Uncertainty deformed almost every aspect of academic year 2020-21, including basic pedagogies and other conditions associated with teaching work. Given this historically unprecedented pressure on learning itself, and the uncertainty now facing us for the coming school year, why has so much of Western Michigan University’s budget cutting actually seem focused on dismantling, rather than strengthening, academic quality and student experience? And with unjustified “austerity”measures still aimed squarely at the solar plexus of teaching and learning — including unreasonable teaching loads and lowball salary offers — what will be the likely consequences on prospective students, faculty, and future enrollments? Is the Western Michigan University being created by today’s budget decisions one that we can still feel comfortable selling to future students and their families?
For example, at WMU, in addition to a retirement incentive that peeled away scores of accomplished content experts and talented teachers, paltry budgets for part-time instructors were decimated. Of course, at universities long dependent on such “temporary” instructors, the impact on students was entirely predictable: In a 20-21 teaching/learning scenario already guaranteed to be chaotic, many faculty were assigned higher course loads, not lower ones, as might be expected in the midst of a teaching and learning crisis. An obvious consequence is that students were expected to settle for a smaller slice of their instructor’s time and energy precisely when they needed more of it. There was also the devastation of part-time instructors’ livelihoods — not to mention staff colleagues, for example, advisors — many of whom had contributed to WMU’s core academic mission for years.
As our overworked WMU professoriate continues to encounter lowball salary offers at the negotiation table, the effects of ongoing budget cuts on teaching and learning must be honestly acknowledged. One is that many faculty have been forced to choose either to abandon critical research and service commitments or to take time away from students. Given that many scholarly projects are time-sensitive, research cannot simply be postponed until (or if) the university decides to reinvest in academics. Unfortunately, interruptions to the research momentum of some faculty can irreparably damage their investigations and projects. In addition, much of the service that faculty have been forced to jettison to make room for higher teaching loads — not to mention the loss of scores of essential staff colleagues — cuts into important services for students, no matter how hard faculty and remaining staff try to keep that from happening.
As usual, the consequences have fallen especially hard on already vulnerable faculty and students, including faculty and students of color, international faculty and students, LGBTQ people, and women responsible for child care. And for some especially vulnerable students, close contact with instructors, during the pandemic more than ever, can mean the difference not only between success and failure, but between life and death. In addition, some faculty members’ morale has been so badly shattered by constant demands of more sacrifice (from comfortable and protected elite administrators), it will be impossible for them to marshal their usual enthusiasm in the classroom. This, of course, is the same passionate energy that makes many WMU classes attractive to students in the first place.
As universities like WMU have made the odd decision to de-prioritize academics during the pandemic, they have become less recognizable to teacher-scholars focused on academic essentials. But this is also a crossroads moment of opportunity. After all, if we are truly committed to rebuilding Western in this competitive enrollment environment, shouldn’t our first priority be high quality student learning, and the faculty research and scholarship, advising, library, and student mental health support necessary to sustain it? Even as the pandemic continues to threaten many other WMU offerings, the core academic mission — the excitement of cutting-edge knowledge, research opportunities and close work with faculty experts — should loom larger on universities’ radar than ever. Instead, it seems that teaching and learning are being treated as unnecessary, luxury expenses even though WMU’s budget is quite robust, and was so even before Western received that staggering $550 million donation.
Of course, WMU still has a chance to learn good lessons from the pandemic. Rather than marking the end of learning-centeredness, the pandemic might be heard as a call to recommit to it. As WMU continues to consider its salary offers at the negotiation table, let’s ask ourselves what WMU imagines it can offer students that is more important than academics? It will be a terrible insult, not just to professors, but to all the students and families now placing faith in Western to get it right, if teaching and learning continue to fall so low on WMU’s list of spending priorities.