Budgets Are Politics by Other Means

 

The day/after my previous blog was posted, UIUC President Timony Killeen sent out an email blast to university employees informing them that the university has “no budget” and that they could expect severe (necessary) cuts and changes in the coming academic year.

In The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein posits that crises — both natural and financial — are used by government and corporate officials to re-engineer the operations they oversee to advance free market ideologies and practices (i.e. inflationary profits). Those who pay the price are laborers and customers; those who benefit are officials, financial CEOs, and their compatriots:

“The theory of economic shock therapy relies in part on the role of expectations on feeding an inflationary process. Reining in inflation requires not only changing monetary policy but also changing the behavior of consumers, employers and workers. The role of a sudden, jarring policy shift is that it quickly alters expectations, signaling to the public that the rules of the game have changed dramatically – prices will not keep rising, nor will wages.”

Faculty, Staff, Student Debt: Bring Your Own…

In the context of university funding, it is faculty, staff, and students who bear the burdens of debt.

Since I graduated high school in 1980, I have been an undergraduate student (1980-1991), a graduate student (1992-2000), and a faculty member (2000-present), all in the state of California. I was an undergraduate student on a part-time basis at a community college and a private liberal arts college (1980-86) before earning my B.A. degree from a public institution in 1991 (in southern California). I did my doctoral studies at a public insitution (in northern California). All the way through, I had to work part to full time to afford rent and basic living expenses. On my salaries and fellowships I could never afford to pay for what was expected of me in relation to my professionalization — attending and presenting at conferences, conducting archival and field research, buying books and software and updating my computer. Those things I did on student loans, loans which I will carry “to the grave.”

Since earning my Ph.D. in 2000, I have been appointed as a full-time lecturer (2000-01 at a CSU campus), an assistant professor (2001-03 at a UC campus), and am now a professor (2003-present at a CSU campus).

At no point in time, at no institution, did the state government or campus administration not claim that there was an economic crisis of funding. Repeatedly the crisis was/is used to justify student tuition hikes, hiring freezes or erasures of faculty lines, cuts to student or faculty support, program dissolutions, and/or campus-wide reorganizations. Sometimes all at once.

In the few moments I have seen of alleged financial ‘recovery’ (early to mid 2000s), I have seen the money ‘return’ from the state to the university administration — not to the classroom, not to labor, not to students. To the administration. Especially ironic given the ever escalating expectations of faculty to serve on committees and task forces that essentially run the university.

As the California Faculty Association has shown time and again, these budget ‘returns’ never make up for previous cuts. They almost always normalize new baseline lows of financial support and instructional operation for the university system as a whole and at individual campuses. All the while they increase classroom size — demanding greater faculty workload and providing compromised learning environments — while decreasing faculty research and instructional support. (Keep in mind that that research is important not merely for publication but for teaching.)

Some examples:

  • I use to receive funds for instructional materials (books, media, the like) and participation in professional associations (travel, membership dues, conference registration).
  • My normal class size used to be 35 students, now it is 49-120 (without paid assistance)
  • If I were a lecturer in the CSU, I would be expected to teach five courses a term to be considered full time (that’s 245 students a term). I’d have to teach full time for 6 years to earn ‘tenure.’
  • In 14 years at SFSU, my total raises outside of promotion have not exceeded about ten percent (meaning, they have not kept pace with inflation and I live in the SF Bay Area so you do the math — in relation to cost of living I probably earn less now than I did in 2003. I certainly pay a greater percentage of my salary to rent than I ever have and I cannot afford to buy — back to the student loan thang).

Public Funding: Education For Whom?

State and federal officials have systematically underfunded, devalued, and minimized public higher education.

From California’s “master plan” commitment to fund public higher education in 1960, to the systematic defunding of the CSU and UC system ever since, to the rise of for-profit rationales, public higher education has become virtually unaffordable for both labor and student.

Faculty, staff, and students are forced into near-constant organizing efforts to defend and advance their jobs, their benefits/supports, their curriculum/programs, and their lives. (See here and here for more information.) Not only are work loads irrational, but we are forced into fighting to protect those workloads in a near-constant state of financial duress.

And then there is the all-the-way-through-it devaluing of critical ethnic and indigenous studies, disability studies, and gender/sexuality/feminist studies. Whenever administrators imagine financial cost cutting or restructuring, it seems to come at our expense. Just watch a few of the testimonials from the SFSU community to get a sense of how that devaluation works in the lives of our students.

Transparency

In two moments of recent SFSU history, university administrators have claimed financial dire straights to propose drastic restructuring of programs at the department and college level.

In 2011, when the university proposed and then carried out a complete overall of college organization that resulted in college and department mergers, staff reassignments and early retirements, and increased faculty course loads. As reported in the SFSU student paper, the Golden Gate Express, the California Faculty Association appointed a professor of accounting to analyze the university’s reorganization plan and budget:

Howard Bunsis, a professor of accounting at Eastern Michigan University who has done similar analyses at CSUs Humboldt and Dominguez Hills, was appointed by the California Faculty Association SFSU chapter to evaluate campus spending. He detailed his findings that state there is no reason for cuts to faculty and students but rather costs of the administration. “The idea that SFSU is broke is absurd. It’s an absurd notion,” Bunis said. “As we’re going to show you, the only thing that’s broke are the priorities of the administration.” According to Bunsis, SF State currently has $78 million in restricted reserve funds and $20 million in unrestricted reserves. Cuts should be made in a particular order, but should begin with assessing reserves, he said… “Reserves should be used for short-term unexpected declines in revenue or short-term unexpected expenses,” he said. “That’s what they’re there for.” The University accounting office, Bunsis said, has documents detailing budgetary issues, but is not allowing those affected by them to see them. “They exist and they have them, they’re just not showing them to us,” he said. “It’s immoral to do so.” With the average cost per member at $230,000, he said, the administration is the largest academic unit with 214 employees. Bunsis noted that with a 20 percent reduction in administration positions, the University would save $5 million.

Despite criticisms of the proposal, SFSU administrators proceeded on course.

In 2016, when the university proposed to gut the College of Ethnic Studies, Howard Bunsis again reviewed and reported that there was no crisis justifying the proposed cuts. As covered in the SFSU student paper, the Golden Gate Expressand the California Faculty Association:

Bunsis announced that SF State was not operating at a structural deficit like administration officials previously claimed, and that money should not be cut from any of the colleges.  “The idea of a college owing money or having a deficit is completely made up,” Bunsis said. “There’s no empirical evidence for it. Show me where the revenues are and where the expenses are and where is that structural deficit.”…During his analysis, Bunsis emphasized that SF State and the CSU are doing well financially. “SF State is in solid financial condition; they have sufficient reserves,” Bunsis said. “This institution does not have a financial crisis.” Bunsis brought up SF State’s assets, operating cash flow, enrollment rates and tuition costs, all of which were at adequate levels compared to the rest of the CSU system. Bunsis repeatedly put SF State in the middle in regards to its financial ranking. Attending the meeting were students and faculty from Defend and Advance Ethnic Studies, who were frustrated with administration’s lack of transparency concerning the 2016-17 budget and the financial issues surrounding the College of Ethnic Studies.

Only after a well-publicized student hunger strike and series of actions on campus did the SFSU administration back-track and restore some funding to the College.

But the SFSU budget remains a mystery — it is near impossible, even for the faculty union or mid-level management — to secure accurate information or details. This seems inherently problematic when it is the budget that is being used to justify the proposed cuts.

Austerity Capitalism

Returning to Naomi Klein, it is difficult not to be cynical or pessimistic when university officials claim that there is “no budget” when proposing or enacting dire cuts to programs that have such profound impact on particularly racialized, gendered, classed communities of faculty, staff, and students.

Budgets are politics by other means.

So if Klein is right we have to begin with the premise that the financial crisis is produced not organic. That serious choices are being made that do not only trickle down but flood. And that those who are barely or un- able to float are, well, not going to be mourned when they drown. For faculty, they’ll turn to temporary laborers within minimal contractual protections and no benefits; for students, they’ll raise tuition and increase international admissions.

Public higher education institutions like the CSU and UIUC have been (re)defined by free market ideologies and capitalist dreams. Maybe it is the communities and scholars who are working to change that as a given who are being thrown out of the boat first? Maybe the histories and cultures that challenge those goals as evolutionary wisdom are the ones being held under water?

2 responses to “Budgets Are Politics by Other Means

  1. Reblogged this on museum42 and commented:
    Public higher education institutions like the CSU and UIUC have been (re)defined by free market ideologies and capitalist dreams. Maybe it is the communities and scholars who are working to change that as a given who are being thrown out of the boat first? Maybe the histories and cultures that challenge those goals as evolutionary wisdom are the ones being held under water?

    Like

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