How Not to Restructure a University in a Budget Crisis

It’s not news that university funding is stretched thinner than paper, but the University of Guelph is tackling their budget shortfall in a troubling way: every department and division, both academic and non-academic, has to submit a report to a task force describing what exactly their department does, and why they are essential to the university. If a department can’t prove it is essential, it will face severe funding cuts or elimination.

At first glance, this might not seem like a bad idea: it puts everything on the table at once so all the chaff can be picked out, leaving a lean mean university machine behind, right? And especially given that funding is so chronically strained, with tuition rates capped and provincial funding at best flat, what choice does the university have but to make drastic cuts?

It’s a snappily described plan for a very complicated problem, and I think it’s fundamentally at odds with how a university works. For one, comparing academic and non-academic departments on the same metric doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. Something like physical resources (ie, the people who keep the lights on in the buildings) needs to be considered differently than the English department. The gamut of non-academic department all bring very different things to the table, while the academic departments are all in the similar business of educating students. What constitutes “essential” in the English department is going to be very different than what constitutes “essential” in physical resources, and I think comparing the two doesn’t do justice to the work that either department does. Judging one by the other, or both by some sort of mishmash criteria, won’t give an accurate assessment of either’s contribution to the university, which severely hampers the task force’s ability to make good decisions about what to chop and what to keep.

Small programs will probably bear the brunt of this round of cuts, because in absolute numbers they affect relatively few students. But small programs often have a vastly disproportionate effect and importance to the people who are involved in them. My academic program (physics) was moderately sized at my university, so I can’t speak as directly to this as some can, but during my undergrad I sang in a choir. Choir was run by an incredibly talented choir director, and while there were very few resources that went into that choir (music was not a big thing at my undergrad school, let alone extra-curricular choral singing), the choir had an enormously positive impact on my time in undergrad. I made wonderful and fast friends and found a wholly intangible but powerful camaraderie that I struggle to articulate but credit with helping keep my head level throughout my physics degree. I can’t put a dollar figure on what I got out of choir, but it was one of the most important facets of my time in undergrad, and I’d be very sad to see it chopped. Unfortunately, programs like my beloved choir are much more likely to get cut under this sort of arbitrary rubric than, say, the sociology department, even though the savings are meager at best. How many committees would look at a choir and see an essential part of a university with a tiny music program?

What’s likely to come of this is that universities, which often have unofficial focuses, will become more specialized and offer fewer programs. The University of Guelph is a good example of this: U of G is known for its excellent veterinary school (the only one in Ontario), agricultural and crop science, and biology. But it also has arts, humanities, social science, physical science, and engineering departments and programs, and while the university is not necessarily known for its chemistry program, the chemistry department is still making an important contribution to the university. Where are all the animal science students (i.e., future vets) going to learn biochemistry, if not the chemistry department?

But even more than fulfilling the degree requirements for the flagship programs, having a breadth of departments and courses taught gives students a broader education. University is about opening doors and exploring, and if universities start shuttering programs and streamlining their mandates, then students won’t have opportunities to go wandering through the course calendar looking for something different to take for an elective. While many of my peers took math or computing classes for their electives, I made sure to take courses as far from physics as possible, including philosophy, art history, and music. I knew I wasn’t going to get a chance to formally learn about metaphysics outside of undergrad, so why would I pass up the chance to learn it then? I was (and am) a better student with more perspective for having studied more than just physics and math.

Aside from my penchant for arts courses, though, there were plenty of people who went in to university with one plan in mind, only to realize that rather than doing biochemistry, they really wanted to study history, and switched partway through their degree. If universities start focusing on one area to the exclusion of many others, students will have to make a much starker choice before they even get to university, and may not have the opportunity to have their eyes opened to other possibilities. It may work for someone switching from microbiology to botany, but what happens to the person who wants to go from geography to physics? What happens to the person who sticks with psychology even though they’re not happy there, but doesn’t have any way to switch to fine art because there’s no fine art program any more? It’s a recipe for narrowly educated, disillusioned students, and that’s a recipe for students dropping out or failing to thrive after they graduate. (This isn’t even touching the difficulties that students face finding good employment after undergrad.)

But university is more than just academics. Let’s take the University of Waterloo for an example here. It’s comparable in many ways to the University of Guelph, but is internationally renowned for its engineering, computer science, math, and physics programs rather than the biology-heavy U of G. I was accepted at Waterloo for my undergrad degree, but I didn’t go there because the campus just didn’t feel like a good fit for me; however, plenty of people from my high school felt it was a great fit for them and really flourished there. Not one university environment is going to work for all people, and reorganizing the university structure so that programs are more concentrated in some places narrows the match-ups between environment and program for potential students. It will be harder for students to find a combination of program and environment that works for them, which will either discourage some students from attending or make their studies more difficult to manage.

These criticisms all become more dire when you realize that the University of Guelph is hardly the only Canadian university facing huge budget shortfalls, and other universities are watching this initiative very closely to see how it all shakes out. If it’s a success (or perhaps at least not an unmitigated disaster), other universities will almost certainly try a similar tactic. If many universities start evaluating their structure like this, programs that are chronically perceived to be underachievers will be axed frequently. Arts and humanities programs already struggle even more than science programs, because of the (ridiculous) perception that arts and humanities degrees aren’t worth much in a technology-driven economy. Arts and humanities programs don’t have the tidily-packaged, easily marketable end results the way something like an engineering program (robots! solar cars! robots on Mars!), and so arts and humanities programs struggle for funding and resources as university funding becomes an exercise in slick marketing and branding. If several universities start to cut off their arts and humanities programs, where do those students go? What happens to our cultural literacy? How do we understand ourselves in a historical, economic, and artistic context without people with historical, economic, and artistic knowledge and understanding? Technology and science are not the penultimate career paths for students (or pinnacles of our culture), and I’m worried that arts and humanities are going to be some of the big losers in this scheme.

What wins is administration. It’s galling that in light of chronic belt tightening and evaporating funding, administrative costs have skyrocketed at Canadian universities. The going argument is that we need talented administrators to navigate through the maze of ongoing funding crises, outdated infrastructure from the university boom of the 1960s and ’70s, and ballooning student enrollment, and that without adequate (ie, rapidly increasing) compensation, universities won’t be able to hire the quality of administrator needed to juggle all these pressures. I think this is a self-serving argument, and I’ve yet to see any concrete proof that it’s a valid one. There’s no control group of universities with administrators whose pay has not skyrocketed in the last decade or so to make a comparison of budgets and funding, or at least not one I could find.

The situation is not quite as extreme in Canada as it is in the U.S., but the trend towards an increasingly Americanized system is alarming. The American system, with its jaw-dropping tuition rates, enormous barriers to education, and wildly underpaid adjunct-dominated faculty is not something we should be trying to emulate. It’s also worth noting that U of G’s initiative was inspired by an American consultant who’s doubtlessly getting paid hand over fist to oversee this project.

The U of G initiative is still in the early stages, and it remains to be seen how the evaluation process will be approached by the committee, and the fallout from it won’t be seen for some time yet. But U of G may be a test case for the future of Canadian post-secondary education, and I’m certainly keeping an eye on what happens.

6 thoughts on “How Not to Restructure a University in a Budget Crisis”

  1. I agree that Guelph’s idea is not the way to handle a budget crisis. It’s not good here in Alberta, either. See this article:

    I found this quote particularly scary: “…the government “most definitely” intends to take a greater role in determining university research priorities because a “return to the taxpayer” is a priority.”

    I have a liberal arts (undergraduate) degree, and I found the courses outside my major just as important as those within my major! Universities are supposed to be broad, dammitall!

    1. I’d be more surprised if it were a good picture anywhere in Canada, to be honest. Québec’s in a mess too — the PQ’s made an abrupt about-face with regards to education.

      That quote is scary, and it echoes the federal granting agency’s shift in policy in the last few years towards funding more research with profitable industry applications. I think education should be an end in itself, to some degree, but I’m well aware that there’s plenty of people who don’t agree (and some of them are the ones making the budgets).

  2. I confess I don’t know a great deal about the school systems up in Canada, but I agree with your argument on how NOT to restructure during budgeting crises. In my own uni–a small, private university (yay scholarships!)–there were a few programs that were well-known because they were marketed as the “best” that NU had to offer. Being a former Bible school, of course they touted their ministry/theology degrees, but they also had killer nursing and education programs. I was in the English department and survived college by being in extra-curricular choirs and a frequent participant in the minuscule drama department. I survived my worst semester of college because of a play, but no one in administration understood the value of theatre. It was one of those things that certain people in administration were constantly threatening to shut down, and it was infuriating. We had no budget, so we had to recoup costs for props, costumes, sets by selling concessions and hoping we sold enough tickets.

    Anyway, all that to say I think that universities need to remain diverse. And yes, please cut administrators’ salaries! Our beloved profs aren’t making enough money, and we as students can barely afford to go to school. :P

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