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?

Fall day on the quad.
Some colleges are planning to do away with English.

Photo by Dan Whobrey/iStock/Thinkstock

Two universities, both alike in dignity and budget shortfalls,
In fair America where we lay our scene.
From not-so-ancient grudge against actually learning at college to new mutiny,
Where drastic cuts make administrators’ hands unclean
.

Rebecca Schuman Rebecca Schuman

Rebecca Schuman is an education columnist for Slate.

If you’re planning to attend either Minnesota State University Moorhead or the University of the District of Columbia, best get in your Romeo and Juliet now—and while you’re at it, you should probably learn the formulas for velocity and momentum, and study up on the Spanish-American War. Because soon, these regional public universities may have no departments of English, physics, or history—nor a host of other programs often associated with “college,” including political science (MSUM), philosophy (MSUM), computer science (MSUM), and even economics (UDC).

What is confounding about these universities’ plans to possibly obliterate nearly half of their departments is why both institutions, faced with budget crises, went straight for the academic jugular. And not just by cutting highfalutin artsy disciplines, but with an eye toward fields of study that are actually valued in today’s cruel and fickle market. Nobody seems to notice that the structure of today’s higher-ed “business” model is backward: It’s far easier to cut academics than it is to cut anything else, so that’s what universities are doing. The irony that the very raison d’être of a university—education!—is also its most disposable aspect seems lost on everyone (perhaps because nobody studies English, philosophy, or French anymore, so nobody recognizes irony or knows what a raison d’être is).

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UDC’s case is especially infuriating, given the trustees’ decision to gut departments in favor of a decidedly lackluster athletics program. However, MSUM’s situation is actually far more likely to be replicated around the country, and thus deserving of greater scrutiny. If MSUM could have made up the $5 million chasm in its budget by cutting its modest sports, it might well have gone the way of Texas’s Paul Quinn College, which turned its football field into an organic farm and now seems pretty pleased with the decision. But at MSUM, head coaches are paid about $70,000 a year and have teaching responsibilities; cutting athletics wouldn’t have come close to stanching MSUM’s gaping cash hole.

Faculty members at MSUM make up 72 of its 100 highest paid employees (filter by “Moorhead” for accurate results), so the elbow patches on their blazers make them an easy target indeed. The issue, however, is that they are all pesky tenured, full professors who can’t be fired—or so most people think. But in fact you can fire a tenured professor—it’s just not easy. It’s one of the many misconceptions about tenure that one has a job for life no matter what. Tenured professors can be dismissed for cause (sexual harassment, ethics violations, acting alarmingly toward students, or just talking too much). But it would cost MSUM more than the university’s budget shortfall in legal fees to try to dismiss four dozen faculty members with cause. Another way to let go of tenured professors is to disband their departments. So, yes, MSUM can make up its shortfall by canning a few dozen of its best-paid professors, via axing their whole departments—call the collateral damage “additional savings.”