On the Structural Deficit and Questions of Workplace Democracy

Last week, an anonymous email about the ongoing budgetary crisis at UWM appeared. Initially circulated to department chairs throughout UWM, it eventually made its way to many inboxes, including those of UWM employees and the local media.

After much discussion and debate, the Executive, Communications and Solidarity Committees of the UWM AAUP have decided to circulate this email, along with two different responses to it. We do this in the spirit of “teaching the controversy.”

We believe that the email raises as many questions as it answers, but that the questions it raises about our current fiscal predicament are important ones. By publishing these documents, we hope to stimulate conversation and debate. In the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea, we believe it crucial that all of us −faculty, staff and students− engage with the process of charting UWM’s way.

The anonymous email also alluded to the creation of a campus-wide committee: the Chancellor’s Campus Organization and Effectiveness Team (CCOET). This summer, UWM AAUP asked for representation on this committee, and chapter president Rachel Buff was named a member of CCOET.

We sought representation on CCOET because we are committed to transparency, university governance and workplace democracy. We encourage all concerned faculty, staff and graduate students to attend CCOET meetings as well as listening sessions. In the spirit of openness, we will also be publishing all CCOET documents on a tab devoted to this purpose at this website.

There are three documents included below:
1. A response to the document from the above-mentioned UWM AAUP committees.
2. The original anonymous email, from “John Smith.”
3. A response to this document from Department of Mathematics Chair Kyle Swanson, who is also one of the chairs of the newly created Chancellor’s Campus Organization and Efficiency Task Force (CCOET). The anonymous email claims to draw on Dr. Swanson’s research into the recent fiscal history of UWM, including the origins of the current structural deficit. (A summary of Dr. Swanson’s 9/22 presentation can be found here ; his data is here).

1. Response from UWM AAUP
Understanding the past is instrumental to responding to our current situation. Decisions currently being made about budget models, fiscal priorities and governance will impact the ability of UWM to survive with our core missions intact. (A discussion of changing budget models can be found at our website.)
Although we have not verified all the numbers or arguments in the anonymous email, UWM AAUP welcomes discussion of many of the issues it raises. Here are the key issues raised:
● By any count, UWM has experienced an increase in expenditures on administration. This has happened at the same time that most academic units have been subject to budget cuts.
● While in many academic units, salaries have been flat or have actually declined when increased contributions to benefits are factored in; administrators have received annual raises.
● Current task forces, such as the Budget Planning Task Force, the Budget Model Working Group, and the Chancellor’s Campus Organization & Effectiveness Team (CCOET), have been charged with revamping the ways that money is spent and allocated on campus. This is problematic for two reasons:
1. The relationship of these task forces to established governance is unclear. This means that far-reaching organizational and financial changes that will have a major impact on UWM’s academic scope and mission are being made without clear input from faculty and staff.
2. Further, a high percentage of these task forces consists of individuals who report directly to Provost Britz and Vice Chancellor for Financial and Administrative Affairs Robin Van Harpen. This means that the current administration has outsize influence in shaping the budgeting decisions themselves and the ground rules for making them, e.g. by declaring what is on and off the table for the cuts that CCOET is charged with making.

● UWM AAUP agrees that increased expenditure on administration unfairly undermines the productive labor of faculty, academic and university staff on campus. But we differ from the anonymous author’s assertion that “only teaching” brings revenues. All staff: faculty; teaching and non-teaching academic staff; “university” or, formerly, classified staff; and graduate assistants produce value crucial to the university’s functioning. For example, in UWM’s latest ranking from Times Higher Education, citations (research influence) was ranked much higher than teaching. The research productivity of our faculty brings us cultural capital and builds our reputation as a research university. Cuts to faculty support (for example the near complete reduction of travel funds) impacts our ability to communicate our research to the world, which will have an impact on citation rates, and eventually our university ranking.
● UWM AAUP opposes budget cuts which unfairly focus on academic staff to the exclusion of cutting rising administrative costs.

2. John Smith message
Dear Colleagues,
I am writing to you anonymously to relay some of the analyses that have been assembled in recent months through activity of the Natural Sciences Executive committee. This committee was formed to respond to the rapidly deteriorating state of the College of L&S and UWM budgets. The analyses were undertaken using the campus and system databases of expenditures particularly those data available from the office of institutional research and from IPEDS data. Despite any counter argument that may be offered in response to this message, these data are objective and as accurate and telling as any available.

While it is common to be selective and promote notions that most benefit those who undertook the analysis, this did not occur in this instance. These are trends and numbers that describe the causes of the current dire financial state of this institution.

The overall assessment is that UWM is poorly administered and has no galvanizing vision. Our administrators control the lines of funding and have distributed funds in a rather haphazard manner, largely within their own ranks, in response to numerous individual and group solicitations. These numerous relative small affirmative fiscal decisions attempt to appease the solicitor(s) without incorporating long-term enrollment and funding revenue considerations into any strategy. This has resulted in a large expansion of positions and unit costs that have greatly exceeded UWM’s revenue streams. If such an expansion had not occurred a large fraction of the current 38 million dollar structural deficit would not have accrued. It is important to remember that this deficit is independent of recent state reductions in funding.

Some fraction of the data for this analysis is available from Professor Kyle Swanson’s website. We all owe Kyle a debt for his relentless acquisition and analysis that has exposed the true costs at UWM. Trends many of us have long suspected to exist now have thorough objective analyses behind them.
Some of the dominant trends or conclusions are as follows (in no particular order):
1) Academic units consistently get handed budget cuts, yet overall expenditures on salary increased by $17.2m (7.3%; +85.2 FTE) from 2011 to 2015.
2) Instructional FTE has increased by 116 (2080 to 2196; 5.6%) despite a 9.1% decrease in in the number of credit hours offered. Teaching academic staff FTE has increased 14.7% (589 to 676 FTE), while faculty numbers have fallen from 836 to 808 FTE.
3) Limited Employees (administrator types) are multiplying, as there are 27 more FTE in Fall 2015 compared to Fall 2011. The overall pay pool increased by $3.7m, or 23.4%.
4) Faculty and support staff in academic units are routinely ignored for salary equity considerations or simply told that no monies for raises or merit are available. However, it is starkly obvious that if you want a career path at UWM, it is best by some considerable margin to be in the administration. Average pay within the administration has increased by 11.2% over the prior four years (numerous administrators have received 30% or greater increases over this period). It appears that being able to set the budgets is a primary corrupting influence.
This is indelible, our administrators should no longer be seen as the stewards of our institution’s budgets. Whether they realize it or not (and I suspect they do not) they have become the primary drain on our threadbare resources at the expense of our core functions.
5) If you examine only non-instructional UWM employees earning greater than $80K per year, salaries have increased on average by a staggering 9.5% per annum since 2011. In addition the university has added 45 FTE in this salary category in the last four years.
6) Total expenditures on non-academic activities have expanded greatly since the 2010 Goldwater report that suggested UWM had a lean administration. This seems to have been a call-to-arms in terms of non-academic expenditures. During the last 5 years UWM has increased the percentage support spending from ~30% of the budget to almost 38%. This accounts for the bulk of our current $38 M structural deficit.
7) Despite the proliferation of support (and to a lesser extent instructional) positions and the rapid growth rate of administrative salaries none of the core issues facing the university have abated. Our student retention numbers have not changed and our average time to graduation is vastly too long. The reason for this is that only at the interface can these trends be influenced, yet all of the efforts (PASS, advising, the bloat in Student Affairs etc) and expenditures designed to correct these trends have been centralized, out of the instructional departments .
The Remedy
The remedy proposed by the Chancellor is almost beyond comprehension and indicates the depth of the problems we face. Yet another massive unruly committee manned by the very individuals benefiting from the current budgetary debacle; 18 of the 24 members of this committee report either to the Provost or to Robin van Harpen. These are hardly the people likely to make the only decision that can save this institution: Support activities (ie administration) must be confined to an unchanging percentage of total revenues (30% is a suggested healthy number), such that the only way these costs can expand is when the University as a whole prospers.
Instead what we hear (admittedly as rumor) is that teaching support positions are the primary initial target of budgetary cuts. The individuals that teach a large fraction of our high enrollment service courses (at very low cost). That is, the instructors who enable our campus scholarly activities by keeping faculty teaching at a level conducive to research. Eliminating a significant fraction of these positions will see research on this campus come to a precipitous halt as faculty fill the ranks at the expense of their research programs.
In an effort to rally a collective sense of outrage, I would like to remind you all that there are only two groups of employees at UWM that en masse add to the bottom line, these are faculty and teaching academic staff. They are the only individuals able to bring money to the institution, yet this group has been ignored and I would argue maligned by current administrative actions. Instead of being seen as the institutions primary resource we are regarded as a difficult group of subordinates. I will submit that the apparently un-ending expansion of non-academic functions is highly unlikely to solve our current budgetary state. We exist at the whim of high-cost, short-sighted administrators that are for the most part inept at grasping the state of the institution or understanding that its prime functions are, education and research.
Our future is being decided in open meetings held in the regent’s room on Wednesdays from 3-5 – I suggest we all attend.

3. Kyle Swanson: Response to the anonymous “John Smith” email
Hat tip to Ben Horowitz’s “The Hard Thing about Hard Things.”
“I tell my kids, what is the difference between a hero and a coward? What is the difference between being yellow and being brave? No difference. Only what you do. They both feel the same. They both fear dying and getting hurt. The man who is yellow refuses to face up to what he’s got to face. The hero is more disciplined and he fights those feelings off and he does what he has to do. But they both feel the same, the hero and the coward. People who watch you judge you on what you do, not how you feel.”

Cus D’Amato, Legendary Boxing Trainer

Life inevitably presents us with choices between doing what’s popular, easy and wrong versus doing what’s lonely, difficult and right. For our leaders at UWM, these decisions have intensified because the consequences are magnified a thousand-fold. The hard thing about leading isn’t dreaming big. The hard thing is those long hours in the middle of the night when the demons come and the dream turns into a nightmare.

Let’s be perfectly clear – UWM is facing a nightmare. Challenges like the ones we are facing don’t have recipes. There’s no recipe for leading a university out of trouble. There’s no recipe for motivating your faculty and staff when your financial situation has turned to crap.

For the decade 2002-2011, UWM’s revenue grew at an average rate of 6% per year. Roughly $20 million new dollars, each year, every year, for an entire decade. Plans were made, great futures imagined, a new level seemed within reach. Then it stopped. Enrollments dropped. Tuition was frozen. Promises made never materialized. Appropriations were cut. We desperately wanted that 6% per year back, we wanted to believe. And nothing we’ve tried has brought back the 6%, or even kept things steady, and slowly our dreams have slipped from our grasp.

So here we are today, living the nightmare. The blueprint for managing this organization no longer works. Should we have done things differently? Why didn’t we see this coming? How could our leaders let this happen?

Guess what. Nobody cares.

And they are right not to care. Having someone to blame or the best excuse in the world for our situation won’t graduate one more student, won’t change one more life in our community, won’t get one more research grant. And it especially won’t make us feel one bit better when we have to declare a financial emergency and things get completely out of control.

All the mental energy used to elaborate anyone’s misery would be far better spent trying to find the one seemingly impossible way out of our current mess. This is what CCOET is trying to do.

What do I believe? That at this moment the past doesn’t matter. Our metaphorical house is on fire, and our only focus can be on getting as many people out alive as possible, putting out the fire, and rebuilding as best we can. Will we learn from our past mistakes? You bet, but dwelling on them at this moment is a luxury that only wastes time and energy we don’t have. What else do I believe? That struggle is where greatness is born. I believe our leaders can be great, but they need help, patience and support to make the tough choices necessary to get us through this mess. When this passes, which it will, I have no doubts that we will do less as an institution. But we will do less, better. That is what I believe.