The Wheels Are Coming Off

The essay below was written by a tenured professor at a public regional comprehensive university in the USA.

We always say we are a “tuition-dependent” state university, so any enrollment downturn hits us hard. What I didn’t fully appreciate before the Covid-19 pandemic is how dependent we are on revenue from the cafeterias and dorms. We suffered huge losses from going completely online for a year.

But wait, there is more! Even before the pandemic, our athletics department, by which I mean our football team, lost $10-12 million per year. They lie about this and hide it as best they can, but at a state institution with strong public records laws the truth has come out. Athletics at our university reports directly to the president and presents at every board of trustees meeting. To the trustees, the athletics department is the university. Only about 5% of the students ever attend a football game, but they all pay several hundred dollars per year in student fees to athletics.

Last year we hit a $25 million deficit. The administration slashed budgets everywhere. Almost half of our classified staff were laid off in June of 2020. Programs were eliminated, adjuncts all fired, phones taken out of faculty offices. You can’t get anything done on campus anymore; you email people or leave a phone message and there is no one to get back to you. A four-person office I often collaborate with was reduced to one person, the most junior, who was told to do all the work.

But guess what wasn’t cut? Athletics! The administration hired consultants—retired coaches—who decided, without any quantifiable evidence, that football was vital to the character of the institution. Their recommendation? Spend millions more per year on athletics. The administration committed to meeting that goal.

My department was combined with several others to “save money.” Our small but valuable graduate program was eliminated. Three secretaries were laid off and replaced, after a year, with one person working less than full-time to support three dozen faculty. Every faculty meeting is a battle between angry professors and our thin-skinned president who bristles at any criticism.

Enrollment is down another 20% this year. Our region of the state produces fewer high school graduates each year, and that number will drop off a cliff when the 2008 recession’s fast-approaching birth dearth hits us. In the last ten years, we have invested heavily in our physical campus; we are paying bonds on lovely, state-of-the-art buildings that will never be full.

I am less than five years from a possible early retirement. I am a graduate of this institution, and my wife and I met in a classroom where I now sometimes teach. I love this place. But it is never going to recover.