The Crisis in the Universities: Is there an Alternative? The New School and Beyond.

My academic institution, like many others in the world, forecasts a severe financial crisis as a result of the response to COVID-19. It has, as a result, preemptively announced job furloughs and other severe measures, including pay cuts to faculty and staff. Many members of the community have, however, perceived the institution as having become top heavy with administrators, often highly paid, and of having made bad prior choices which limit current options (see this excellent article from the Chronicle of Higher Education on the debate at Johns Hopkins, which applies to many other universities too). The institution has meanwhile become one of the more expensive to attend in the US, and therefore in the world, limiting the scope to raise revenue through tuition increases. Students, and families, have helped to pay for the “top heavy” university.

The faculty and students are increasingly concerned with identifying an alternative to the “scorched earth” approach to crisis management currently proposed by the institution, including a more effective and just scheme of revenue raising and burden sharing.  Recently, I have been analyzing (see latest version of presentation) the finances of the  institution, with the aid of a couple of motivated graduate students. We have assembled and analyzed diverse public data from multiple sources (all collected here, along with the supporting calculations). The university community has, despite a charade of budget transparency, not had the comprehensive view of university finances needed for meaningful consultation and deliberation.  The institution’s finances have been perennially – and universally – seen as opaque. This has not stopped top administrators from referring to the supposedly precarious financial condition of the university often – not only this year – as the reason for various decisions. Although it is true that relevant information has been available in various nooks and crannies, it has been difficult to put together and to make sense of the whole.

The exercise in budgetary transparency, which I report on here, although a work in progress, is a small contribution to support a more rational discussion of the options before the institution, and in particular of what would be both effective and fair.  It was shared this summer in a webinar with more than 400 faculty, students and staff of the New School, to considerable interest. The New School is a private institution, so some of the options discussed here will not seem relevant to institutions that are heavily or even exclusively publicly funded, in the US and in other countries. Nevertheless, some parallel issues will arise, for instance concerning “administrative bloat” – widely observed in universities around the world.

All figures are preliminary and unverified. There may be errors. No claim is therefore made that the figures or the resulting narrative are fully correct. I will periodically post any updates.


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