Minnesota State–Moorhead could cut 18 academic programs: Why do colleges cut academics first in a budget crunch?

Cut the University President’s Salary? Nix the Climbing Wall? Nah—Axe 18 Academic Departments Instead.

Cut the University President’s Salary? Nix the Climbing Wall? Nah—Axe 18 Academic Departments Instead.

Getting schooled.
Nov. 26 2013 5:26 PM

A Ghost Town With a Quad

Is that the future of the American university?

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The problem is that MSUM targeted its closures poorly. The vast majority of MSUM’s top-earning faculty members don’t work in the 18 departments on the chopping block. Of the 72 professorial Scrooge McDucks there (who rake in between $85,000 and $135,000 annually), only 18 actually work in departments with what MSUM (and George Orwell, probably) calls “reduction potential.” The faculty top five, in fact, all of whom earn over $110,000, teach business, accounting, or education, three programs that have not been threatened at all. The truth is that most of the threatened professors at MSUM earn in the mid-five figures.

But quibbling about which departments are being targeted misses the larger point: Why are academics bearing the entire weight of these cuts? A more reasonable approach to MSUM’s shortfall would have been broad cuts split evenly among faculty, staff, services, and administration, especially that last one. For surely there is chopping room in MSUM’s $69 million budget at the top: University President Edna Mora Szymanski makes just north of $230,000 a year, which in the Fargo hinterlands makes her a billionaire.

So why are these administrators not sharing the opposite-of-wealth? Simple: Faculty members have no say in which areas are zoned for what MSUM calls “reduction prioritization.” The years of faculty self-governance, that all-powerful faculty senate teeming with frothy-mouthed Trotskyites, are long past. Nowadays the power to declare large swaths of higher education unfit for human study rests solely with administrators, who are obviously not going to vote to demote or “reduce” themselves.


And they are also not going to reduce offices and amenities that boost enrollment. These days, no self-respecting undergraduate would think of matriculating somewhere without an indoor rock climbing wall, so MSUM has to have one of those. And without perky recruiters and extensive alumni outreach, matriculation and endowment will both crater even worse than they already have (declining enrollment is the source of the entire budget fracas in the first place). So, again, this would seem to reveal that amenities and administrators are indispensible, and thus the entire burden of the budget cuts rests squarely on the slouching, poorly clothed shoulders of the faculty, who are now to be foisted upon that dreaded “real world” they seem to hate so much.

And therein lies the rub. What is a university without departments? The MSUM and UDC decisions demonstrate something crucially important and monumentally depressing about the state of the American public university: It is an immaculately landscaped corporate park with its own apparel store, full of the sound of tuition money disappearing and the fury of a thousand feet on a rock wall, but signifying nothing.

MSUM and UDC’s new vision—whose implementation will be closely watched by hundreds of institutions with similar profiles—is not a university at all. It is a ghost town with quads and a gourmet cafeteria, one that consists of amenities, sports, and administrators—but no faculty. (If only MOOCs actually educated people, I guess this wouldn’t even be a problem.)

I get that university professors have a questionable (and wholly inaccurate) rap as slacker lotharios who use class time to yell about Vietnam, get drunk on Tuesday at 10 a.m., and can never be fired no matter how boring they are. But even if you think this is true, the idea of decimating entire academic departments is ridiculous, because universities need to teach things, or else they are strip malls.

If half of the departments at these schools are gutted and no students or parents vote with their feet, what’s to stop all departments from being gutted? Colleges and universities everywhere will learn that if you give an administration leave to cut a “useless” discipline (foreign languages, theater, art, film, music), then their main takeaway will be “Hey, we can cut a department!” and there go physics, computer science, political science, counseling, and paralegal. When any department can be cut, that means no department is safe—yes, even business. And you don’t need an MBA to realize that nobody should shell out 10 grand a year to enroll in fake-college just to go up a climbing wall. You can join a gym for that.