Don’t Cut The Sacred Cows

A modified version of this piece appears today in the Washington Examiner

Georgetown University, like many colleges and universities hit by the current economic downturn, is in what look like dismal financial straits. The value of Georgetown’s endowment shrank 25.5 percent last year, to $833 million, the annual deficit it has been running is estimated to climb to $37.8 million this fiscal year with little abatement in the near future, and donations are expected to be down–and likely to fall further if President Obama’s proposal to reduce tax deductions for charitable gifts takes effect. So Georgetown’s president, John DiGioia, like many another college CEO these days, recently announced a plan to cut costs.

The nature of DiGioa’s proposed cost-cutting, however—freezes on salaries, delays in filling vacant positions, and a hold on the construction of a planned science center—seem anemic in the face of the university’s obvious financial problems. That’s probably because Georgetown’s desire to trim its budget is running smack into the reality of campus politics, in which every program, silly, overstaffed, or non-essential as it might seem to outsiders, has an aggressive constituency ready to raise the pitchforks in its defense. Harvard, for example, facing a projected 30 percent drop in the value of its massive $38.5 billion endowment, announced in February it would trim the ranks of its contract janitors—not even Harvard employees—by a few dozen, leaving some Harvard buildings a shade less spic and span. The upshot? A series of student protests, denunciations by the Service Employees International Union, and on March 23, a unanimous condemnation of Harvard by the city council of Cambridge, Mass. Georgetown clearly doesn’t want to go down that road.

Private businesses might shrug off such negative publicity, but most universities are sensitive to their images as repositories of progressive values. So there is a long list of campus sacred cows that can’t be nicked by the budget-cutting knife without an uproar. One is tenured faculty. Tenure means having a job for life, no matter how lackadaisically you perform it or whether the department in which you teach attracts many students. The University of Texas Medical Branch laid off 30 of its 127 faculty members, many of them tenured, after Hurricane Ike devastated its Galveston campus last year and forced the temporary closing of its main teaching hospital. The Texas Faculty Association is now suing the state university system to force the professors’ rehiring.

Other sacred cows are all those non-teaching administrators, some of them paid higher salaries than professors, who populate the ever-growing “student services” sector of the campus economy. (A January 2009 report from the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity and Accountability documents the fact that instruction represents a steadily shrinking proportion of colleges’ spending, despite constant constant tuition hikes.). Once the administrators are in place, it’s often politically impossible to get rid of them. Nearly every campus in America has a “diversity” officer charged with implementing affirmative action and fairness to minorities. Such positions might have made sense decades ago when African-Americans and others faced pervasive discrimination. Nowadays they’re mostly opportunities for empire-building, as diversity offices expand to include more and more identity groups claiming grievances. In 2006 Georgetown made its chief diversity officer, Rosemary Kilkenny, a vice president, and in 2008 the university added on a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Resource Center, complete with its own director. You can’t eliminate or even shrink such offices without being accused of homophobia or racism.

Nor, apparently, can you get rid of the campus “sustainability” coordinator, a fixture on an ever-increasing number of campuses swept by the current “green” fad. The common starting salary for a sustainability officer is in the $60,000 range, according to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, and some universities deploy entire teams of sustainability experts (Harvard has at least 15 of them, and Georgetown’s website boasts nine employees who devote themselves to sustainability issues.) Some green measures admittedly cut campus energy costs, but it’s hard to see why any college needs a full-time coordinator for screwing fluorescent lightbulbs into sockets and putting out recycling bins.

One reason universities aren’t taking serious, politically unpleasant steps to cut costs—by, say, eliminating academic programs or entire administrative units–is that they seem to be counting on their financial troubles’ eventually going away. “They’re saying, ‘Let’s try to muddle through for a year or two—we can run a budget deficit and finance it by debt,” says Richard Vedder, an economics professor at Ohio University who heads the D.C.-based Center for College Affordability and Productivity.

Perhaps the economy will indeed recover quickly, or perhaps the federal government will start throwing bailout money in colleges’ direction. If neither of those things happens, however, it will be interesting to see what sort of bellowing Georgetown and other universities sensitive to their liberal images are willing to endure from a horde of gored oxen on their campuses.

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