Crains Business Chicago carries an interesting story pointing out that the University of Illinois is $16 million dollars in the black. While this may be cause for celebration among faculty and students of this beleaguered system, it will strike many as bittersweet news. The faculty at the University of Illinois has been forced this year to take a mandatory furlough day each month, amounting to a five per cent pay cut. Students were told that their tuition would rise dramatically in September. So while the news is good, the patient may be close to death.
Many of us who teach in this system are wondering why strict and draconian measures were taken when there was clearly no need. Indeed, a privately commissioned faculty report indicated the health of the university system six months ago. When faculty tried to confront the administration with this evidence, it was rebuffed and subjected to pay cuts.
The reality is that most university faculty have little or no power besides the power of persuasion. Administrators act in arbitrary, sometimes benevolent and sometimes destructive, ways. The result in this case was unnecessarily punitive measures against professors and students.
The answer to this power differential seems obvious. University faculty need to organize. But professors have been notoriously reluctant to form unions. Rather than seeing themselves as oppressed workers, academicians like to think of themselves as professionals. They think it demeaning to be associated with the likes of teamsters, automotive workers, or (worse) high-school teachers.
Now the consequences of this parochial vision become obvious throughout the United States. As state university systems flounder on financial ruin, faculty and students become the excess baggage thrown off the boat to save the ship. But what kind of university is it in which the interests of those who teach and those who learn take second place to those who administer?
In universities where faculty are unionized, negotiated contracts prevent sudden and impulsive acts on the part of administration. When the crunch comes, I've never seen an administrator who fired himself or herself. Rather than taking measures to trim their own budgets, administrators tend to cut the low-lying fruit--so students pay more and professors get less. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to take this approach, you just have to be the Dean of one.