Working together to keep SLU honest, open, and ours

On “Subsidizing” Academic Units

Note: The following post contains excerpts from the presentation by Penny Weiss (professor of Women’s and Gender Studies) at the September 18, 2019 Saving SLU Teach-In.

President Pestello, in his August remarks to the faculty Senate, stated that one of our top priorities at SLU is “ensuring a positive net return after overhead from each Academic Unit. In other words,” he continued, “no unit should be subsidized by the other units.” What does he mean by this? Is being subsidized so inherently problematic? Why is this such a top priority?

Being subsidized sounds like charity, sounds undesirable. “You can’t make it on your own, you can’t play the profitability game successfully. There still might be some reason for subsidizing you, like we need your unit for electives, or because we risk our Jesuit identity if you disappear or diminish.” But who is actually subsidizing whom, in what ways?

We subsidize one another all the time in life, in multiple directions. Non-smokers subsidize smokers, workers subsidize retirees, taxpayers subsidize corporations, and small families subsidize larger families. We might be the “subsidizer” in one of those relationships, and the “subsidizee” in another. That’s how a community works. In innumerable ways, we all take and we all give.

In a university, we all economically subsidize libraries, but libraries subsidize, or contribute to, the work of every other academic unit. Libraries take, and they give. Are we going to do without libraries, whose budgets have already been slashed? We easily grasp that units that teach larger classes subsidize those with smaller average class size, but going the other way, teachers of small classes subsidize, or enable, those of larger classes by directing and grading multiple long writing assignments which are not feasible in large classes. Departments with smaller average class sizes take, and they give. We need to see that.

And there are even less visible forms of subsidizing, which, again, means contributing to. Academic units who spend the time investing in and sustaining our Black, Latinx, queer, and other marginalized students contribute to and thus subsidize both student services and units who do not do the work to ensure the success of those students. But student services also make it possible for our students to come to class ready to learn and provide much of their out-of-classroom education. They take, and they give.

And these relationships change over time. Even from a strictly monetary perspective, liberal arts programs historically supported other higher-cost programs, but that relationship may now be changing, as it did recently with the School of Law. That’s part of a normal and never-ending evolution, not a crisis that necessarily demands restructuring the university.

Here’s my point. Being part of a community assumes that the relations among the parts are not static, one-dimensional, and uni-directional, but, instead, are complex and always evolving. We all both give and get in many ways. But now, I fear, through the process of Portfolio Review as well as through ongoing cuts to academic programs, we’re being asked to characterize academic entities differently—as opposing and as contributing in only one way, namely, monetarily. I worry that this is not healthy for the whole we’re supposedly interested in maintaining, which is more than an economic unit, and whose parts do not just oppose but actually also support one another.

In a process like Portfolio Review, there’s a great risk that too much of the evaluation of every program relies on narrow economic costs alone, and not enough on understanding the web of connections between units and the variety of contributions each makes. There is, in the literature on Portfolio Review, even a certain hostility to departments, and a desire, instead, for centralized control. This is highly undesirable. Departments are homes to academic excellence and academic freedom. Eliminating some programs and combining others in a top-down process that prioritizes economics is no small or insignificant thing. We should be on our guard.

Portfolio Review clearly began in the for-profit business world, and is being lightly adapted or “customized,” as the websites say, for universities. Once again, the idea that a university should be “run like a business” goes mostly uncontested by administrators, despite the fact that the two differ dramatically—and should differ dramatically. We should resist the aggressive encroachment of the flattening language of the marketplace into the university. Not everything should be a business. Prisons should not be businesses. Education should not be a business. In fact, even businesses should be socially responsible and not just profit-driven, adding value not just to their shareholders but to their workers, customers, and communities. SLU can be fiscally responsible, and fiscally ethical, without buying the rest of the claptrap and hooey about units being “revenue drivers” and so on.

Does it even make sense for “institutions [to] think of academic programs as a portfolio of offerings,” as the websites suggest? Are majors best thought of as commodities—merely products that a university offers—products that we are urged to see as in competition with other products, even at the same institution, and that should be evaluated on the basis of the relative profitability of their offerings? Is this the most insightful, productive way to understand the academic enterprise? What might be getting lost?

  • We run the risk of diminishing and de-incentivizing, if not ultimately demolishing, the cooperative and collaborative relations between academic units, who are now to be viewed as competitors in search of the same resources—such as students. This will play out at the level of schools and even departments.
  • We run the risk of turning searches for the best candidates for academic positions into searches for the cheapest faculty, in order to maintain the bottom line, meaning a potential rise in non-tenure-track and adjunct faculty.
  • We run the risk of having qualitative and distinguishing features of diverse programs all reduced to whatever hastily gathered quantitative scores are available at the moment. The largest study on portfolio review I could find states that “most institutions lack comparable data on the performance of individual academic programs” and that the data that does exist is “riddled with inaccuracies.” They said, “Existing data is typically incomplete, incorrect, dispersed, and in conflict.” Are we really going to recommend cuts, consolidations, and reallocations in a hasty procedure, based on questionable measures, with the final decision-making power in the hands of an Interim Provost with limited knowledge of our university?
  • In moving now to judge all our units on the same grounds, by the same metrics, we run the risk of erasing the fact that the university has not “invested” evenly in all units up until now, that all have not been given the same resources to thrive, and yet all will be measured by the same yardstick of how profitable they are at this moment or will be in the immediate future.
  • We run the risk of having the university’s offerings—its heart—decided upon by the supposed market demands of what 17-year-olds think they want to major in, and only those 17-year-olds to whom our recruiters have unevenly reached out. We have not been selling all our departments equally to a truly diverse body of potential students by, for example, overselling STEM and under-recruiting among Latinx high-schoolers.

We’ve been enduring cuts to academic programs for years now. The effects on faculty and students alike have been severe, ranging from increased teaching loads to decreased course offerings. We need answers to a range of questions, from whether there is a real need for such dramatic cuts, to why they’ve been carried out in such a haphazard manner, to whether we’re fully grasping the multiple roles each part plays in the whole and contributes to, and positively subsidizes , other parts of the whole each wishes to enhance.

Faculty understand the need to perform well. We strive as individuals and as members of the SLU intellectual community to excel every day in the classroom, the lab, and the clinic. We strive to give our students a truly excellent education as we contribute to intellectual conversations in every discipline and make practical improvements in our world. Let us hear that acknowledged. Let us build on that. Let us see the administration act as a collaborative and plural entity that learns from—and respects—the faculty, rather than dictating to us and demeaning our work and worsening our working conditions.

Our faculty are our resources. Our staff are our resources. Our students are our resources. Our academic programs are our resources. They’re not merely costs. We should be asking how to maximize the positive, enhancing relations between them. We should be asking what each of these needs in order to flourish.

Sources consulted for this talk include the following:

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