In the Endless Pursuit of Cost Savings
By Nelly P. Stromquist
International Education Policy
College of Education, UMCP
Close to the end of past academic year, the Faculty Voice (April 2016) published a statement by Dr. Don Spicer, chief information officer of the University System of Maryland, who announced efforts by USM to embark in its next phase of cost savings (“E&E20.0”). In his article, Dr. Spicer referred to previous savings over a recent 10-year period that had produced significant cost reductions in “technology, libraries, and academic initiatives.” Going back to that precursor of the current phase, we learn that the savings from 2003 to 2013 were $356 million dollars.
The “collective use of energy” and a system-wide approach to improve the “effectiveness and efficiency of large-enrolment courses,” including the use of analytics to support student success, were used in the first phase and will continue in E&E20.0. Exactly what this means is not spelled out, but it augurs increased use of on-line courses and part-time, non-tenured faculty.
Dr. Spicer also announced that this year a Faculty Retirement Program will be implemented to “enable the hiring of a new cohort of faculty.” It is unclear whether the new faculty will be tenure-track or mostly contingent faculty. If the latter, certainly faculty senates in each university of the system should be involved in the discussions.
Also in the works to reduce costs is an examination of tuition remission. Dr. Spicer notes that “the current process has substantial overhead on participants and institutions.” Could it be that tuition remission will be redefined to cover fewer categories of employees and/or fewer types of degree programs? The new tuition remission scheme will be in place by the end of this year.
Since the details of the new measures are not given, we can only surmise what they might entail. It might be useful, however, to juxtapose the intended savings with points raised by a report by the UMD Senate Faculty Affairs Committee, entitled “Review of Faculty Salary Inequities,” approved by the UMD Senate on 9 March 2016 and subsequently by President Loh on 22 March, 2016. That report made the following observations:
- “Faculty hired in lean budget years are unlikely to ‘catch up’ to the salaries of those hired in flush years;
- Sustained or intermittent periods of salary freezes cripple the ability of units to offer equitable salary treatment to faculty;
- As rankings rise across the institution, and increasingly strong applicants are sought for assistant professorships, newly-hired faculty are receiving salaries close to those of associate or full colleagues who were hired a decade or more prior—intensifying compression. This is further exacerbated in years with no COLA or merit funding, whereby salaries remain stagnant for multiple years.”
The Faculty Affairs Committee made nine specific recommendations dealing with salary equity and merit. Will the above observations and the Committee recommendations be taken into account as we move into E&E2.0? The Faculty Voice invited its readers to produce responses to Dr. Spicer’s article. Below we present some of them. Other responses will appear in future issues.
Efficiency at the expense of quality?
By Valérie K. Orlando
Professor and Head, Dept. of French and Italian, UMCP
Dr. Spicer’s comments about E&E 2.0 are problematic and, worse still reduce people to a series of “efficiency outcomes” nebulously rendered in terms of systems and analytics. For example, pushing faculty to offer more Massive Online Courses at the expense of creating meaningful student-faculty in-classroom engagement, is, well, demoralizing. Just because it seems good for the bottom-line does not mean, on a human level, it is good for the hearts and minds of our students. The vague language of the “institution E&E activities” offers very little insight into how, for example, the University of Maryland will address hundreds of faculty who are suffering salary compression. And, I wonder about the “enhanced Faculty Retirement Program” and its impact on discussions about compression. Is the university E&E planning, thus, to retire faculty instead of giving them raises? What does Dr. Spicer mean, for example, when he states: “For example, the Faculty Retirement Program has been moved under E&E 2.0 and is examining ways to make the program more attractive to select faculty and to enhance the institutions’ ability to recruit a new cohort of faculty.” Why isn’t the “E&E2.0 Initiatives” looking at the most egregious waste of university funds which are the enormous amounts of dollars spent on sports that only benefit the few; dollars that could be used to promote academics on campus. And, what about the huge salaries of deans and administrators whose offices have proliferated in the last 10 years? These are not mentioned anywhere in this letter. In other words, this document tells us very little but seems to hold our fates in its subtexts and opacity. What is really underlying the innocuous language other than more measures to squeeze faculty and students as the university system is increasingly run like a corporation rather than an institution of higher learning? Nobody knows exactly what the USM has in mind. But, I’m sure nasty surprises are awaiting.
Our greatest costs are opportunity costs
By James Purtilo
Computer Science UMCP
In response to Dr. Spicer’s announcement to seek yet further savings in USM operations, I would like to offer these suggestions on practices of likely interest to FV readers.
Become data informed. We can’t improve what we can’t see, and too many academic processes fly blind, so we applaud the proposed analytics for student successes. Most in need of illumination is the relationship between preparation and pathways through our majors and campuses. Today we give students one-size-fits-all advice. Admissions officers make guesses, and transfer advisors offer tips. High schools receive little guidance on what best prepares students to enter tracks. Better data will let us customize advice to students to make informed choices. Better advising makes better outcomes at lower cost.
Politics is the chief barrier to data analytics, whose use was quashed in the past. Data sufficient to expose student successes are data sufficient to expose campus practices which do not stand up in sunlight. We hope E&E 2.0 will overcome that barrier, and for less cost than Spicer ominously mentions. No huge expenditure is required. We have data; we have expertise; we need the will to use them.
Learn about software. There is no kind way to say it: our software track record is a disaster. Each campus has tales of good intentions becoming expensive nightmares. At College Park, Lyterati is the barrier, not enabler, of effort reporting [This program was dropped by the UMD administration a few months ago.]. We had a well-liked system for students to manage degree plans, but killed it for being “rogue software” (leadership’s term for ‘student built’); yet after lavish spending, the UM-built replacement (called Kuali) was terminated before completion, leaving only paper and pencil for enrollment management. The cost of UM’s digital map is counted in the millions yet offers the same functionality of the free (yes, student-built) digital map which preceded it, and which most students still prefer. The list goes on.
E&E 2.0 should look not just at individual systems, but at how leaders select software … and are held accountable for its success.
Measure the right things. No analysis of savings paints an honest picture without also understanding product value. Our ‘business’ delivers research and education. In most businesses, customers are a good thing, but campuses often see increased student demand as increased liabilities. If we are a business that loses money for having customers, then barriers become a way to cut costs, but what a shame if this is so. Sadly, that is how it works out—we are not equally accessible to all students. E&E 2.0 should examine access, including why so many promising young people seek higher education outside of Maryland—a “brain drain” we’ve battled for years.
This is relevant to E&E2.0 since many ideas for lowering content delivery cost also come with lower levels of engagement. For example, on-line systems might have appeal to accountants, since increased up-front preparation costs are amortized over more presentations, reducing unit cost. However, they often have lower satisfaction among students seeking direct faculty interaction. Poor delivery impacts our brand. We won’t want Maryland to be a state which students leave in order to work with scholars.
Maryland should lead in innovative education, but let’s figure out how to optimize the right things. Counting only course completions—as done in E&E’s first phase—doesn’t speak to course quality or accessibility.
Summary. E&E2.0 focuses on finding cheaper ways to perform current tasks. We appreciate the challenge USM faces in asking each campus to improve efficiency, but we hope there is room to consider finding things which no longer need be done at all.