Adventures in Ethics and Science

I think I’ve mentioned once or twice that the California State University system (of which my fair campus is a part) has been experiencing a bit of a budget crisis.

Well, while there may be glimmers of hope for a recovery in the rest of the economy, we seem to be on the cusp of things getting much, much worse.


In the coming academic year, we won’t be using furloughs to try to save money. Instead, beyond employing laying of lots of lecturers (who, because they are classified as “temporary” employees, despite the fact that many of them have taught here for decades, aren’t counted as being laid off, there will be a bunch of layoffs that the university actually acknowledges as lay-offs:

San José State is midway through a two-year effort to shrink its base budget to $263 million. To make permanent an $18 million reduction achieved this year through furlough savings, SJSU will lay off approximately 76 staff members and reassign 48 more in accordance with labor agreements effective July 1, 2010. SJSU will also eliminate 49 vacant staff and 7 vacant management positions, transfer 21 positions to non-state funded sources and cut operational expenses.

Plus, there is the ongoing reduction in enrollment, since it costs money to educate a student, and the state budget is now providing the state’s share of the funding for fewer students. From the same press release:

“Employees directly affected by these changes form the backbone of our university,” President Whitmore said. “They ensure our offices run smoothly, and our faculty and students receive the services they need. Enrollment cuts over the past two years will ease the pressure, but not enough to leave our remaining students untouched by today’s announcement.”

SJSU reduced enrollment from approximately 32,750 headcount at the start of 2008-2009 to 27,400 headcount by the end of 2009-2010. Before the changes announced today, SJSU employed approximately 1,816 faculty members, 1,184 staff members and 186 managers, for a grand total of 3,186 employees.

How exactly will the students be touched by the layoffs? I ran into a colleague from a science department here who told me that in the coming year they must slash their course offerings in half. Especially impacted are courses that are required for that department’s major programs.

I’m guessing that is not going to help us meet our campus goal of getting more of the students who are already here graduated in a timely manner.

Other departments and colleges are responding to the shortage of teaching personnel by declaring their programs “impacted” — which means that they can set a minimum GPA that one must attain in order to be a major. Given that this is happening in at least one field that historically draws a huge number of intended majors, this could shake up the plans of our student body pretty significantly.

Then there are the proposed changes I’m hearing about through unofficial channels (presumably because they haven’t been finalized yet).

There’s talk of making students declare a major within a semester of matriculation, and then pretty much locking them into that major until they’ve graduated — unless they can manage to change majors without exceeding the minimum number of course credits needed to earn a degree. (I have no idea how that’s supposed to work out for people who declare impacted majors but don’t clear the bar for those major programs.) Double-majoring, of course, will be right out.

There are also movements toward consolidating existing departments and programs — perhaps because this kind of “reorganization of units” opens the door, within the terms of our contracts, to reassign or dismiss even those with tenure.

The colleague who told me about the slashed course offerings in her department opined that at this point, it might make more sense to actually shutter a few of the 23 campuses in the CSU system rather than having all of them open for business but operating in such a way that our students can only get three quarters of the way to their degree before the time and money they’ve spent here reach the level where they decide it’s smarter to leave. How to choose which campuses to close down, though, seems like a brutally hard problem.

And even then, I’m not sure that the resources freed up by operating fewer campuses would be enough that the remaining campuses could serve the student population that needs to be served. The students from those closed campuses would have to end up somewhere, right?

Of course, for as clearly as I can see the downsides to various actual or hypothetical policy changes proposed to get us through the ginormous budget shortfall, it’s not like I have a good idea of how to fix a mess this big. The best I can do is try to ride it out and minimize the impact on my piece of our educational mission.

Comments

  1. #1 Kriss
    April 20, 2010

    I’m sorry to hear that, and I hope your job isn’t under threat.

    Things are similarly difficult for many UK universities. My own uni is fine for the next year or two but Leeds, which is close by, will probably close at least one department and all the others – admin and services included – are having to make 10% cuts. It’s hard to see how you can do that yet maintain a quality of service.

  2. #2 A
    April 20, 2010

    “SJSU reduced enrollment from approximately 32,750 headcount at the start of 2008-2009 to 27,400 headcount by the end of 2009-2010.” [sarcasm] That makes perfect economic sense, insofar as with the economic crisis, the students not at SJSU are probably unemployed. [/sarcasm] Would it not be rational to encourage people to go to school during times of high unemployment?
    The effect of too little federal stimulus money is here visibly being negated by the “50 little Hoovers” effect [Paul Krugman], by which the states, bound to not run deficits, slash jobs and funding left and right. And by doing this make the crisis worse.
    Good luck!

  3. #3 Dan Hicks
    April 20, 2010

    A @ #2 —

    California’s problem (unlike other states) isn’t due to any sort of law on the books requiring balanced budgets. Instead, it’s a perfect storm of (a) the sudden evaporation of a significant chunk of the state’s on-paper wealth (California had two of the most overinflated housing bubbles), with all its economic implications, (b) a proposition system, and some of the propositions which has passed, which among other things makes any attempt to raise government revenues (including both taxes and bonds) extremely difficult, (c) a profoundly disconnected and dysfunctional state government, who are quite content to squabble over political turf while the state collapses around them, and (d) complete and apparently irreconcilable disagreement among the populace as to what should be cut to keep deficits within any reasonable limits. California was paying for a robust system of public services off of an inflating bubble, and now that the bubble has popped, no two people can agree what to do to keep the state’s credit rating from crashing.

  4. #4 Lorax
    April 20, 2010

    Closing branches may be the best way to ensure students are getting their needs fulfilled (although it destroys an entire employee population). The argument against is that those students will go elsewhere (yes they will). So what? The state is planning to reduce enrollment overall anyway. It seems the option lie between making all the schools subpar (which may also cause a great many students to go elsewhere), or gutting a few and keeping the remaining schools as strong as possible.

    I would add that closing a branch saves tons of money because the administration staff is completely gone (sucks for them obviously), the cost of maintaining buildings and infrastructure is reduced to near zero, etc. These costs are not trivial and may allow fewer (or no) cuts to have to be made at the remaining schools.

  5. #5 Alex
    April 21, 2010

    As brutal as it is, I think there’s something to be said for closing campuses, because it saves on fixed costs.

    While the people in the administration building are hardly all as crucial as they claim to be, some of them are going to be there as long as the campus is open at all. Even if you get rid of all the fat, all the Associate Vice Deputy Provost For Academic Assessment Program Evaluation types, here will be IT people, payroll people, accountants, people making copies, some campus police, a few nurses and a doctor in Student Health, etc. You can’t get rid of all of those salaries and still have the campus open. And even if you close programs and pare back classes, most of the remaining faculty are going to be tenure-track (expensive) rather than lecturers (less expensive).

    So if you cut large amounts of money from a campus, but keep it open, much of the money you cut will be instructional rather than non-instructional.

    But if you close a campus, you cut a lot of non-instructional money. You actually cancel fewer classes per dollar saved. And, you get to cut all of the most expensive people on campus when you close the campus and the administration building. Instead of making the cuts by firing some secretaries and lecturers and perhaps assistant professors, you’re firing far more expensive people. Fewer people hurt per dollar saved. Firing a handful of administrators saves as much money as firing a whole bunch of part-time lecturers.

    This is all very brutal, but if you have to cut a large amount of money, and there’s an option that means fewer classes cut, and fewer unemployed people per dollar saved, then do it. Closing an entire campus means that the high-paid and low-paid people all go. That saves more money than firing the same number of low-paid people from a bunch of different campuses.

  6. #6 Karen
    April 21, 2010

    View from the eye level of an SJSU grad student: it sucks. I just heard that we’ll lose our department Office Coordinator — not just the person, the position, and will have some unspecified “assistance” in getting some of her work done. This is the woman who holds the department together! She’s the administrative assistant, fields all the student registration issues, sorts out the ambiguous and contradicting university requirements on no end of topics, and generally keeps things running smoothly. The department will falter without her. And she’s the quite arguably the person we can most afford to lose. Also, word is that we got off lightly!

  7. #7 Lyle
    April 21, 2010

    Looking from afar, the first thing to cut all be it its in the UC system is UC Merced as its not really totally up and running. Secondly in both systems decide how many programs are needed of a given major and cut so that only that many exist. For example why ag programs at both UC Davis and Cal State Fresno (In particular wine studies). Another is to cut PHD programs harder as they are just producing into a glut at the output end.

  8. #8 Rob Knop
    April 21, 2010

    What a nightmare.

    I’ve seen various campuses with administrative bean counters wanting teachers to be efficient, and as such cancelling classes that have below a minimum number of students. At many schools, this makes it all but impossible to teach upper level Physics classes, even if you do it every other year (so that every junior and senior physics major is in every class)… never mind any electives at all. Which, in turn, makes it impossible to major in physics, unless physics faculty teach classes unofficially as an overload so that the students will learn what they need to learn.

    Colleges that do this should admit that you can’t major in (say) Physics.

    What a mess.

  9. #9 Eric Lund
    April 21, 2010

    It sounds like a real mess out there. I’m sure there are some steps that can be taken (e.g., does CSU need campuses in both Northridge and Fullerton?), but cuts at that level are not easy.

    Lyle: As I understand it, UC and CSU are completely independent systems. Sacrificing Merced might help the UC system but does nothing for the CSU system. Also, California is a big state with lots of agricultural interests–maybe having wine studies in both Davis and Fresno is excessive, but having ag programs at both campuses (which are not all that close together, even if they are both in the Central Valley) makes sense to me. Also, since they are two parallel systems, it makes sense to have one in each system–having an ag program in Merced as well as Davis probably would be unnecessary duplication (Merced is between Fresno and Davis).

    Rob: I hear from contacts in California that at some CSU campuses it can be difficult to take the introductory E&M course in a timely manner thanks to enrollment caps. (This is a problem for engineering as well as physics majors.) So not only do they have to offer upper division courses alternate years to have any chance of getting enough bodies, it’s getting harder for them to get enough bodies who have taken the prerequisites for the upper division courses. The only solution to that problem involves diverting the faculty who would have taught those upper division courses to extra sections of the introductory sequence–leaving you without the manpower to offer the major courses.

  10. #10 BikeMonkey
    April 21, 2010

    Some UC chairs called for UC campus closures in their furlough/budget freakout too. Do it to Julia!! Not me, Julia!

    This mememmemememmeeememeeee! crap gets old. Shared pain is equitable. Take it outta the other guy’s hide is a craven position.

  11. #11 Alex
    April 21, 2010

    This mememmemememmeeememeeee! crap gets old. Shared pain is equitable. Take it outta the other guy’s hide is a craven position.

    Sharing the pain among campuses may actually hurt more students, and result in more individuals being laid off, than just closing 1 campus. Consider two scenarios:

    1) X number of dollars is saved by laying off staff at lots of campuses. Given the way things are most likely to work, most of the laid-off employees are either part-time or untenured instructors or support staff, i.e. less expensive employees.

    2) The same amount of money is saved by closing a campus. Cheap employees are laid off, but so are expensive employees.

    Scenario 2 actually means fewer people losing jobs, because many of those who do lose their jobs are in the more expensive categories. So fewer families are left struggling. Fewer classes are canceled. More students get classes. And with more support staff still working at the campuses that remain open, the students who do get classes are probably in a better system, where lab equipment is maintained, the library is open sufficient hours for studying, the registration bureaucracy works (or at least fails slightly less), the financial aid office is able to sort stuff out, computer labs are open and working when a professor wants to hold a class there, etc.

    If equity means more families without paychecks, more students without classes, and more students getting classes in a dysfunctional system, screw equity.

    As to who should go? Well, I wouldn’t close a geographically remote campus, because the CSU serves a lot of commuters. Places like Fresno and San Luis Obispo are then safe. But the LA and Bay Areas both have several campuses in reasonable driving distance from each other. Close one in each area (yes, that puts me in danger, and also Janet). Let students transfer. (This is why geography should be a factor.) It may even be that the savings from closing a campus in each area are big enough for some of the remaining campuses to employ at least some of the faculty and support staff who lost jobs at the closed campus, in order to serve the transfers.

    As brutal as it sounds, this is better than having all of the campuses running but serving fewer students (and serving them less effectively) with the same (or nearly the same) overhead.

  12. #12 Ewan
    April 21, 2010

    Greetings from the approximately-equally-beleaguered SUNY system :-).

    Right now *this* year is bad; next year by all current accounts will be worse. I had a meeting with the president and provost this afternoon where in response to the question “And beyond that?” the pres noted that any further cuts, he was quitting and “mailing back the keys.”

    We have 64 campuses. At least one for each of the 62 NY senate districts, apparently. Yes, we should close some, plural. That may be politically impossible, which is bad for the reasons noted above. What is likely the second-best possible outcome and the best outcome possible is that some programs get cut in toto – so that maybe at Albany we keep Neuroscience but not Scandinavian Studies*, whereas at Stony Brook they shutter the neuro labs and start recruiting Danish speakers.

    Cutting equally is (i) impossible – in cost terms? In impact terms? How are you measuring that?? – and (ii) a bad idea long-term: IMNSHO (and thankfully apparently also that of our upper management) a uniform mediocrity will simply ensure that we fade into oblivion. So there have to be choices made about which programs/departments to eliminate, not just to *meet* the current budget but to exceed the need and hence be able to reinforce and strengthen those chosen to be retained and identified as strengths.

    For instance: even with recent increases, I’m trying to recruit top-level grad students with a max stipend offered by the University of $14k. Sure, I can – and do! – supplement; but I started grad school in ’94 on $18k, and competing schools are now routinely offering significantly >$20k. Makes getting excellent students very hard. So I am arguing hard for money to improve that. This is unlikely to be seen in a good light by J.Q.Seniorprof who I am trying to axe. But it’s vital; otherwise we have no future.

    The very, very rigid union/academic tenure rules we have in place also do not help, frankly; but I’m not going to discuss details and specifics in public :). And I should probably stop anyway, this comment is long enough. But it’s a situation I’m right in the middle of; I worry every day about what it means for my own tenure chances – one option which would meet the needed budget constraints is to can all faculty with non-permanent appointments. I *think* that’s sufficiently self-evidently stupid that it won’t happen, and I’m assured that’s the case, and I bring in more in overhead than it costs to keep me… but it’s still a source of stress :).

    [*Semi-mythical example department with 16 faculty, all tenured since 1973, and 4 undergrad majors. Our student:faculty ratio at U.Albany is well over 20 and rising.]

  13. #13 Pat Cahalan
    April 22, 2010

    Go Spartans.

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