A dreadfully familiar ring

US cuts and ‘impact’ demands recall the UK’s, says Felipe Fernández-Armesto

January 19, 2012

Schadenfreude, as Alexander McCall Smith observes in his latest novel, surprises us in spite of the frequency with which it obtrudes. But I should not be surprised if readers of this column feel it as they recall the unremitting (and, I fear, probably rather annoying) enthusiasm with which I recommend US universities as generally superior to those in Europe, now that the financial crisis, combined with the miserliness of state legislatures looking for budgetary savings, is making life almost as hard for some US academics as for their Old World counterparts.

The latest issue of the Bulletin of the American Association of University Professors is entirely consecrated to warnings about the damage these cuts are causing. Elizabeth Capaldi of Arizona State University exposes a dangerous paradox in the US funding system. Because state universities are free to raise money from the private sector, state legislators cut budgets in the comfortable but usually false assurance that the cash will emerge from the pockets of alumni or well-wishers. Sometimes the Scrooges are right: philanthropists heal the cuts, as in the case of the University of Arkansas, which, in a campaign happily timed just before the meltdown of 2008, raised an endowment bigger than most private universities enjoy. But the overwhelming majority of students depend on state funding to keep fees low. The overwhelming majority of professors depend on the same source to keep research buoyant and administration efficient. Arizona State has lost nearly 40 per cent of its funding and nearly 10 per cent of its permanent academic staff since 2008, while continuing to accept ever larger enrolments.

Gaye Tuchman of the University of Connecticut, also writing in the AAUP bulletin, rails against the way administrators at her institution disguise candle-burning at both ends as “academic planning”: the plan involves increased demands on fewer professors to do more teaching, gather more plaudits and publish more work, with less money.

Some highly ranked state universities, including the University of Washington, are contemplating privatisation. Huge increases in tuition fees mandated by state legislatures make the adventure seem practicable. Across the nation, tuition typically now accounts for more of the budget than state subsidies. Since the universities have to go begging in the private sector anyway, they might as well enjoy the benefits of autonomy. The states command a paymaster’s authority to call the tune. When they stop paying the piper, they imperil their right to tell academics what to do. Joel Norris of the University of California, San Diego points out to readers of the AAUP bulletin that the more research funding comes from the private sector, the more research targets the needs of particular donors and the economic sectors or industries they represent - and the less the common good is served. In the US, private funding is often linked to the scourge that UK funding councils ply on academics’ backs: the dreaded “impact”. The result, as Norris says, is that the best research suffers because “the success of truly innovative ideas may not be obvious ahead of time”.

From all corners of the country, anecdotes keep reaching me about the sacrifices professors make in response to states’ meanness. At Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, academics in the School of Arts and Sciences have had their phones cut off. If they want to make calls, they must bring their own mobile telephones to work and pay out of their own pockets to transact university business. When the University of Montana cut photocopying budgets, a history professor cut a deal with a local Mexican restaurant for $250 (£163) in funding: his students’ notes came complete with advertisements for “El Diablo Burritos”. The university’s administrators failed to see the joke. Arts and literature departments are undergoing abolition at a rate amounting to massacre. At California State University Fresno, the cuts go deeper still: last year the administration proposed dissolving the College of Science and Mathematics. No traditional course of education seems entirely safe from the doctrine that vocational training is better value than wisdom or scholarship or breadth of culture or enhancement of life.

Still, readers immune to Schadenfreude may be pleased to know that there is some promising news. A federal court has ruled that a scholar who claimed to be the victim of an attempt to silence academic free speech has the right to continue his unfair dismissal case against Louisiana State University. As recently mentioned in this column, Ivor van Heerden incurred his employers’ wrath by criticising a client of the university, the Army Corps of Engineers, claiming that the ACE had failed to properly engineer the levees in New Orleans and that this had aggravated the destruction Hurricane Katrina wrought in 2005. And many US universities, especially in the private sector, continue to exhibit the virtues that make them enviable in Europe, with good, prudent, academically ambitious management that increases resources and makes staff and students happy.

Despite the financial crisis, my own university has just completed a fundraising campaign that yielded $2.25 billion (£1.46 billion). Like several almost equally well-run institutions, we can go on expanding the faculty, building plant, funding research, broadening curriculum and subsidising deserving students. But for colleagues suffering in the public sector, only general economic recovery, and a change of heart in state capitols, can restore the closed programmes and reconnect the phones.

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