Thursday, February 26, 2009

Dire Straits

In recent weeks a few of my colleagues and I have had the unpleasant task of trying to find ways to cut a department budget that is already very lean. Nevertheless, cut we must, and reduce the department budget to a level mandated by the powers that be. After two weeks of meetings and looking under every budget rock and cutting everything that could reasonably be cut, we are left with a situation in which we cannot cut anything else without harming the core functions of the department.

We could, however, reach our target cut if:

- We vote ourselves pay cuts, or

- One well paid senior faculty member retires.


None of the senior faculty are willing to retire owing to the recent devastation of their retirement accounts.


The topic of pay cuts was extremely upsetting to my fellow budget-cutting committee members. I didn't argue for a pay cut, but I was willing to discuss the possibility. I'd rather not have my pay cut, but I would be OK at a lower salary for a year or three if necessary. My husband and I both have good salaries, one child, and thrifty cats (when they aren't falling out of trees).

Some of my colleagues, however, have more precarious finances owing to being in a one-income couple, having > 1 offspring, and/or having other important expenses (mortgage, college) that would be endangered if they endured a pay cut.

So that leaves us where? I think that leaves us with begging the Dean for mercy and/or winning the lottery.

None of us would want to be in the position of having a vastly reduced retirement account just at the time when retirement would be a reasonable option owing to age and low(er) level of activity in the job. Even so, everyone in the department knows that the retirement of any one of a number of faculty of advanced age and salary would save the department. I would not want to be one of these faculty right now.

Whether these non-retiring faculty are viewed with sympathy or contempt is somewhat dependent on their level of activity, and perhaps also on the age of the person holding one of those opinions.

In a previous post I discussed whether tenure-track faculty were more or less vulnerable owing to the budget crisis, but inactive senior faculty who would most benefit the department by leaving now are also in an uncomfortable position, even if it is nearly impossible to make them leave.


Anonymous said...

Those colleagues of yours who are so upset about the idea of taking pay cuts - they are being selfish and unrealistic. In these dire economic times they should be grateful they even still have their jobs and benefits. Right now there are so many people who have lost their livelihoods and who also have families to support and debts accumulating, that your colleagues are being a bunch of whiners by being so upset over the idea of pay cuts. They may very well have legitimate financial concerns but hey they are not the only ones who have financial worries and in fact they are probably still a lot better off than many people even if they were to take a pay cut (owing to the fact that they still have their livelihoods and benefits).

In other words they need to stop whining and be realistic about the current economic situation. Your institution just doesn't have enough money so is it so outrageous and unreasonable to expect a pay cut - hey it's better than losing your job isn't it?? I suppose they want someone else (the senior faculty) to go so that they themselves don't have to take any hits (and suffering decreased budgets for their research does not count as taking a hit when compared to just trying to hang on to your livelihood and bring home a paycheck). Again, in these tough economic times and considering they are already better off than many people by still having their jobs, I think this is selfish and narrow-minded.

Anonymous said...

At our place, we have it coming and going. Senior faculty are often paid less than junior faculty. Compression is a serious problem. It would be costly for a 35 year old faculty member to up and quit, but often that would save the institution more money -- $5000, $8000 a year more -- than having a 55 year old faculty member up and retire.

And that goes for whether the senior faculty are publishing or not. Salary compression is really demoralizing to a place.

As I grow older, I'm not going to be interested in retiring a day sooner than I can afford to do so.

clodovendro said...

You forgot the door number 3: you could kill (or kidnap or make vanish in any other illegal way) a well paid senior faculty member ;-D

Anonymous said...

Intriguing post, FSP, as I think a lot of departments are dealing with these issues right now. I'm confused, though, why the senior professors are such a drain on departments. In my field, most full professors pay the great majority of their salary from their own grants. Actually, I think the newest Asst Prof's are most 'expensive' since they usually get their salary as 'hard money' for the first couple years. Are these old(er) professors paid completely out of departmental funds? Or are you referring to costs other than salary...? Not that we need to see the departmental budget spreadsheet or anything, just in general...I was curious.

Alyssa said...

It's a scary time. In our department, they have to cut the equivalent of 10 staff salaries. This could be done by having only 3 professors retire, but it sounds as though the department would rather cut almost all the staff than have the latter. It will be interesting to see what they eventually decide. Our department is small - I can barely think of 10 staff members, let alone having to cut all of them. I think our department will fall apart if they do this.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting on the painful budget discussions; we've already had three of them, and they have brought all sorts of underground tensions to the surface. At least our administration is coming up with ways to make retirement more appealing, like extending health care benefits for two years after retirement. And one thing potential retirees should keep in mind: it's not like they're going to pull their entire retirement savings out of those accounts immediately. The withdrawals will be gradual. When the market turns back around, the accounts will grow again. But I agree with you: I wouldn't want to be them right now. We've got two 67 year olds in our dept. -- one very productive and one who has never been productive -- and neither of them is planning to budge an inch. The resentment toward the unproductive one is palpable.

Janus Professor said...

Mr. JP's department has to prepare for either a 5% or 7.5% budget cut depending on what the state legislature decrees for the state university. Their department is proposing to address this need by:

1. Not paying for seminar speakers' travel. This means they would get local speakers, or NSF program directors (who have to pay their own way anyway).

2. Eliminating the TA stipend. Simply, TAs would still TA, but their pay would come out of their research adviser's account. In practice, a TA is likely to come from the instructor's lab. I used TA as a noun and verb, isn't that thrifty?

3. No pay raises.

4. Other nitpicky things. Like no more food at any faculty meetings, etc.

4. No more hires.

Item #2 is the most contentious because there is no free lunch. Doesn't this mean that NSF or other federal funding agencies are essentially paying for TA-ships??

Anonymous said...

FSP- is it possible to (strategically) state a pay maximum (e.g., lower than your senior faculty make. So, instead of trying to make one retire and deal with lost retirement funds, they still all stay, just with reduced pay. You mention that there are a number of these senior faculty, so it seems this would spread the burden. Of course, whether this is legal I have no clue, just by 2 cents.

Janus Professor: eliminate TA stipends? That's appalling. I'm so relieved I'm at a university where the TAs have a union.

Anonymous said...

I am an untenured faculty member at one of the non-Tempe campuses of Arizona State University. We have had considerable cuts already and now an across the board unpaid furlough of 9 days until June 30. It amounts to about a 5% cut. That does hit the pocketbook, but I have picked up some work with a publisher and will be teaching summer school to more than make up for it.

Our alternatives have included talking about closing one of our campuses (not Tempe) and T and TT faculty losing jobs. I gladly took the hit.

One idea would be to stop funding TA and adjunct lines and then have the faculty teach more (I know, gasp!). We did this last fall by making classes larger and putting several online, including nonmajors labs (a real teaching drain).

Desperate times call for desperate measures. At least they have a job. My husband may lose his at the end of June. Not complaining; this is the reality of the situation.

Anonymous said...

One well paid senior faculty member retires.

Don't even get me fucking started. We have superannuated senior faculty in my department who have not supported a single motherfucking penny of their salaries for years. In my institution, individual department budgets are responsible for 75% of each faculty member's salary.

And these useless whiny-ass titty-babies are the loudest moaner-groaners about shit like cutting out the free lunch at faculty and committee meetings. But they're gonna sit there like the fucking deadwood that they are and say nothing as the department has no choice but to lay off technical and administrative support staff who actually contribute to the success of the department. Fucking assholes.

Anonymous said...

"2. Eliminating the TA stipend. Simply, TAs would still TA, but their pay would come out of their research adviser's account. In practice, a TA is likely to come from the instructor's lab. I used TA as a noun and verb, isn't that thrifty?"

They are actually having to do this a bit in our department, and it is terrible. It isn't what you're proposing, because I don't think anyone here would ever consider a system where a TA didn't get paid for their work or else only professors with large grants would be able to buy themselves some TAs (and, this isn't what the grants are for, anyways).

Here, they have cut some of the TA positions entirely, which is bad because some grad students may be looking at not having funding at all- in this kind of arts and sciences department not all professors have huge grants that can take on an entire persons salary without having initially budgeted for it. It is a scary time, and I hope they're able to find a way to keep the grad students they have!

Anonymous said...

Are you sure you can vote on the pay cuts, that's something that might be a university wide decision. I bring it up because our college ran into this, we can not even propose pay cuts unless the faculty senate votes to make provisions in our university rules to do so.

John Vidale said...

What a wide range of unpalatable, unrealistic, or self-destructive options!

Using research funds to pay TAs? That would slash research productivity of those students and enrage funding agencies. I can't imagine such a department policy being enacted, let alone surviving for a year.

In my experience, some fraction of elderly faculty retire appropriately, some don't, and none bow to coercion - they just get self-righteous and cause department schisms and multi-year lawsuits in which they always win.

The set-up funds of junior faculty are also not fair game, at least not yet at our place.

Leveling-the-salaries strategies can backfire when the faculty bringing in the overhead can to it to another school and maintain or raise their salary in the move. Then the dept is in worse shape than paying the high salary.

As for the "whining" remark, everyone considered their own situation based on history, and pay cuts for faculty have been exceedingly uncommon. Again, a faculty can be disproportionately driven to dysfunction by actions that save little money.

We're making 8, 10 & 12% cut plans, with 12% asterisked as self-destruction.

Personally, despite having it, I've thought for a long time that tenure makes little sense in the sciences. There's no easy fix here.

John Vidale said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Having read these comments, I feel fortunate that our department's budget, per se, does not include the faculty salaries. Those fall under the Dean's account, I believe. Being 62 I am not ready to be pressured to retire, and due to the economy I expect to continue longer in my job than I had previously intended.

From the state level it may be mandated that we have several days of furlough, and freezing of raises from July onwards. Upping the course load of the faculty for a one year time period would seem to be something we ought to be able to live with. Given the number of people losing their jobs these days I do feel we need to be thankful for having a job at all.

Anonymous said...

There's some pretty good deadwood out there, though. When I was an undergrad, there was a guy who had stopped bringing in grants and now worked on another professor's grants. I learned a ton working in his lab. In grad school, there was a guy who no longer had grad students but taught a lot and was fantastic when I needed confidential advice from somebody other than my official advisor. And when I was doing an adjunct gig before getting a full-time tenure track job, there was a guy who had stopped doing research but was heavily involved in teaching and mentoring the cohort of students taking my class. He was a tremendous asset to me when I was learning the ropes.

I am reluctant to conclude that old guys without grants are always a drag on the department.

Anonymous said...

Two half-retirements?

John Vidale said...

I'm ideologically opposed to the "hunker down to wait for the storm to blow over" attitude.

This may lead to the death by a thousand cuts, and I don't consider the entitled profession of professor, nor a hundred big research universities to shelter them, as a permanent fixture.

We should continue to be our most effective in the next couple of years, not try to burrow to protect our prerogatives.

If we take on more teaching, fire our staff, and lose our stars to a few rich private schools or abroad, our research will wane and our department budgets won't necessarily reinflate with economic recovery.

It's a tough problem.

Anonymous said...

"I am reluctant to conclude that old guys without grants are always a drag on the department."

They're definitely not. Some of the best teachers from my undergrad were old guys who had stopped doing research. But there were the useless old guys too. It just depends on the individual.

Anonymous said...

Janus Professor: Eliminating the TA stipend. Simply, TAs would still TA, but their pay would come out of their research adviser's account.

The sleep of reason produces monsters, indeed...

If professors have money to pay their graduate students why don't they just put them on RA instead?
Does it mean that teaching by grad. students will be unpaid duty in your department from now on?

TA as a "slave labor", literally...

Anonymous said...

We have talked about pay cuts here as well. Yes, I would rather have my pay cut then lose my job. But it really burns my ass considering that junior faculty in the business school and med school are making 2.5-3 times what I make in a basic science department. Their salary could be halved and they would still make more than me.

But perhaps I am just a whiny-ass titty-baby.

Anonymous said...

I don't think any one begrudges senior professors who use the freedom of tenure to publish on late breaking developments before they could even submit a grant proposal on the topic. But if they're very highly paid and they're not publishing at all, then you have to wonder...

Anonymous said...

Most professors have chosen to follow a career path where they don't get paid as much as in the outside world. That doesn't mean they should be above grubby considerations of salary. In fact, having got paid not-a-lot for years, it is hard to stomach pay cuts, which is something that the first commenter does not take into account when he calls these people selfish and demands they be grateful to still have jobs.

The other problem with pay cuts is that universities are unlikely to restore them quickly. Pay raises tend to be X percent of your current salary. I don't believe this is going to be X+5% in a few years even if things are less tight. If you take a 5% pay cut now, it's entirely possible you're taking a 5% pay cut for the rest of your life.

This is sort of analogous to the idea that you should negotiate a salary carefully when hired onto the TT because it's a base rate - each 1% more at the start means 1% more all the years of your career.

Bad as furloughs are, the base salary doesn't change so the university has an obligation to pay you fully once times are better.

Senior people who don't produce (I include teaching, mentoring, and being a good egg in faculty meetings as producing) should get offices next to the boiler room until they get the idea.

Anonymous said...

"your colleagues are being a bunch of whiners by being so upset over the idea of pay cuts."

Cut your own goddamn salary.

As an assistant professor, if my pay was cut I would either have to default on the mortgage for my (very modest) house, or not feed my family. There are no other options. The (single, modest, 9-year-old) car (for a family with two drivers) is cheap to run, and paid for. We do not take fancy vacations. We do not have a substantial investment in consumer electronics, fancy vacations, or fine dining. There's no slack here.

So go ahead -- make my day. If you want to increment the national housing default count by another +1, force me to cut my salary.

Anonymous said...

I am reluctant to conclude that old guys without grants are always a drag on the department.

Sure. But the fuckers in my department that I was talking about are. They don't do jack motherfucking diddly shit except bloviate about how they know how to everything better than everyone else and laugh at their own shitty jokes they've been telling for thirty fucktillion fucking years. It's time for these assholes to hang it up, instead of dragging our department into the fucking ditch with the burden of their fruitless salaries.

John Vidale said...

Some of these arguments are case studies of how not to address the issues.

If a budget is going to be cut 10%, greater pressure for retirements and pay cuts is a fact. The viable arguments against them do not include name-calling, ancient history, individual's personal bank account balances and miscalculated savings strategies.

Legislatures are paying for education, research, and outreach (in that order), and only have so many dollars in the budget.

We should not mistake the goals of sharing stories to commiserate and empathize with the goal of moving the accountants and legislators that decide budgets.

Anonymous said...

We are being furloughed. For my family, it's particularly hard financially because my spouse has been laid off this year.
regardless, what makes the cuts hard to stomach is that there's no transparent budget for the U. Professors at the business school have offered to help, and have been turned down. Hires in certain areas are still happening; ok, there are different pots of money, yet it is hard to get faculty and staff on board with paycuts when we are hiring Mr Superstar, with anticipated package in the tens of millions. Plus, when the budget was fat nothing was done to correct salary imbalances, and in gen my U does not treat faculty well. So the net result is that the staff is completely unproductive and demoralized, the faculty is trying to move somewhere else, and everybody is unhappy. Not a good way to run a business, really. Ironically, those of us who are able to get outside offers wil be given retention packages, because of course, that comes from a different account....
So I would have no problem in principle with a temporary pay cut, if I felt any degree of loyalty to this place. In fact I cut my salary every summer when I choose to draw only so much summer salary to support my students, so that's not the issue. it's the circumstances that are different.

Anonymous said...

I agree with all the points John has made in his comments.

I also wonder though, to what extent can people modify their research plans to make them cheaper? I'm thinking more computation, less wet science, more review articles, and a lot more extensions / fleshing out of old papers in new contexts rather than developing totally new methods or systems.

Also, seems like a good point to bring up the debate on tenure. What can't "tenure" be granted for a fixed period instead of for life? For example, what if tenure was for 30 years instead of forever? Or maybe 20, with the possibility of renewal?

Douglas Natelson said...

I'm pretty sure that paying people from federal research funds while calling what they do a teaching assistanceship could be a violation of federal research accounting rules if not done carefully.

In recent discussions at my institution about budgets and so forth, I've come to the conclusion that a lot of accounting weirdness comes out in times of stress. I've seen people trying very hard to shuffle money around in strange ways, with the goal of ending up with an apparent budget cut (from the accounting perspective) that doesn't actually save the university a penny.

Anonymous said...

Welcome to the Real World. Funding is finite, even when it comes from taxpayers.

EliRabett said...

An interesting strategy is to let senior people retire and then be hired back half time. They can collect Social Security and some retirement, have half the teaching and research load and in general come out financially in the same place with less stress. The half time contract extends for a number (say five) of years which gives them some security. I know a couple of places that have done this and it worked pretty well.

Doctor Pion said...

A familiar problem.

The first people to take a hit should be the university's management, since this (falling tax revenue) is a problem that some managers saw coming a mile away.

Clearly your institution is taking the "punish everyone" approach. Others have chosen to identify programs or units that are under-performing and eliminate them entirely (faculty, staff, and students). This is particularly attractive when a contract makes killing a department easier than cutting salaries.

Draco would kill the bottom 10% of the departments rather than decimate the university by taking every tenth professor.

Along that same line, I have little sympathy for a management that tolerates very low productivity from senior faculty. If they don't have the research and grant productivity of young faculty, they should be teaching extra classes so the junior faculty can do productive research. I have seen that used effectively in some places. In one place, it was used in good times and bad.

John Vidale said...

Some ideas are impractical.

Fire the management. Who will fire the management? My department does not have that authority. As far as placing blame for failure to save for a rainy day, when has a department ever passed up the opportunity for another faculty slot or a new piece of pricy equipment?

Disband departments. Few departments are so weak that they can be disbanded without a multi-year fight. Even then, my impression is that most faculty do not lose their slots. And the hardest budget shortfalls in my area may well be this year and next. Out-years, unreplaced retirements and the likely exodus to better jobs at less impacted universities will mitigate future cuts.

Have senior faculty teach intro classes. Unproductive senior faculty butcher large intro classes. One is lucky if some can offer a worthwhile reading seminar in their own specialty. This option is only on the table if a dept is trying to drastically cut enrollments. Moving the senior faculty into a basement closet is the usual tactic, but has the downside of stirring civil war in the department.

The measures FSP mentions are on the table because, meager as the savings might be, other options are even less profitable.

Anonymous said...

As someone interested in academia, I wonder whether FSP or any of the commenters can give numbers so I have some idea what we are talking about here. What is the range of asst. prof. salaries? What are the salaries of the "senior faculty" whose retirement would solve everything?

Anonymous said...

To Spiny Norman who challenges me to "cut your own goddam salary" : I did get my "goddam salary" cut already, unlike you. And then when that wasn't enough, I lost my job altogether (unlike you) and then when my wife got laid off too we lost our also-modest house, unlike you. So get off your foul-mouthed high-horse, at least YOU still have your job and some income stream.

I have no sympathy for people who, in times of global crisis, want to force their own colleagues out of jobs so that they themselves can avoid a pay cut. I gladly took the pay cut when I still had my salary as it was better than being laid off. One has to be realistic and know that the world does not revolve around you, you are not the only one with problems. Has it occurred to you what your colleagues would go through if they lost their jobs because you refused to take a pay cut? Has it occurred to you that you're not the only one with a mortgage and family to feed? Having no job at all means zero income and benefits, isn't this worse than having reduced income and benefits? apparently some people would wish even greater distress and hardship on their colleagues than what they would otherwise endure themselves. Nice.