Budgets for higher education are shrinking in many places. What kinds of cuts draw blood, and which ones have histrionic value?
Many people have noted with dismay the decision by the State University of New York at Albany—or as it prefers to be known, the University at Albany—to respond to reductions in support from the state of New York by eliminating instruction in several areas of the humanities: French, Russian, Italian, theater, and classics. In the article about this plan in Inside Higher Ed, the comments reflect a number of positions, from resistance to resignation. I was struck by one comment in particular, from someone who claims to be a member of the Albany faculty:
We all agree that cutting (for example) three language departments is a slap in the face at the University’s professed motto, that the absence of significant foreign language presence in our curriculum is inappropriate, that faculty in all of the departments confronting closure have made significant contributions to the University. What we are communicating to the outside world is that our financial pain has become so severe that we are having to cut out vital parts of the University in order to survive. It is akin to the young mountain climber in the Rockies who had to cut off his arm in order to survive. Did he not value his arm?
Part of the justification, repeated several times in Inside Higher Ed and elsewhere, is that the university feels it is making a dramatic gesture of self-mutilation to dramatize its condition to the legislature, the governor, and the public. As the announcement by President George Philip puts it, "this action does not reflect the quality of the faculty appointed to these program areas, or the value of these subjects to the liberal arts."
Politicians and the general public do not necessarily draw the lessons that we scholars might think we're communicating. What if the University at Albany has unwittingly made a demonstration of its values--what it's willing to fight for, and what not? What if the cuts are taken not as a tragic choice but as a statement about priorities? In that case, the dial has been reset, probably for good, and the University at Albany has not made a tough decision but changed its nature; it will never again see a reinvestment in these disciplines. In a word, it's no longer a research university.
Now imagine a different unfolding: faced with an impossible budget and determined to make a gesture that would get the attention of its various stakeholders, the University at Albany eliminates intercollegiate athletics. What would be the reaction in Albany and New York? What would this decision say about the value of a liberal arts education? (Imagine the president's statement: "this action does not reflect the value of football to the university.") Poking around on the web, I seem to find that while the cuts in question will account for about $12 million, the budget for the Albany athletic department was $13 million in 2009, before a reduction of 10%.
Which choice would make the financial crisis vivid to legislators, the press, and the public?