The University Who Cried Wolf

You’ve all heard of the story of the boy who cried wolf. But have you heard of the university who cried wolf? Almost every institution of higher learning now finds itself in this unfortunate situation.

For decades, universities—especially those in Western, English-speaking countries like the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Australia—were swimming in money. Fueled largely by an insatiable drive for foreign education within China, universities charged international students exorbitant fees that by far exceeded the cost of educating them. The excess money earned from international students was used to subsidize the costs of educating domestic students, fund internal research initiatives, build shiny new buildings, and employ an army of new professional administrators and middle managers.

The spending spree among so many universities was unprecedented. It was similar to what former Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan, called “irrational exuberance.” Money was being splashed around by profligate university presidents and vice chancellors based on the erroneous assumption that the supply of international students was endless.

Although the reality of higher education over the last two decades was one of excess, at the same time, academics were repeatedly told by those same profligate presidents and vice chancellors that cash was somehow in short supply. This is what I mean by the “university who cries wolf.” Year after year, faculty asked for more money to lessen the burgeoning workload, to help with research seed funding, and to fund more Ph.D. studentships. In response, university leaders cried out, “But there’s no money!”

That was, for the most part, a lie. There was plenty of money that could have been used to lessen the burden on faculty, but universities chose to use that money for other purposes. Each time we asked for something, we were met with the same old story of budget shortfalls.

Universities intentionally create the illusion of financial crisis because it enables them to justify the casualization of academic labor and the increasing of workload. If employees believe that the organization is in crisis, they don’t ask for raises or promotions and they just work evenings and weekends to get the job done.

Universities intentionally create the illusion of financial crisis because it enables them to justify the casualization of academic labor and the increasing of workload.

The problem, however, is that academics are smart. We only needed to look out our (shared) office windows at the giant new STEM building with a gold plated bust of the president in front of it to know that money was not in short supply.

Enter COVID19. Universities leaders are now faced with a real, verifiable financial crisis. Money has finally dried up. Construction projects have been put on hold. Labor costs exceed incoming revenue. For the first time in decades, presidents and vice chancellors can honestly say that they can’t afford raises and promotions and new lines of faculty. They are begging us to accept pay cuts and when we resist, they cry out, “But there’s no money!”

After decades of false warnings, faculty are, unsurprisingly, skeptical of such claims. I think this is an important lesson for future university leaders. The repeated manufacturing of financial crises comes at a high cost. When a real wolf arrives at your doorstep, you’ll have a hard time convincing us of the need for concessions.

Prof. Andrew R. Timming

This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 license.

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