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

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).

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.”

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.