The Autumn of Our Discontent:
—Fighting for UB

By Anna Geronimo Hausmann

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There have been a great many changes at the State University of New York at Buffalo since I first arrived on campus as a graduate student in the fall of 1988. Some of the most striking changes have occurred in the last five years. Those are the physical changes, the ones readily apparent when one drives on the campus, such as the new Center for the Arts, the new football stadium, the new chemistry building, the new math building, the new medical research building on the south campus, and the new student housing on the north campus.

UB is being transformed, there have been many, many other changes, more subtle and not so visible, but sweeping, dramatic, and certainly transformative. These changes are in the university’s thinking about its mission, about the nature of higher education, and about the university’s role as society meets the technological challenges of the future. The signs of these more pervasive, substantive changes are the infusion of technology into every aspect of the university experience, from wired student services to wired dorms, and the adoption of a consumerist ideology complete with the capitalist mantra of making the university “entrepreneurial.” Oh, and there’s one more sign of this substantive change: unrest and protest from those who don’t like it.

UB is an odd bird. The product of the marriage of an august private institution with the multi-layered bureaucracy of a state agency, it is neither one thing nor another. Among other things, UB attempts—all at the same time—to be a student-focused institution with an emphasis on undergraduate teaching, a major research institution, and a rah-rah State University with big league athletics. This diffuse focus translates in some cases into reactive and indecisive departments. UB’s once nationally renowned programs in Classics, English, American Studies, and Music are gutted shadows of their former, glorious selves. Even as it hemorrhages some of its brightest faculty, the newly formed College of Arts and Sciences is in the middle of a two-year hiring freeze. There are huge expenditures for technology—wired classrooms, wired dorms—but the libraries are being squeezed by tight budgets. The school has Division I athletics, and the major marketing to go with it, but it is increasingly staffing its classes with part-time faculty. The faculty union is filing grievances of contract violations at a rate faster than any other SUNY unit and this past spring the faculty senate passed a no-confidence vote on President William Greiner.

There are those, and President Greiner is among them, who see these conflicts as bumps in the road, growing pains, as UB expands to its fullest potential. Such pangs along the way as dropping programs or degrees, reducing the size of some faculties, and reducing the size of graduate programs are seen as challenges—hard choices, to be sure, but necessary and no different from those facing any other institution. But there are others, and they are numerous and vocal, who see these issues as definitive of UB. For them, these issues divide excellence from mediocrity and delineate the university’s vision and aspirations.

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Many people blame all of UB’s problems on its conflicted relationship with its parent, SUNY Central, and on the fact that UB has endured thirteen years of sometimes draconian budget cuts from SUNY. The financial picture is staggering: in the Cuomo years nearly 90% of UB’s budget came from state funds. UB grew or not, hired or not, built or not, in response to the numbers that Albany decreed each June. It was a completely reactive situation. As Bill Fisher, former chair of the English department and current director of faculty development puts it, “we’ve been on such an extraordinary tax dole, [planning has] been a challenge. You can’t plan when your job is basically just internal reallocation of short funds.” Fisher notes that the University of Michigan, an example of a stellar graduate and undergraduate institution (and known to do pretty well in the sports department) currently receives about 15% of its budget in state support.

But those years of unrelenting budget cuts have reduced UB’s dole to around 35% state funds. That is a shocking drop of revenues and this weaning from state money, and the entrepreneurial spirit it has necessitated among department heads, has been a shock to the academic culture. I would say this is the most striking change at UB—and perhaps throughout higher education—the application of profit-motivated, supply-sided, consumerist principles to the ephemeral world of ideas. This transformation of a university into an education store—and a big-box education store at that, the Education Depot, we might call it—is what is damaging faculty morale, making many of those who remain feel that the university is a glorified technical school rather than a center for world-class teaching and research.

The issues that came to a boiling point last academic year, with much sensationalized press coverage and that very public no-confidence vote, essentially surround the formation two years ago of the college of Arts and Sciences. This college resulted from the forced marriage of the College of Arts and Humanities and the College of Social and Natural Sciences, creating a behemoth with thirty-one widely varying departments.

According to English professor James Bunn, the new college incurred a $2 million budget shortfall in its first year; it was this shortfall and the strategies used to deal with it that led to the faculty revolt. One of those strategies was a two-year hiring freeze for the new college and the erasure of faculty lines opened by retirements. The faculty were also disturbed by what they saw as an increasing shift in priorities and funding from teaching and libraries to athletics and technology initiatives, by the hiring of large numbers of untenured part-time lecturers, and by the gradual erosion of graduate education through a refusal to raise teaching assistant salaries.

But it is important to note here that although this brouhaha is about money, it’s also about much more than money. While you can argue that the reduced budgets from SUNY have led to downsizing departments and programs and greater emphasis on departments carrying their own weight, as it were—meeting enrollment targets and generating revenue from money-making master’s programs, for instance—these decisions have been influenced just as much by non-economic forces such as student demand and shifting enrollments. Greiner acknowledges that UB might be making the same decisions even if it had had all the money it wanted from SUNY. “We can’t replicate what was,” he states, meaning the size of departments and the scope of their coverage. “The digitization of education is really transforming things.”

The issue of part-time faculty is tricky. As Greiner notes, it can be very beneficial to a department and to students to have part-time faculty. In professional schools like Law or Social Work, it’s wonderful to hire professionals in the field—they bring their real-world experience to the classroom and their teaching and professional practices perform a productive cross-pollination. But to imagine that part-time teaching is a kind of extra-curricular activity in non-professional fields is a willing suspension of disbelief. In the liberal arts departments like English or modern languages or even psychology or math, the vast majority of part-time teachers aren’t professionals who are enriching their lives with a little teaching, they are recent or unfinished Ph.D. students, gypsy scholars piecing together enough courses at area colleges to eke out a living.

This sort of part-time hiring practice contributes to a burgeoning chalkboard ghetto, staffing exploding undergraduate core courses with exploited workers who earn a small portion of a full-time salary (like maybe $2000 per course—without health or retirement benefits, of course), while eroding the scholarly productivity of departments by diluting the heady brew of thinking and teaching so necessary for producing that ineluctable thing called intellectual discourse. As Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences Mark Karwin points out, “you need a critical mass of full-time, tenured faculty for graduate and funded research.”

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According to Jean Dickson, an associate librarian at Lockwood Memorial Library and grievance officer for the faculty union, United University Professionals, the increase in part-timers has led to both numerous contract grievances and some provisions governing the hiring of part-timers in the new faculty contract. The new contract provides for a labor-management committee devoted to part time issues, but according to Dickson, without proper training of management—that is, training of department heads and deans in being supervisors—there will continue to be both violations of those few provisions and flagrant exploitation.

Dickson points to the Millard Fillmore College as the prime example of exploitation of part-timers at UB. Ostensibly the “night school” for continuing education students, the Millard Fillmore College has become the real blackboard ghetto of UB. Staffed largely by part-timers who are paid $1800 per course, the college now allows regular undergrads to register for its courses as well as non-traditional students. Understandably, then, its course offerings have burgeoned in the last several years as departments that teach core undergraduate general education requirements such as basic English, chemistry, psychology, and math have discovered that they can take care of these requirements on the cheap by offering them through Millard Fillmore. As a former instructor in Millard Fillmore College, I could tell you about the pedagogical differences between teaching returning, non-traditional students, and your basic eighteen-year-old fresh out of high school. But that’s for another article. Suffice it to say that this is another example of the university exploiting both students and teachers for the sake of the bottom line.

The issue of part-timers, however, is even more dicey because it approaches the core of the problem for all of humanities—the size and scope of its graduate programs. This is because general education requirements in these departments—freshman English, first-year Spanish—are also largely staffed by graduate students and cutting back on graduate students means you need to staff those classes some other way.

Greiner defines the issue this way: “[Humanities departments] have to make choices, they can’t do everything, hardly anyone can anymore. They have to ask themselves, ‘in what areas are we going to be known as the best in the country?’ It can’t be in all areas. They have to ask themselves ‘how big a graduate program do you have to have?’ Everyone in the country is asking the same thing.”

But as crucial as these issues are, the erosion of the faculty through a hiring freeze and the hiring of part-timers, they can be seen as masking a deeper and more permanent shift in focus. As Fisher puts it, the particular issues are symptoms of a larger set of changes sweeping through higher education and the humanities in particular. Fisher points out that nationally enrollments in the humanities have plummeted. In some ways, it’s easier for an administration to have faculty demanding answers to a hiring freeze than to the much tougher question: does anyone here have any idea where we’re going? Is anyone steering this flagship campus?

Right now, it seems that UB is a microcosm of the SUNY system with all its many initiatives like so many of SUNY’s sixty-four separate campuses—each moving in its own direction, no one talking to anyone else. Mark Karwin agrees that there are competing priorities, but he struggles mightily, and somewhat successfully, to pull these disparate priorities into a cohesive whole. “UB has thirteen deans; in some ways some of the larger schools are like small colleges on their own so it’s hard to say there is a single criteria or goal. An agenda is often pushed to take advantage of available opportunities.”

On the issues regarding the Arts and Sciences merger, Karwin rejects the idea that the increased emphasis on technology has come at the expense—financial or otherwise—of academics. He refutes the contention that there’s been unlimited money spent on information technology. “It’s just not the case,” he says. “UB students pay the highest student technology fee in SUNY. It’s used only for IT and students willingly pay it.” Karwin points to the success of the “Access 99” initiative, the goal of which was for every student to have their own computer and thus access to technology tools to enhance their learning as well as help for faculty in integrating IT into their courses. Since “Access 99” and the subsequent wiring of the campus—dorms are wired and most student services such as registration can be done on-line—applications have gone up significantly. The “Access 99” program has been used heavily in marketing and recruitment—as well as UB’s much touted status in Yahoo! Magazine as the eleventh most wired campus in the country.

In fact, Karwin argues that you can’t separate out technology, or athletics, for that matter, from the idea of the university, that the initiatives in technology and athletics are integral to building a sense of community. “Athletics adds to school spirit, living on campus adds to school spirit,” he asserts. He tries to tease out the tangled web of interconnected threads—when residences are wired, you have students staying on campus, creating a real community and interrelation; when the libraries morph into “cybraries” you have a critical mass of students working together in one place; when you have a team to root for you get students with an emotional investment in the campus and, ultimately, alumni returning for game weekends, contributing to their alma mater, bequeathing endowments.

It’s a compelling picture. But the central question for all is whether these changes, and in particular, the reshaped priorities they enact, are what students need from a university. Is there a vision behind the chase for technology, or is technology an end in itself? Is the mission of a university, especially a public university, to educate the public or to provide job training and a skilled workforce?

So some departments, such as Media Studies, have done quite well (it’s a new economy field, after all, training graphic artists and web designers) while departments such as Music and American Studies have been decimated. Karwin notes that “students identify priorities with their feet,” meaning that departments with low enrollments must in some fashion justify their continued funding at current levels. Although he quickly revises, “you can’t let the students define the curriculum,” Karwin accurately summarizes the challenge: “you have to balance servicing the liberal arts mission with providing technical education for the new economy.”

It all sounds quite convincing—and it would be, except for the nagging question (first posed by Cardinal John Henry Newman, for those students of late nineteenth century liberal thought among us, and somehow still relevant today): what is the idea of a university? Is UB a university if, say, it doesn’t give a degree in French? Or in violin? Dickson refutes this notion of students “voting with their feet” completely. “Each program ‘carrying its own weight’ is a false idea,” she argues. “First, of all, it’s not a university if the departments don’t all work together. Art History can’t carry itself and it shouldn’t have to. The idea of a university is education; it’s not a for-profit institution where you have to prove you’re marketable in order to survive. It’s not a market-place and to apply market-place rhetoric is really distorting. The administration can’t even figure it out—are the students the consumers or the product?”

Fisher agrees that the debate over the humanities at UB is one occurring—or not, more likely—in all of higher education. It’s a national and international issue, he says. “To see the university as a market-place is anathema to all of us, but that’s the reality in which the university is situated and has been situated for a number of years,” he says. “What we really need is a strategic study of the role of the humanities in the university.” Fisher agrees that telling department chairs to “be entrepreneurial” is especially galling—but he insists that other institutions have been able to successfully “play the marketplace.” He explains that elite institutions have for years created revenue streams to supplement and subsidize their humanities programs, such as summer and extracurricular programs like Middlebury College’s Breadloaf Writer’s Workshops, Bard College’s summer poetry program, or Skidmore’s summer writing workshops.

Which brings us back to the heart of the question—where are we headed? Greiner’s vision seem to revolve around physical changes, primarily “finishing the north campus”—that is, bringing all the academic departments to the north campus and turning the south campus into a health sciences campus and providing housing for all the undergraduates who want to live on campus. The housing plans, in particular, are quite ambitious, with plans for a new site of apartments to open up every fall for the next several years and plans to turn Lee Road into a “city street” with mixed housing and commercial space all the way out to the Ellicott Complex. His goal, he says, is to make UB “user friendly for students,” and this philosophy seems to inform his curricular and programmatic goals as well. He notes that languages and literature, for example, have suffered “self-inflicted wounds” over the last twenty years, moving “a long way from what students want.” “They’ll need to re-define themselves in the future,” he says. He points to music as a department, widely viewed as gutted, which has made these hard choices, calling it “half its size but twice as focused.”

In terms of money, there is cause for some guarded optimism. Karwin points out that in the new budget for the coming year UB is getting the largest increase in all of SUNY—an extra $7 million which is its reward for meeting SUNY’s enrollment targets and increasing its externally funded research. Due in large part to increases in its technology access, freshman enrollment has increased dramatically both last year and this coming year. And a significant change in the state’s funding formula lets departments keep a portion of the research dollars they attract rather than turning it all over to central administration as in the past. “There’s lots of hope among deans,” Karwin says. “We feel we can take advantage of revenue opportunities; this wasn’t the case in the past. Now we’re increasing research dollars as part of the state funding formula, the colleges are more proactive, more entrepreneurial. If you’d asked me two years ago, I wouldn’t have felt hopeful. But I do now.”

Anna Geronimo Hausmann is a writer living in Buffalo. She received her Ph.D. in English from the University at Buffalo in 1998.


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