The persistence of crisis: Work harder or fight back



At my monthly department meeting yesterday, the department’s representative to our University Senate gave his report on their last meeting. As part of his report, he told us some of the concerns our university president, Javier Cevallos, expressed about a recent drop in enrollment. Cevallos’s remarks before our University Senate echoed a statement he released in October 2012 in order to explain another $3 million shortfall:

Budget Shortfall

This fall semester, Kutztown University is facing a problem of serious magnitude. For the second straight year, the university has experienced a drop in enrollment.

Almost 300 students have made the decision not to come back to KU to continue their education for this fall semester. While we realize many of our sister institutions and private universities within our region are facing the same situation, the drop we are experiencing this year is much larger than we have had in the past.

Upon learning of this, we immediately identified the students and called them to determine their status and/or reasons for not returning. Although we are still evaluating the information we have gathered, it is evident that we need to become more effective at retaining our students.

As I stated at our opening day gathering, each student we lose seriously impacts our budget. With only 20 percent of funding coming from the commonwealth, and with our operating budget based on our year-to-year enrollment, the student body is our lifeblood.

As a result of this enrollment loss, we face a shortfall of $3 million on top of the reductions we have already made. I have decided to cover this gap with carry over funds on a one time basis to meet the deficit in the current year. Although this is only a temporary solution, it will provide us with time to thoughtfully consider base budget reductions, beginning next year, in the context of our mission.

I want to stress the importance of our role in student retention. We all need to go above and beyond to assist our students in persisting and graduating from KU. It is crucial to the future of our university and the region.

I urge you all to put our students first, and do whatever you can to make KU a place they will take great pride in. It is really going to take each and every one of us to help KU overcome this challenge in the future.

This story of “fiscal crisis” has been the norm at Kutztown University for most of the ten years I have worked here. Cevallos’s latest visit to the University Senate was ostensibly, in part at least, to report the university’s findings after gathering information about the reasons why students did not return to Kutztown University. He reported that most of the students who did not return were from Philadelphia and most of those were African-American and Latino students. Not only has the loss of students impacted KU’s budget, Cevallos expressed concern that the loss of these particular students has also hurt the university’s diversity – which has been a focus of his administration as well as a “performance indicator” that figures into the PA State System of Higher Education’s funding formula. Two key reasons Cevallos offered for the decline in enrollment were 1) the possibility that West Chester University – a sister institution located closer to Philadelphia with train service from the city; and, 2) a drop in the amount of financial aid students were receiving. Funding crisis. Diversity crisis. Sister-university-stealing-our-students-crisis.

Of course, there are other, concrete reasons why these specific students left Kutztown. As part of the university administration’s policy of austerity over the past several years, all programs devoted to student retention have been cut including a primarily grant-funded Pennsylvania ACT 101 program devoted to students from financially disadvantaged background and a university Advising Center that served mostly undeclared students. An Advising Center, I should say, that was cited in the 2009 The Handbook of Career Advising for “Exemplary Practices: Integrated Academic and Career Advising Centers.” At the time, the local chapter of our faculty union, APSCUF, argued that the cuts in these services were going to negatively impact retention and the university would be at risk for losing those students who benefited the most from those programs, namely, African-American and Latino students from Philadelphia and other nearby metro areas who were first-generation and working class. We also said that it was unconscionable to be cutting services for students who need them most, knowing full well that many of those students will then drop out and be saddled with several thousand dollars of student loan debt. And now, two to three years later, Kutztown University is losing precisely those students. And, our university administration refuses to look at the obvious reasons for the drop-off. Instead, we are told that our sneaky colleagues at West Chester are quietly luring our students to their university with promises of train rides. Really? Really.

When I heard my colleague report what President Cevallos said at the University Senate, I think it would be fair to say that I was pissed. I was also exasperated. My colleagues and I have been through this drill before and we are continually asked to do more with less. Yes, I know, that is the story everywhere. The difference, in my mind, is our local faculty union was able to expose our administration’s fiscal crisis lie two years ago. For years we knew that there was something fishy with the university administration’s persistent “budget shortfall” claims. At our meeting, I reminded my colleagues – loudly and red-faced to be sure – that the administration has lied to us and that they’re doing it again.

Following the meeting I updated my Facebook profile as follows:

\”Always wonderful to get to play the crazy guy at department meetings. There I go again rambling about the administration’s accounting practices that constructs a “crisis” every year. Oops, did I talk about how KU recruiters admit at-risk students at college fairs without even checking their records while cutting all programs for at-risk students?

I have to learn that the more I talk about these things on my campus the more people stop listening. It’s just easier to believe that there really is a crisis and that we can solve our problems by just working harder.\”

Yeah, I was mad.

One of my fellow academic labor activist friends, Mary Boland from California State U – San Bernardino made this simple comment to my update: “abnormal discourse. You’re either nuts or you change the paradigm.” Thank you, Mary. After teaching two classes and getting a good night’s sleep, I wanted to follow up what I said during my department meeting with an email reminding my colleagues of where we’ve been and why I was so pissed. In writing that email, it felt like I was looking at a case study of what Naomi Klein and Paul Krugman have both called the “The Shock Doctrine.” Here’s a portion of the email I sent to my colleagues:

Dear colleagues,

I wanted to follow up on some of my comments during yesterday’s meeting regarding Kutztown’s budget and my frustration with the administration’s “crisis” argument. My frustration stems from the administration’s persistent use of crisis discourse to get us to work more for less under the belief there is little or nothing we can do because the crisis is external and not under the control of our university.

As I mentioned yesterday, during my time on APSCUF Meet and Discuss, we were able to expose the administration’s lie – and I use that word deliberately and with no attempt at hyperbole – that “we’re broke.” I personally shared that information with faculty at the time, our local APSCUF released that information publicly, and I have written about it on two of my blogs APSCUF-KU XChange and Raging Chicken Press. Indeed, APSCUF-KU had been attempting to figure out KU’s budget for years. In spring 2011, Ken Ehrensal and Glenn Richardson put together a presentation “Show Us the Money!,” which raised serious questions about the way KU was publicly arguing for their “budget crisis.” APSCUF-KU showed the presentation during Rep Council, held open meetings at which it was shown, and made the presentation available on the web page. Our state APSCUF used the presentation in its case in Harrisburg and at other PASSHE universities.

On April 28, 2011, I wrote the post, “I Went to Harrisburg and My Head Exploded,” upon my return from a rally resisting Governor Corbett’s deep cuts in education. That’s where I learned that at the April 6, 2011 PASSHE Board of Governors meeting, the Board had asked all 14 universities to account for their total “Unrestricted Net Assets” – “all funds over which the University can exercise discretion and may be used to meet the general financial requirements of the institutions.” (Board of Gov. Policy 2011-01: University Financial Health). As part of the Board of Governors attempts to prepare for potentially deep cuts, they displayed a slide listing the Unrestricted Net Assets of all 14 universities and what would be needed to cover a 30% cut in funding.

The APSCUF people who were at the meeting were, as they told me, astonished when they saw the numbers for Kutztown. Kutztown was sitting on $29.1 million in Unrestricted Net Assets – second only to West Chester in its financial health. Here’s a link to the slide. The important column is the second column “Net Assets Available.” According to a state APSCUF staffer who was charged locating the money in Kutztown’s public budget – the budget they used to justify the cutting of long-standing institutions like the Advising Center and the Early Learning Center and to strip faculty of their tenure and retrench them – she had to add figures from several locations across the budget, subtract another number, and then add another to get the $29.1 million figure.

At the May 9, 2011 Meet and Discuss meeting we demanded Cevallos and his financial people be present (we had the threat of a federal civil rights law suit at our disposal to “encourage” their attendance – but that’s another story). We confronted them with what I had learned in Harrisburg. I wrote about that meeting in a post, “Kutztown University, Shock Doctrine, and Snake Oil Tales.” Here’s how I recounted the meeting:

After learning that KU was flush with cash, I asked that both President Cevallos and Vice President of Administration and Finance, Gerald Silberman attend the last Meet and Discuss of the academic year on May 9th. We wanted an explanation. In the meantime, some fabulous APSCUF staffers were able to find the $29 million dollars in KU’s official audited books. It turns out that you could find the $29 million if you added together several numbers from different parts of the books and then subtracted another. In short, if you didn’t know what you were looking for, you wouldn’t find it.

That last Meet and Discuss was heated as we questioned President Cevallos about the $29 million dollars, it became apparent that he and his administrative team were not merely the passive pragmatists he projected. For years, Cevallos dismissed faculty and students who questioned how the university could have a budget crisis when new buildings are going up all over campus and the university is investing in new signs and landscaping like they were going out of style. Cevallos would argue, basically, that his hands were tied. Money from one fund — for example, money from the State for particular buildings — could not legally be used to supplement academics. He made this case for years. From the way he made it sound, there were two pots of money with legal firewalls in between. He would quote State statutes and PASSHE Board of Governors’ policies to support his claims. However, at the table on that late May 9th afternoon, the game was up. There were three pots of money, not two. That third pot was well-hidden across the University’s books.

Cevallos and his financial team were effectively squirrelling away money for special projects — projects that helped fulfill his unofficial vision of the university. These projects include buildings, renovations, expansion. It finally made sense why KUs president would refuse to answer the union’s requests for a clearly articulated vision for the university and for a transparency of process. The vision we — faculty, staff, students, community members — were asked to believe was one of crisis and hard choices. Were were to see him as a reluctant executioner, one who wished he didn’t have to retrench tenured faculty members, eliminate the University’s highly acclaimed Advising Center, or send students enrolled in the Early Learning Center packing. We were supposed to see him as a victim as he brought the ax down upon the block.

On May 9th, however, we pushed him to own up to the fact that what he was doing was socking money away for pet projects while crying poverty. He was at the helm creating crisis after crisis by removing chunks of money from the University’s general fund so that it would appear that Kutztown had less money than it actually had. In the midst of one of our several heated exchanges, I said that he lied about the financial health of the university and used his manufactured crisis to strip faculty of their tenure and close programs he wanted to close. I argued that he used his manufactured crisis as cover to carry out a private plan for transforming the university. And, for once, he actually took ownership. He said, “yes, I made those choices” adding that he would make them again. There it was.

There it is indeed. Our university president admitting that the “crisis” was a constructed one. Not a natural disaster.

In my book, we’ve been lied to and we continue to be lied to. We continue to hear that KU has a budget crisis. That “crisis” is used to get us to work harder for less. To institute assessment plans with little or no financial support or course release. We continuously pay out of pocket to attend conferences. The crisis is a fiction, it is a disciplining measure to get us to “pull together and sacrifice” while the administration squirrels away money for their own pet projects.

I wrote this in hopes that you can understand my frustration and why I cannot consent to any shared discourse of crisis. Frankly, I don’t think any of us should.

I know, I know…this is just one state university in a 14 state university system. Yeah, I know, this stuff is happening all over. But that’s kind of the point. This is how the war on public education is being waged. It’s a steady, day-by-day assault upon the fabric of our public institutions under the cover of “crisis.” It seems to me that more of us need to turn our critical lenses to our own institutions and expose the specific practices that are destroying our educational commons. I like the slogan of the long-standing progressive publication Counterpunch: “Tell the facts, name the names.” Out of our comfort zones, into the fight.