and diverts it to replace a resource in which there is a great deficit (people willing to work for an underfunded and mismanaged university system for free). Perfect!

  6. #6 becca McSnarky
    January 26, 2010

    I thought universities already thrived on prison populations (grad students)?

  7. #7 Janet D. Stemwedel
    January 26, 2010

    becca @6: You can only count on that kind of prison labor at a research oriented university. (Besides, we have such lax security that masters students can just wander off campus and into the city.)

    Nick @5: Whose side are you on here?!

    On a more serious note, I’m always hearing about research that suggests that a more serious commitment of resources (one assumes with less arbitrary changing of the rules from above) to college education decreases the demands on the prison system. I guess the problem is that making educated people takes time, and time lags allow for the folks allocating the tax dollars to get distracted by something shiny.

  8. #8 Jim Thomerson
    January 26, 2010

    At our university, if we did not meet enrollment projections, the state cut our funds. If we went over, no additional funds would be forthcoming. One year we overestimated badly (folks who could not figure out the size of the 18-year old cohort), and had to make savings here and there. One thing was not to replace tires on the university fleet. On one field trip, I blew out three tires and had to pay top dollar out in the boonies to get them replaced. So that economizing didn’t work out too well.

    The state later went to normative cost; figuring the average cost among all instate universities to produce an SCH if freshman biology, for example. For reasons I never understood, our department was way high and got badly hit. Later, when I became chair, our department was the most efficient biology department in the state, and the most efficient department in the university. I wrote and talked about that incessantly, and got us up to second most efficient department in the university.

  9. #9 Nick
    January 26, 2010

    I had always heard (citation needed) that the best value-for-the-dollar investment is in preschool and early childhood education and intervention. The lag time there is about two decades, so a nigh-uncountable succession of shiny objects (and term limits, and finite human lifespans) seem to always prevent those holding the purse-strings from making a serious, long-term commitment to it. #downsidestodemocracy

  10. #10 Namnezia
    January 27, 2010

    As near as I can determine, the enrollment caps are due to the fact that the State of California, being in a multi-billion dollar budget hole, cannot put up its share of the cost of educating a student in the Cal State University system for the same number of students it used to be able to underwrite

    I’m still confused. You are saying that it costs the university some amount of money to enroll a student in your class, and if the enrollment is above whatever their projected budget for your course is, then they have to come up with those funds from somewhere else. And that somewhere else is your own department’s budget. Right? But it makes no sense, once students are matriculated for the semester (and have paid their tuition and fees) what difference does it make in terms of which classes they actually enroll in? If the university budgets a certain amount per matriculated student per semester, why does it matter if he’s enrolled in one class or another?

    I would think that having more students enrolled in your classes is a good excuse to ask for more funds for the department.

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