CONTACT: Stanford University News Service (650) 723-2558

Academic budget cuts roust emotions, researcher says

STANFORD -- Friendships go bust, dreams are lost or reshaped, people lose sleep or gain weight. Some cry or shout; others choke into silence.

All those are normal reactions when their colleges and universities face budget cuts, says Patricia Gumport, a Stanford researcher who has studied budget trimming at a representative sample of public research universities.

Everybody has a larger stake in contraction than in expansion, which is why reducing a budget is so emotional and conflict- provoking in institutions with a history of shared decision-making, Gumport said.

The stakeholders include faculty, administrators, staff, students, parents, alumni, trustees, research sponsors, taxpayers and even, perhaps, society as a whole, said the deputy director of the Stanford Institute for Higher Education Research.

These stakeholders may fracture into even more special interests. Humanities scholars realize that some of their interests differ from those of scientists. Out-of-state students are pitted against state residents at public institutions with two tuition rates. Alumni may fear their particular degree will lose market value if their alma mater stops offering it. Part-time faculty are more likely than full-time faculty to lose their positions.

An era of belt tightening

Stanford, which underwent one round of administrative budget cuts this past year, is now setting up a process for deciding what more it can begin trimming in 1992-93. This time, university officials say, they will not be able to spare academic programs. The situation is not unique, said Gumport, an assistant professor of education and sociology. Recent newspaper headlines underscore her point.

In the 1990-91 school year, according to the New York Times, half the states cut their higher education budgets. Nineteen states increased tuition, and private universities, while raising tuition by the smallest amount in 20 years, were forced to cut programs to make up for missing revenue.

On the five public university campuses where she conducted in-depth interviews, Gumport said, she discovered that "managing a budget crisis is not solely a technical problem. It is a sociological problem infused with dynamics of power, competition and values. Handling a budget crisis has both intended and unintended consequences."

Budget solutions tend to include a mix of reducing expenses and generating revenue, but there are many ways to go about it, she said.

How knowledge expands, contracts

Gumport didn't start out to study budget cutting. She first became interested in understanding how a new area of knowledge develops, including the process leading to scientific "breakthroughs." As a Stanford doctoral student, she researched how feminist scholarship became established.

Women's studies grew as a national phenomenon from 17 college courses in 1969 to more than 30,000 courses, 500 degree- granting programs and 50 research centers by 1980. Gumport's dissertation exploring that struggle for legitimacy and institutionalization was named the outstanding dissertation of 1988 by the Association for the Study of Higher Education.

"My basic finding was that people created this new area of knowledge out of a mix of organizational, political and intellectual interests," she said. "It was not self-propelled; it was not discovered. And while I didn't study other new fields, I believe that computer science, and even molecular and cellular biology, in some sense, are created -- or socially constructed -- rather than discovered."

If that is true, Gumport said, there can be "no natural organization of knowledge that universities should have" and no exclusively rational process for determining what new departments, programs or courses a university should offer.

"The recent history of American higher education reflects our tendency to add things -- new fields of study, new disciplines and branches of disciplines," she said. "In times of abundant resources, you can resolve differences in value judgments through expansion. In contraction, they cannot be resolved.

"Under both circumstances, determining what counts as knowledge is contested terrain. The contested quality is just more apparent in times of scarcity."

Gumport began to ask how knowledge gets dismantled when she had a postdoctoral fellowship sponsored by the Spencer Foundation. She selected for detailed case study five public institutions that had faced state budget cuts of 10 to 20 percent. In some cases, she said, the institutions first faced more modest cuts and then, within a few years, reached the point where faculty positions had to be eliminated and programs cut.

Emotional stress

The in-depth interviews she conducted with administrators and faculty on this subject were the "most emotional" Gumport had encountered, she said, and she has concealed the identity of the campuses studied in order to protect the privacy of her sources.

Administrators who had to make the cuts often were as emotionally upset as those faculty members who had lost their positions.

She found that campus participants often used euphemistic labels to describe the budget crisis. "Faculty were not 'fired' or 'laid off,' they were 'displaced,' " she said. "Programs weren't 'cut,' they were 'disestablished' or 'merged.' "

At the same time, pain was acknowledged in other discourse. "Administrators and some faculty justified academic program reduction when they said they had previously 'cut the fat,' and now they had to 'cut to the bone' or 'amputate healthy limbs,' " Gumport said.

"Some 'displaced faculty in disestablished programs' felt a deep sense of betrayal by the administration they had previously thought to be benign. Depending on who you talked to, responses ranged from shock and grief to a loss of idealism or, for some, even shattered dreams."

The contraction process may be more complex in academic institutions than in an industrial setting because the universities aren't organized in a top-down hierarchy, Gumport said.

"The budget crises revealed that these types of technical, financial decisions are intimately tied to academic policy -- and that's the domain of faculty governance," she said. "Faculty expertise, rather than executive administrative judgment, lies at the heart of administrative decisions about academic programs and institutional mission."

"One of the historical lines of contention is between faculty and administration. In the formation of the modern research university, faculty were not involved in managing the money. The idea initially was that faculty should be freed of having to worry about non-academic matters."

"Faculty came to resist the growth of the administration, however, as attempts to manage and weigh faculty output accelerated. The social engineering approaches of some campus administrators and lay boards of trustees prompted faculty to initiate their own professionalizing efforts to assert their interests and expertise. Although these dynamics occurred over a century ago, they are present today in a different hue."

The lines of contention are even evident among communities of higher education researchers, she said.

"Some higher education scholars approach a budget crisis with a mathematical model for calculating the costs and benefits in monetary terms." Gumport said. "Others resist the convergence of managerial aims with social science research. They argue it is inappropriate for an organization whose sole bottom line is not to maximize profit per se. Institutional profit is one among many competing concerns that don't fit neatly into equations.

"We need to understand better what happens at the operating level of departments to capture the nuances and unarticulated perspectives that somehow never are relayed to the central administration," she said.

Conflicts described

While conflict is inevitable, Gumport said, it did not break to the surface in the same way or at the same time in the institutions she studied.

Disputes focused not only on administrative decisions that were delivered as faits accompli, but also on aspects of process, such as who participated in the decision-making, or who established the criteria for determining academic program reduction or elimination.

"On one campus I studied, the central administration made the decisions with no faculty involvement and minimal involvement from deans," she said. "The conflict between faculty and administration was more prevalent after the decisions were made than before.

"On two campuses, the administration sought faculty input on what programs to cut. The process was divisive among faculty on one campus. On the other, faculty were allied in collectively challenging the administration for lack of leadership."

When Gumport asked them to reflect on how they handled their budget crisis, some senior administrators said they had not sought advice from colleagues at institutions who had experienced similar crises. Some faculty who felt victimized by budget cuts said they had not been able to generate a collective sense of outrage on their campuses.

"You have to understand that timing is critical. There is an urgency to a budget crisis, where standard communication patterns are set aside," she said. "People in senior administrative posts said they just did not have time to read the literature in the field of higher education or to call their colleagues at other campuses and ask for advice."

When the impetus is a state budget crisis, budget cutting tends to happen faster than most university decision-making, she said.

"There are several accounts as to why," Gumport said.

"Some administrators and like-minded faculty suggested that if you do it fast, you can bypass traditional mechanisms of governance, which are notoriously slow. A more political interpretation, often offered by oppositional faculty, is that speed provides an opportunity for key members of the central administration to seize more control and impose their own agenda in the reallocation of campus resources. "

On campuses with academic program reduction, faculty responses varied from passive withdrawal to active challenges to the specific decisions. The difference in response was even visible on bulletin boards, office doors and campus buildings, Gumport said.

"No more cuts," read a sign in the window of one old brick building. "Don't cut off circulation . . . fund libraries," read a banner near the library.

On other campuses, victimization was more likely to be expressed, she said.

"The beatings will continue until your morale improves," read the sign on one bulletin board. Another bulletin-board sign listed in bold type the euphemisms for being dehired: "outplacement, downsizing, work force adjustment, redundancy elimination, negotiated departure, dismissal, canned, let go, decruited, deselected, excessed, transitioned, release, coerced transition, personnel surplus reduction."

Where challenges were not made, Gumport probed why.

"Some faculty I interviewed perceived that they had no opportunity to oppose the designated cuts, that there were no procedures for them to use," she said. "On other campuses some faculty resisted anyway, seized the publicity and worked hard to generate collective resistance."

Gumport found that undergraduates, graduate students, alumni, surrounding communities and other interests groups sometimes mounted effective lobbying efforts, such as letter-writing campaigns.

Concerns of equity between genders and among ethnic groups sometimes arose, she said. In some cases, people tried to determine if a particular program cut would have a disproportionate impact on one demographic group of students, faculty or staff.

"I've found that these kinds of data usually don't exist in a centralized way to help you figure that out," she said. "Even other data, such as enrollment figures and program costs, were not readily available. The underuse of basic data signals the non-rational character of decision-making."

In cases where a tentative cut list was prepared first, Gumport said that some of the people she interviewed felt that the very act of "marking" a program for cuts gave its advocates the advantage of time to make a compelling appeal. However, even if the appeal was successful, "faculty in the program pointed to longer range consequences of being marked, such as potential negative impact on graduate student admissions and faculty recruitment," she said.

Teaching versus research

Budget crisis conditions revealed that the universities' missions of teaching, research and public service wound up in direct competition. The tripartite mission poses "a particular problem in public universities because the state taxpayers are primarily funding teaching and public service, yet the university's national reputation may be based primarily on its research," Gumport said.

What budget trimming methods work best and are least painful?

"These are good questions, and they should be asked of many observers and participants in a university, not only institutional researchers," Gumport said. "The university is not just an expert- run, neutral bureaucracy as people sometimes characterize it. It is a human setting with many perspectives to seek out.

"The type of interpretive social science research that I do makes visible the complex views of all the organizational participants. It can enable individuals to become involved in shaping their own work settings," she said.

"Based on my research, I would say there is no way to make budget cutting not painful. At the same time, there might be ways to turn the unfortunate circumstances into an opportunity for change in an organization.

"These opportunities would include increasing the base of involvement in decision-making, enabling individuals to feel more ownership or to think more creatively about the use of their time and resources. They can also join one another in formulating visions for change."



This is an archived release.

This release is not available in any other form. Images mentioned in this release are not available online.
Stanford News Service has an extensive library of images, some of which may be available to you online. Direct your request by EMail to newslibrary@stanford.edu.