Wednesday, September 1, 2010

On budgets and the stories we tell ourselves

Classes started yesterday, so I'm buried in the usual beginning-of-semester madness (I know that many of you are in the same boat). It was wonderful to see my students again, especially in my upper-division class, which has many students who have taken some of my other classes. That feeling of pleasure is what convinces me, semester after semester, that this really is the job I love best.

The administrative side of things, though, is not my happy place. This semester we are facing a particularly interesting situation, which manifests in increased pressure not to take crashers over our class cap numbers. Now, I actually approve of not going over class caps for a number of philosophical and pedagogical reasons. I can teach better when my classes have the number of students (and no more) that they are designed for. More generally, I can teach better when I have fewer students; when I started here, the goal was for faculty to have about 90 students each semester among their various classes. In the fall semester before furloughs, I had 120+. I just can't do for 120 students what I can do for 90 (up to and including learning all of their names). Note also that we are not paid more for teaching 120 students, even though that adds a third again as much work in terms of grading, etc, and none of our other workload decreases concomitantly. Hence my philosophical approval of the maintenance of class caps.

The added wrinkle this semester has to do with funding. As a state school, we receive a certain amount of money per student. We also receive a target number of full-time equivalent students (FTES) for each academic year. And, we must accept all students in our service area who meet the minimum requirements for entry into the system. All of this seems very reasonable, until I tell you that this semester, we are close to 700 FTES over our target, and that if we can't bring that number into line next semester (by cutting many sections from our schedule), our campus will pay a fine for every full-time equivalent student that goes over our cap + 2%.

That's a lot of abbreviations and numbers, but here's what it boils down to: we may end up paying a fine for teaching too many students.

Yes, you heard that right.

The upshot is that I had to turn away students who are working harder to pay more tuition for a smaller number of possible classes and increased time to graduation. It broke my heart.

In the meantime, I am seeing increasing numbers of bumper stickers around here lambasting big-spending Democrats (the president in particular, but there's a general sense that lefties spend too much money). And I'm getting pretty cranky about it. Because every single time I see one of those, I want to stop the person driving that car and ask them: which of the two presidents prior to this one left us with a budget surplus and actually had plans to pay down our national debt? (Hint: Not the Republican.) And which of those presidents spent hundreds of billions of dollars that we didn't have and left us deeper in dept than we have ever been? (Hint: Not the Democrat.)

In other words, it's not that simple. Let's be completely honest here: both parties spend money. Lots of it. It costs serious amounts of money to run a nation (or a state, or a city). Period. The difference between the left and the right is not in how much they spend. It's in what they choose to spend it on, and where they get the money that they do spend. Do they spend it on corporate welfare or social welfare? Do they spend it on education, or on tax cuts for top earners? Do they get money by raising taxes, or by reducing social services? There are arguments, both philosophical and fiscal, for either position, but we can't have a conversation about the merits and consequences of choosing one over the other if we're busy stating categorically that Democrats are big spenders and Republicans aren't. 'Cause it just ain't so.


Anonymous said...

I am a retired educator (high school) and a knitter! I couldn't agree with you more on your political comments! I live in Virginia which is usually a red state and sometimes it gets difficult to be nice when people make comments which don't make sense to me. Thanks for putting it so nicely!

lori said...

I open with an AMEN!

And I close with a little note that when I was in graduate school, in Austin TX, I had a bumper sticker that said "Bush is a chump-ass punk." I'll just let you guess what side of the divide I'm on. :) I loved that bumper sticker.

Gwen said...

Amen Sister!

Everybody spends money, but the priorities are startling different.

(naturally, my priority is that I'm paid ;)

twinsetellen said...

It's language abuse, is what it is, using perfectly nice words to describe something/someone in ways that are misleading at best and outright lies at worst. They must blush with embarrassment, poor words, when arranged to say things like "No Child Left Behind" or "fiscally irresponsible Democrats".

M-H said...

Thanks for this clear explanation of your ridiculous situation. Our govt is also changing the way it funds Unis and no-one s too clear about how it will work - but we're all in trepidation. Mind you, we don't even have a government at the moment - since the election nearly two weeks ago we have had what is called a hung parliament and we don't know who will be able to form the government yet. So heaven knows what will happen to University funding.


With what everyone has already said, I agree. I fear that things will get worse before they get better, and I do believe that things will get better.

Anonymous said...

As a native Californian now living in Va, I just hated what Reagan did to our higher education system. And now I continue to hate what the Republicans seem to consider as priorities, which is does not include education and social services. Thank for you saying all of this so eloquently. Oh, and I do enjoy the knitting part of your blog as well! :)

Anonymous said...

sorry I should have previewed my comment before submitting it-- I really do know how to type and generally have a good mastery of grammar.


Mary Lou said...

All that party line bashing makes me nuts. The real issue is that we as a nation have to figure out how to pay for what we want, and the population shifts will mean that we can never go back to the way it was before. Fewer young taxpayers, more retirees. All that standing on steps and flag waving and hate mongering will not improve one damn thing. So I just keep knitting.

elizabeth said...

That is so true. I wish there was some way to come together and do what's right for the country and for each other. As long as people like Palin, Limbaugh and Beck are around, and more importantly - as long as people LISTEN to their drivel - I just don't think that'll happen. Until the Republicans try to get rid of Medicare and Social Security, THEN they'll see how they've been fooled. And it might not be too far in the future. I almost find myself hoping for some drastic event (like removing SS and Medicare) to wake these people up! (you say you want a revolution...)

Rachel said...

So true and so sad that it seems like the other side (sorry, I had to put it this way, couldn't resist the temptation,,,)just go further into those empty (not always truthful) slogans on how bad democrats are.

I keep wondering were are all logical, knowledgeable republicans hiding these days, we need them to come out and take back their party and soon!

Nana Sadie said...

{Standing, applauding}
Well said.

You already know what side of the divide I'm on. The saddest part is that the divide seems insurmountable.

Carrie #K said...

They both spend money like water and they both have a point. What really needs to happen is that we stop treating it like a football game where it's my team win or die and more like a nation that has had some serious growing pangs. Even without Bush spending like crazy on the war, the global economy has shifted an awful lot of jobs out of the country which means less jobs and less money.

AlisonH said...


Alwen said...

I was scrolling down and got to the third paragraph and said, "Wait, they're getting fined for having too many students?"

So many things make no sense to me.

For various reasons, we're homeschooling our son. To me, education is supposed to give the student mental tools so they can deal with their daily lives. And so much of formal, organized school fails to do that.

I can feel myself getting fired up for a rant, so I'll spare you and leave you with the funny that the verification word is "persiver", which is as close to "persevere" as makes no difference.

EGunn said...

I've been feeling particularly grumpy about the Obama-bashing lately, too. I think it's because it is so unjust. It doesn't matter what he does or doesn't do...he's the Democrat, and therefore the devil. It's hard to see a bright future with lines so stupidly drawn. I am also taking this moment to remind myself that Republicans aren't the only ones that draw them, but still.

Laurie said...

Thank you for that rant. :-) I'll never forget the day after the 2000 election when the first email in my inbox was from a friend in Texas saying, "He's not just OUR problem anymore!"