There are some obvious ways in which the current World Economic Crisis is affecting Academia -- students unable to pay tuition, academic and staff positions going unfilled owing to hiring freezes, and building/renovation projects delayed are among the most prominent -- but what about other effects?
I wrote last year about how the lives of some of my graduate and undergraduate students have been disrupted by their having to move, with little notice, out of their apartments and find a new place to live, owing to the financial problems of their landlords. Since then, I've read that tenants in some places are being given more time to move out of foreclosed properties, as tenants are innocent victims in these situations.
The following are other examples of which I am aware, based on my own experience and discussions with colleagues at other US universities and colleges:
- Despite hiring freezes, some open faculty positions are being converted into non-tenure track, temporary appointments, and some are being left empty, resulting in canceled classes and/or higher teaching loads for other faculty, and uncertain employment options for those on the job market.
- Fewer funds are available for graduate teaching assistantships, even though undergraduate enrollments are not down, so there are the same number of labs to teach. I am not sure how this is going to work. Some of the slack can be taken up by eliminating coveted non-teaching TA positions (e.g., grader, AV/demo facilitator positions). Some departments hire undergrads as TAs because undergrads are cheaper than grad students (and, according to a colleague of mine who keeps track of these things, their teaching evaluations are as good as, or better, than those of the grad student TAs).
- Fewer/no funds available for teaching supplies. This happens from time to time anyway, even in non-crisis years, but is always unfortunate because there is always a significant amount of teaching-stuff carnage during a typical academic year and so there is almost always a dire need to replace the worn out, damaged, destroyed materials.
- Fewer/no funds for 'luxury' items such as speaker series; people to help with website construction and maintenance; social events; support for student travel to conferences; department newsletters..
- No raises this year or next.
- Don't even think about the possibility of getting a new building or renovated space.
- Adoption of bizarre and inefficient new accounting practices that don't seem to have any cost-saving benefits and that make everyone cranky but that perhaps have the effect of making it seem like Action Is Being Taken. Example: Some colleagues, owing to their university's new rules about hiring and justifying grant-related expenses, are unable to spend $ that is in existing grants. This grant money came from a funding agency and the expenses were justified in the original proposal. It is difficult to think of a (sane) reason why grant funds cannot be spent on the materials and activities for which they are intended.
Consider the following: More than a year ago, a colleague hired a postdoc. It was a 2-year position, but as is common practice at that university, the official offer was for the first year, with the second year contingent on adequate performance during the first year. The grant contains funds for two years: year one at Salary 1; year two at Salary 1 + raise. The postdoc did an outstanding job from the very beginning and was assured of the second year, but when it came time to start the second appointment year at a higher salary, the university said No to the promised raise.
The supervising faculty/PI argued with the accountants, argued with the Chair (who was sympathetic and tried to help), and argued with the Deans. The accountants and administrators were not convinced by the reasoning that the money for the raise was in the grant and the university was not saving any money by denying the postdoc the raise. The university people said that because the raise was not promised in the original offer letter, the raise could not be paid, in keeping with a hiring and salary freeze across the university.
Despite many many hours of ethics training on how to be responsible with grant funds, the PI came up with a creative solution to the no-raise problem, and this solution actually made the postdoc very happy. In the PI's opinion, not giving the postdoc a raise was more unethical than the creative solution.
This situation and others like it have generated much discussion among a group of my colleagues. Is it possible that university administrators, even at a big R1 university, do not know how grants work? Or is there something we faculty don't understand about spending grant funds on the items specified in the grant?
Maybe everyone is in Crisis Mode and not thinking clearly, and an efficient (and maybe even ethical) way forward will become apparent in the near future. I hope so, but at the moment it seems that the already difficult situation is in some cases being made even more difficult by strange and unhelpful policies that harm students, researchers, and faculty.
3 days ago