Retrenchment, Day 5

It's day five of my retrenchment adventure. I wrote the bones of this post yesterday, but today I'm trying to revise it to tone down the anger a bit. I haven't decided to completely "let go" and ignore or validate by silence the stories that are beginning to circulate about the problems at BSU. But I'm trying not to make it personal.

Apparently there was an article in the local paper about a month ago, describing layoffs at BSU that were done in March. So far, there hasn't been any news about the fact that BSU is retrenching once again. One of the things people may wonder about it, when the news comes out, is why did this happen? How did we get
so deep in this financial hole? In the article, the administration acknowledged that they had discovered that the university's deficit, which had been estimated at $9 million, was actually $11 million. Somehow, the reporter on the story was misled into describing this realization as something of a "win" for management, which looked more thoroughly into BSU's finances and discovered the problem through a "deeper understanding of the budget". This is inaccurate and might even be described as a coverup. Everybody on campus knows the truth.

One of the problems has been decreasing enrollment, which was a problem before COVID pushed BSU off a cliff. The university did receive a bunch of one-time money during the COVID crisis. Apparently the administration spent a lot of that on stuff that wasn't one-time. Rumor has it that the headcount reporting up to Academic Affairs increased dramatically. That's kind-of a problem. BSU already had one of the lowest percentages in the MinnState system of spending on instruction, with just a bit over a third of our budget paying for faculty. This is typical for small institutions -- after all, your fixed costs for things like buildings are...fixed. The big variable cost is faculty, and it can expand and contract more easily with enrollment than some of the other lines.

The problem is, reducing faculty to align it with lower enrollment sort-of insures that the lower enrollment will be permanent. I was already wondering how the History program I was part of was going to deal with the roughly 90 to 100 students per semester that I teach, once I'm gone and there are just two people left who between them already teach about 140 to 150? And neither of the remaining people currently is prepared to teach East Asian History. Or SE Asia. Or Environmental. Or any of the non-western, post-colonial stuff like Latin America. This is not to say they couldn't gain that expertise and prepare themselves to teach these subjects. But due to tenure and academic freedom, they can't be forced or effectively pressured to do so.

And my situation isn't unusual. 27 faculty are being cut -- over 15%. The Sociology Department is losing two people who between them teach a couple of hundred students per semester. The two people left in the department are not going to be able to absorb those students. So there will be fewer seats in History and Sociology courses. There will also be fewer courses offered. By about 1/3 in the case of History; probably 1/2 for Soc. Especially upper-level electives, since the surveys that meet core requirement goal areas are typically the most heavily enrolled and in any case are necessary for the graduation core requirements. Are students going to come to BSU to major or minor in these subjects? I think not.

The overall message students are going to get, when they hear what is happening and see the course catalog for Fall 2024 is,
don't come to BSU to study History, Sociology, and probably several other majors and minors. It's going to be really crucial, I think, for the university to craft some type of message that addresses the issues honestly and constructively. Admitting that this is a big problem but suggesting that although it's painful, there's a plan and it's not fatal.

But is there a plan? I haven't seen one, and I was on the Strategic Enrollment Management Planning steering committee for a couple of years. And is there a marketing and communication department that can produce and deploy a complicated, nuanced message like that? Remember when I was feeling salty a couple of days ago and said there are a bunch of people remaining in the new president's cabinet who aren't qualified to run a department? The marketing department is the most egregious example I can think of.

I guess I need to get over the anger at some point and say to myself, it's no longer my problem. I'll work on this. It's a bit harder, I have to admit, when the administration and the union are saying things like, maybe the cuts won't be this deep. Maybe we'll be able to "claw back" some of these retrenched positions if some money falls in our laps or enrollment miraculously recovers in the next two semesters. I understand why the union wants to hold onto this hope. But I don't consider this type of talk from the administration an expression of good faith. If you keep doing exactly what you've been doing, you're likely to keep getting the same results. Oh well. It's not my problem. It's not my problem. It's not my problem.

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