Austerity Forever

My university is cutting its budget. This fall we didn’t meet enrollment goals (off by 344 students) and are consequently making reductions across departments. I’ve attended several meetings on campus to hear from administrators, and while the situation is far from dire, I learned a couple of weeks ago that the specific dollar amount reductions for the current fiscal year have been set.

As I tweeted about at the start of the semester, we knew this was coming, and nationwide we can expect this sort of thing to go on… forever? There continue to be stories about declining fertility rates in the U.S., and so long as university funding is contingent on enrollment (rather than supported by state funding), we can assume that we’re moving into a phase where we cut budgets every year.

Of course I’m concerned about these cuts. I’ve seen how budget shortfalls can destroy programs, burnout faculty, and force students to pay still more in tuition and fees. But I’ve also been thinking about how I’ve seen this sort of thing everywhere I’ve worked. Going back to Florida in 2008, when the housing market dropped and state support to higher education cratered, every institution for which I’ve worked has had to make substantial, painful cuts. We’ve cancelled subscriptions, slashed acquisitions budgets, frozen salaries, eliminated student hourly positions, lost vacant lines, and been told to “do more with less.”

My last university went so far as to provide buyouts for early retirements, then proceeded to eliminate vacancies and eventually laid people off. I was on the university’s budget board when those cuts happened, which was both educational and, frankly, demoralizing. I understood why things were happening and how we had gotten there, but also saw that there were no easy solutions. It was the origin of my interest in higher education funding models.

The funny (and by funny, I mean sad) part is that amidst those cuts, I launched a national job search in the spring of 2014 and endured a pretty rough rejection from a private liberal arts school. My thinking at the time was “I need to go work at a private school that doesn’t rely on state funding.” Earlier this year, however, I learned that, had I gotten that job, I would have been faced with a similar round of budget cuts and layoffs. Again, it would seem that there are no easy solutions.

I mention all of this because there are doomsday predictions being thrown around regarding the year 2025, and what it will mean for higher education funding. I’ve reviewed the numbers (I find the WICHE statistics to be very helpful) and agree with the conventional wisdom that, absent substantial state support, we’re moving into a wave of austerity, especially at regional institutions like mine. But honestly, it’s been austere for as long as I can remember? I’ve worked full time in academic libraries since the summer of 2006, and we’ve always talked about not having enough resources to do our work adequately. Perhaps there was some nebulous time a few decades ago when every academic library had a 40 person reference department that sat around having money fights all day(?), but it hasn’t been that case for a really, really long time.

Here’s a game I used to play when visiting other academic libraries: I would walk through their bound periodicals and see what year each run of a journal stopped. You could see the budget cut years play out in a visceral way, as an eighty year run of a journal came to an abrupt end in 2002. There were similar years at different libraries I visited, usually corresponding with recessions and declines in state support for higher education, and it was helpful to see that so many libraries had faced similar issues. Of course most academic libraries have dumped their print runs, or otherwise moved them offsite, so we can’t play this kind of game anymore. Still, it’s enough evidence for me to know that we’ve been cutting for a couple of decades.

What’s different now, though, is that there is a new generation of department heads and managers coming up for whom it’s always been a budget cut year. My colleagues and I, by and large, have never assumed that budgets would bounce back. We’ve always worked in libraries where we knew that we needed to repair the stapler’s spring, or clean the photocopier’s roller, or (re)tape the dictionary’s spine, because we couldn’t count on the money to buy replacements. We’ve spent time practicing our elevator pitch so we can talk about the good work happening in the library at a moment’s notice. We’ve spent a decade struggling to find ways to quantify things that are inherently not quantifiable so that we can send “the numbers” to the budget office when they start to make cuts, hoping that they would see our “value.”

The biggest lesson for me, and the one I’m most hopeful is shared by my colleagues in middle management, is that we need to take care of the people in our departments. I’m not saying that people and staplers are the same (really, I’m not), but the underlying sentiment is similar in that we have to be careful with our resources. If salaries will be frozen and positions will be eliminated, we need to reject the idea of “doing more with less.” We instead will, quite plainly, “do less.” And in the process of doing less, we must be thoughtful about where we will expend our limited resources. We can certainly take on new responsibilities, but we need to be careful about what we commit to doing, because each new initiative will mean ending an old one. Which is fine! It’s part of doing the work. But it’s something we have been hesitant to acknowledge for too long.

I’m fairly certain that in order to do this work well, managers need to create more space to be thoughtful (as recently noted by Lawrie Phipps), which is how I’ve been spending the last several months. As the head of a library instruction department, I’ve been soliciting feedback and establishing procedures that will reduce the number of one-shot instruction sessions we teach in a way that (fingers crossed) doesn’t completely frustrate the campus. It started a year ago with a few small changes here and there, and is now ramping up to include limits on when we teach in the semester and how many sessions we can lead in any given week. These changes are not monumental or particularly innovative, but I think this kind of work is what will allow us to be more thoughtful about what we do (and do not) want to be working on.

The drag for me is that this sentiment is very rarely shared by campus and library administrators. As I mentioned a few months ago, the impulse for the past two decades has been to build our way out of enrollment declines. New dorms, new recreation centers, and, yes, new libraries were seen as an effective way to encourage enrollment and move forward.

But as enrollments fall into a steeper decline, the thing that keeps me up at night is the thought that our administrators haven’t heard the news, and somehow think that the solutions of the past two decades will still apply now. So they’ll borrow private money against inflated enrollment projections in order to finance new construction, then repeat the rhetoric of “we’re all sharing the pain” as they layoff faculty and staff to payback their lenders. I’ve seen this movie before, and it sucks.

Where I find hope in all of this is knowing that there is a new wave of administrators coming. People who have spent the past decades not just “making tough decisions,” but rather the people who have seen in very stark terms the ramifications of those decisions. I don’t think we’ll necessarily make better choices when we’re faced with still new kinds of hardships, but I’m confident we won’t rely on rhetoric that calls for “innovative visionaries who can efficiently pivot resources to actualize student achievement in the 21st century.”

Instead, I think we’ll probably be a lot more careful. We won’t commit to things we can’t support, and we’ll know that budgeting decisions are indeed strategic decisions. We’ll know that every new thing we build this year is two things we won’t be able to repair next year, so make damn sure we really need to build this thing.

Goodness, I hope we’re more careful.

I should close by mentioning that this is the first thing I’ve posted in nearly two years. I moved into my new role 18 months ago, and I haven’t been sure how to write about it. That said, I have learned a lot about people, organizations, libraries, and priorities in this time, and I’m hopeful that sharing some of those lessons will help others. There’s a lot that I’m not comfortable writing about at this point, but I’m still going to try to write more.

Stay tuned.