You’ve heard of climate change denialism? The use of spurious, crap data to try to undermine public acceptance of the well-established phenomenon of climate change? Well, there’s something sweeping Canadian campuses that’s very similar. I call it budget denialism. Let me show you some examples from two universities in particular: Dalhousie and Wilfrid Laurier.
The Dal budget is here. The focus of complaints at Dalhousie has been the $5.6 million cut to “faculties”. Now, when you hear the word “faculties”, you think teaching (or instruction and instructional support, more broadly) – so when you hear about a cut to the faculties’ budget, while overall budgets are rising, you’re meant to think: “mean, empire-building administration, taking money away from teaching and giving it to themselves/building new buildings”. That’s certainly the tenor of this article.
Except for one thing: the faculties budget doesn’t include salaries. Salaries are up $9.9 million, 86% of which goes to faculties. So actual spending on instruction and support within faculties is rising this year by roughly 2.1%. Indeed, if you read the budget with any kind of care, it’s pretty clear that the main reason faculties are taking a $5.6 million hit to non-salary areas is precisely because this $9.9 million increase in salary needs to be accommodated. Budget denialists of course see no connection here.
Most inane is the comment from the Dal Faculty Association that there shouldn’t be any cuts because Dal is in perfect financial health. Her evidence? That Dal has over a $1.6 billion dollars in assets. Seriously, that’s what she said. Like she’s never heard of the difference between an income statement and a balance sheet. Like assets can magically be turned into income. I look forward to seeing the DFA elaborating on this point by explaining its approach to liquidating endowments, and how to choose what buildings Dal should sell so as to never ever have to make a tough budget decision ever again.
Wilfrid Laurier University is an even better example of budget denialism in action. The Laurier budget isn’t even a particularly tough one. Though it’s predicting a $25 million gap between income and expenditures in three years, it doesn’t do much to close that gap. In fact, it’s allowing for a 5% increase in the overall salary/compensation budget this year, while revenue will only increase 3%. The math only works because Laurier is: a) choosing to run a $2 million deficit; and, b) laying off 22 staff.
The response from the academic community? Well, there’s this guy who basically says budgets are political instruments, and you should only look at financial statements. And since no previous financial statements show deficits, any talk of deficits in future must be a lie. And this guy apparently has a Ph.D. I presume he also thinks this can’t be the year 2015, because no previous year has ever been 2015.
And then there are the folks who just simply can’t understand how increasing salaries by 5% while increasing revenues by only 3% means something has to give. Running a deficit is part of it; so too are layoffs to reduce salary mass, which Laurier did to 22 people the week before last. Cue sniffy complaints of Laurier having lost its soul, ruined by management, and – worst of all – being run like a business.
(Running things like a business is, of course, the ultimate sanctimonious academic insult, spat out in disgust by people who by-and-large have never actually balanced an organizational budget. I’ve always wanted to ask people who say this whether they believe non-profits never fire people, and if their budgets magically balance themselves, regardless of salary commitments.)
There’s room, obviously, for debate about university budgets and what gets prioritized. But pretending there is no price to pay for hefty (5%! Who gets 5% these days?) annual compensation increases, which everyone in universities seems to have got used to, simply isn’t on. As with climate denialists, we should assume that budget denialists have some fairly self-interested reasons for taking the stance they do, and evaluate their evidence accordingly.