Economic impact of economic crisis on universities

I did a bit of research yesterday about the national effects of the economic crisis on the university system. A few interesting overviews are available: Timothy Burke predicts a permanent end to continuing university growth; Christopher Newfield comments on the debilitating effects of student debt; P. T. Zeleza has a big overview of the situation. But I thought I’d share the links to some of the relevant news, to save others the effort of looking it all up.

At the University of Chicago, 450 employees were laid off as the hospital cut its $1.5 billion budget by 7%, while the Campus Life division cut its $60-million budget by 6%. The endowment is thought to have fallen 25% from $6.39 billion, having had 80% of its value in equities like stocks, but it apparently takes time to find out the changing value of certain investments so this isn’t certain. (Endowments have fallen elsewhere, too.) There are rumors of further layoffs and of declining graduate admissions.

The job market has shrunk in various fields, such as history (15%), English and foreign languages (20% and 22%), and philosophy, at least anecdotally. It is unclear whether graduate admissions are shrinking more broadly; as Brian Leiter points out for philosophy, programs may shrink because of diminishing funding or they may grow because grad students provide cheap labor. While many universities have a hiring freeze, a few “second-tier” universities in, for instance, Boston and Illinois, are having especially active job searches, hoping to hire especially desirable (and desperate) candidates. Matthew Filipic, CFO of Wright State, argues interestingly that hiring freezes are counterproductive.

State universities are in major trouble, with very substantial cuts from legislative appropriations. The University of California system, with a half billion dollar budget gap, is “suffering” from major cuts and may decrease enrollment. SUNY suffered $215 million in cuts last year and is facing $40 million in additional cuts this year, which faculty and administrators are protesting. Arizona has cut its higher education budget $141.5 million, with about 600 positions to be eliminated at the University of Arizona, and 48 academic programs to be eliminated at Arizona State. Apparently a thousand students have turned out in protest (and here the proposed cuts are said to be $243 million).

Research funds for science are said to have declined for the last few years, including the NSF and NIH. The most reliable source of information seems to be at the NSF’s Science Research Statistics and budget documents; NSF funding has been flat or slowly falling lately. There appears to be some hope that Obama’s stimulus bill will provide new funding, but I don’t know how that turned out after the “trimmings” from the bill.

A particular controversy revolves around college and university executive pay. A number of presidents and chancellors have taken pay cuts, donated money to their institutions, and turned down bonuses, for instance at Washington University in St. Louis, Rutgers, U of Conn., UPenn, Oregon State, and Stanford. Average presidential pay seems to remain very high, though, above $400,000.

Finally, in addition to the obvious questions of money and jobs, there are some more idiosyncratic responses to the crisis. Some places have seen revision of organizational structures: the University of Minnesota has decided to dissolve and decentralize its graduate school, while Governor Jodi Rell of Connecticut has proposed an administrative merger of the community colleges and the technical high schools. Brandeis University has notoriously threatened to sell off its $300 million art collection. Economists quarrel over whether the crisis should affect their pedagogy. Sustainability programs may be under threat.

The future doesn’t look bright. I’ve heard some people say they think that administrators are using the crisis as an excuse to make cuts they wanted to make anyway (they have long wanted to reduce the phd admissions size in my department, for example). The allocation of money is probably the aspect of university management over which faculty and student have the least power and influence, so I don’t see a great deal of hope for activism on this front. Dean Dad offers a hint of the ugly pragmatism required of administrators in financially strapped colleges. A provocative question, though, is whether the really rich schools in fact must cut their budgets to survive, or rather have simply decided to cling to their finances at the expense of the jobs and working conditions of their workers.